Middlemarch spent the first part of the week at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, trying to find out what plans the Conservatives have for the next five years and in particular how they hope to address the housing crisis.
Following on from a disappointing election result in May (to put it mildly) this was not the conference activists had signed up for earlier in the year. It was not the conference the Prime Minister had been hoping for either, with illness, internal bickering and a major security breach during her closing speech distracting from her policy announcements and contributing to her steadily mounting woes.
Housing was very much on the agenda this year, which saw a collection of packed fringe meetings and big ticket announcements from the Prime Minister. MPs have latched onto the lack of housing as one of the key reasons why the 2017 general election backfired for the Conservatives, and policy makers are focussing on housing as one of the ways to combat the surge in popularity of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. Activists also seemed to recognise the need for action, to the extent that in one fringe event there was a previously unthinkable round of applause for ‘ending the fetishization of the Green Belt.’
At fringe events attended by the Communities and Local Government Secretary Sajid Javid and Housing Minister Alok Sharma, in tone it certainly seemed like the Government have woken up to the scale of the problem. Mr Javid described the lack of affordable housing as ‘the biggest social problem’ the UK faces, and said he would keep pushing until there was a ‘step change’ in house building. He warned that if changes weren’t seen soon, then Jeremy Corbyn would be our next Prime Minister.
Continuing the theme of ministerial job security, panellists at the event with Alok Sharma joked that the average tenure of the last four housing ministers has been only 11 months.
There were no real hints however at major new policies from the Government’s housing team, although Mr Javid did announce a boost in capacity funding for garden towns. In a move that was seemingly welcomed from all sides, he also revealed that he hopes to bring in increased planning fees in April 2018.
Major housing announcements were the preserve of the Prime Minister, who on the first day announced that the Right to Buy programme would be extended, with a further £10 billion being provided to help another 135,000 people get on the property ladder. In her keynote speech, she announced another £2 billion would be provided for the Government’s social housing fund, bringing the value of the fund to £9 billion. However, even without the mishaps she endured throughout her speech, the Prime Minister’s announcements have been seen by some as underwhelming. Criticism has particularly focussed on the limited ambition of the announcement on social housing, which would only see an extra 5,000 homes built a year. Whether this will be received across the country as the sort of bold action needed from Government seems unlikely.