A brief turn in Brighton

Welsh Assembly member and leading Lib Dem blogger Peter Black
enjoys an all too short visit to Bri

The sunshine that greeted representatives as they arrived in Brighton managed to last into the Sunday morning, but by then the wind had already started to pick up and dark clouds were gathering above our heads. By Monday the wind had died but it was still overcast.

In contrast the mood of Liberal Democrats at this year's Conference is sunny and upbeat. At last we are really putting some meat on the bone with respect to our green policies, our Shadow Home Secretary is taking a principled Liberal Democrat stance on the surveillance society, including the whole state apparatus of ID cards, CCTV and DNA data banks and having settled for Ming as our leader, the vast majority are getting behind him and willing him to succeed.

As a Welsh Assembly member my stay here can be only short. The Assembly is back in session on Tuesday so I must leave the Sussex coast at 8am that day to debate affordable housing in a place where my views can hopefully have an immediate impact.

Most of the debates in the main hall on Sunday and Monday are English-only topics or on matters that I can safely leave to others, so my main focus has been on the fringe meetings and on the Welsh media. I made a point though of attending Ming's question time session, if only because the media will want my comments on the answer to the inevitable question on leadership.

Sunday saw an interview with Radio Wales and BBC Wales about the inevitable leadership issues, but this time the leadership of the Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly group as well. After that it was off to a meeting about the Severn Barrage, the Conference rally with the federal leader himself addressing us, Shelter and the annual Lib Dem blogger awards.

Entitled 'Human rights and civil liberties: home and abroad' the rally was a celebration of the essence of Liberal Democracy. A packed auditorium heard passionate speeches in defence of the right of dissent by Nick Clegg MP, Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty, Philippe Sands QC and Sir Menzies Campbell. If anybody ever questions what the Liberal Democrats are for again they should be made to watch video footage of this event.

Alas I did not win the award for best blog by an elected representative. That honour went instead toCouncillor Mary Reid of Kingston. Liberal Democrat blog of the year went to James Graham's Quaequam blog.

Highlight of the night was the award for most humorous Lib Dem blog, which was won by Liberal Mafia. In time honoured fashion Don Liberali was unable to attend in person but sent an acceptance note instead together with the present of a horses head, not a real one you understand but convincing nevertheless.

Monday saw a session with the Police Federation, held under Chatham House rules. This was an opportunity for both sides to explore issues of mutual concern and for some lobbying to be carried out in respect of our manifesto. The one thing that become evident as we move from fringe meeting to fringe meeting is the respect that various lobby groups have for our spokespeople. We listen and we respond. That does not always happen with Labour and the Tories.

Tuesday morning and I am on my way back to Cardiff. It has been fun. Roll on next year.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.