This year’s trip to the seaside for the Liberal Democrats was much more than sandcastles, rollercoasters and donkey rides. The quality of Sir Menzies Campbell’s leadership was once again questioned, with home affairs spokesman, Nick Clegg, confirming he would probably stand for the party leadership in the future. Illegal immigrants were to be granted an amnesty, and party members voted to cut the basic rate of Income Tax by 4p and scrap Council Tax.
All in all, it was a pretty feisty conference, looking at traditional Lib Dem issues. And, as always, housing was at the centre of many of the conference’s fringe events. Lynne Featherstone, a Lib Dem MP, observed that half of the constituents who visited her London surgery came with housing problems, commenting that half a million more households are now on waiting lists for social housing than in 1997.
Andrew Stunnell, Lib Dem spokesman for Communities and Local Government, also drew on experiences from his constituency, claiming that high rents charged by private landlords meant poor people could not afford to live there anymore, in what he called “social cleansing”. He challenged government officials to visit such areas to see what the “real world” is like.
It was housing spokesman Paul Holmes, however, who was able to provide an insight into official Lib Dem thinking. He predicted an increase in repossessions as the impact of higher interest rates is felt. As such, he felt that there was an urgent need for an increase in the amount of social housing, saying his party had called for 250,000 extra social properties for rent to be built.
He said that unlike at present, local authorities would be allowed to build some of these new homes, while low-cost housing to buy would be held in community land trusts to ensure that it remained affordable after the original owner had sold and moved on.
Holmes also observed that the average student now leaves university with debts of around £22,000. He said this was encouraging young people to view debt as normal. Debt has long been an issue of interest to the Lib Dems, and so it was no surprise that it was also discussed widely on the fringe.
Teresa Perchard, director of public policy at Citizens Advice Bureau, pointed out that debt was the biggest issue handled by her organisation, increasingly as a consequence of sub-prime loans.
Adam Sampson of Shelter expressed concerns that not only are most mortgages now secured on two incomes, but they are increasingly based on variables such as overtime and bonus payments, which are vulnerable to recession.
Sampson also criticised the current shared-ownership schemes, arguing they are poor value for most buyers. He praised the Lib Dems for being the only party to argue against extending home ownership to those on marginal incomes.
Vyv Bronk from the FSA expressed concern on how unprepared for debt many people are. The FSA had found 70% of people had made no provision for a fall in income while 55% do not have enough to cover any unexpected expenses. She said the FSA was working with teachers, the Government and other organisations to seek to promote financial awareness and literacy.
These were themes that party leader Campbell returned to in his set-piece speech at the end of the Conference. Referring to the problems encountered by Northern Rock, he said although the short-term problems faced by the bank seemed to be over, the problems caused by excessive debt and reckless lending had not been addressed. He went on to discuss how life choices and opportunities were hampered by where people are born, and again stressed the need for more good quality social housing to allow people to overcome these problems.
As the delegates trudged home with Campbell’s words ringing in their ears, they no doubt thought it had been a conference that largely went over traditional Lib Dem territory. And as such there was little new, and little of real interest to the mortgage industry.
However, as he looked out over the windswept Brighton beach at the end, Campbell must have thought he had got away with it. While the media had hyped leadership whispers, there had been nothing substantial, and his place as leader seems secure. Sometimes, the limited thrills provided by a seaside donkey ride can be better than the excitement of the end of the pier rollercoaster. n
Neil Johnson is PR and policy manager and Rachel Le Brocq is public affairs officer, both at the Building Societies Association