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Liberal Democrats – policy and practice Matthew Warburton - 09/10/2014

Cable_Clegg_300On housing, official Liberal Democrat policy has for some time been more ambitious and more radical than either of the other main parties.


In September 2012 their policy paper 'Decent Homes for All' committed the party to a target of 300,000 new homes a year to end the housing shortage, with abolition of HRA rent caps to enable councils to provide their full share of the numbers required.


Unfortunately, there has been little resemblance between the policies of the party and those pursued by Lib Dem members of the Coalition Government.


Last year, Nick Clegg used his influence to persuade Conference to water down the call for an end to debt caps to an ineffectual proposal to allow councils to trade headroom - of which nothing has come in the last year. This year, speeches from the platform have taken on a more radical tone as the party looks to the General Election and beyond.


Clegg called for five new garden cities to be built alongside a reinstated railway connection between Oxford and Cambridge, as part of a revived plan for 300,000 homes a year.


Vince Cable argued that councils should be allowed to suspend the Right to Buy [log in] where homes are in short supply. And Danny Alexander suggested at a fringe meeting that the Government should itself get directly involved in making sure the new homes target is met.


This last intervention was perhaps the only one to acknowledge the scale of the challenge involved in delivering 300,000 homes a year - half as many again as Labour aim to provide by 2020 if they form the next Government.


Achieving this target would mean sustaining housing output at double the level achieved since the 1980s, which could not be achieved without growing the capacity of the construction and building materials industry and, as Alexander suggests, would also be likely to require unprecedented government intervention.


However, on present showing in the polls, the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to be given the chance to form a Government and turn these plans into reality. As the last four years have proved, conference speeches and manifesto promises may be a poor guide to what Liberal Democrats might do if they had another five years as the junior partner in a coalition.

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