The party unveiled its housing manifesto with a clear commitment to social and affordable housing – as well as an unashamed pledge to intervene in the housing market.
In an exclusive interview with 24housing, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said a range of actions were needed and that the party would move quickly if elected.
The housing manifesto was launched during a visit to a housing association development in Warrington where Farron set out an agenda that is focused on building new homes on brownfield sites and ending the short-term cycles that have damaged the construction industry.
Top priority is a commitment to build 300,000 homes a year for sale and rent by the end of the parliament. Farron said major developers would be hit with penalties if they failed to build.
He also made clear the party would intervene in the market by directly commissioning thousands of homes.
Farron said: “We think 300,000 is right as the target. If developers won’t deliver then we will. Our job is to make sure we realise the potential, to make development much more straight forward. It’s not a case of saying to developers ‘it’s your fault.’”
Farron said housing associations were critical delivery and pledged to lift the borrowing cap on local authorities: “We want to give housing associations access to more and greater finance. Getting rid of the benefit cap is also important.”
The Lib Dem leader also committed the party to protecting social housing and that the party would “stop social rented housing being sold off”.
The big idea is the creation of a government-backed Housing and Infrastructure Development Bank to provide long-term capital for major developments.
He said the commitment was costed and would generate a profit: “In the short to medium term it will not be a problem to the taxpayer; that money will be made back.”
Farron argued that central to fixing the housing market was ending the “stop, start” nature of the industry and that needed political leadership. The certainty would also create incentives for people to join the industry creating badly-needed jobs.
“Young people will start to choose construction as a career of choice because they see a good living for many, many years to come,” he said.
Farron was also clear the party would not be targeting greenbelt land and instead focus on enabling development of brownfield sites with incentives for developers if needed: “We need to look at the areas where the demand is the highest and where the social housing lists are the highest. That will give you an indication of what you need for each defined area.”
This would be achieved by creating a ‘Domesday book’ of brownfield sites that would “give a clear direction” from government.
“There are contaminated sites where the money needs to be spent,” he said. “This would help affordable housing developers like housing associations. Their margins are so small and those brownfield sites are very expensive.”
Farron said the party’s policy to lift the benefit cap would help deliver more homes for older people: “Lifting the benefit cap would be reassuring for the industry. A lot of people have got developments in the pipeline. They are in limbo because of the uncertainty because of the funding gap.”
He added: “With direct commissioning, you can be clear about exactly what homes are going to be built.”
The party has set 300,000 homes for another reason: a political strategy known as triangulation. Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan set the figure as a target for his post-war government and did not leave it up to free-market economics.
Farron said: “Direct commissioning is about setting the ambition. In the 1950s, Harold MacMillan when he was housing minister, used direct commissioning. It’s a reminder that market failure is what we’re dealing with at the moment. I support markets but I support making markets work.”