A s the political circus rolled into Bournemouth, the ‘E-word’ was the only one on most commentator’s lips. Was this going to be the setting for what would have been one of the most dramatic political events of recent years as brand-new Prime Minister Brown announced his intention to the Labour faithful to seek an autumn election?
Well, that may have been all the media was interested in, but get through the security perimeter and it was a very different E-word that was on everyone’s lips – environment. If last year’s event was dominated by discussion on housing, this year it was the turn of the environment to be the key issue for debate.
But that did not mean housing was ignored. Delegates had a wide choice of fringe events focusing on housing, with many also looking at the environmental issues associated with housing and affordability problems.
Friends of the Earth chose a fringe meeting to speak of the urgent need to decarbonise the economy, and to ensure the building stock plays its part in reducing carbon emissions.
The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) spoke of the important role the public sector can play in raising awareness. Noting many public sector buildings are now built to high environmental standards, CABE argued the public sector needs to stay ahead of private sector counterparts and should continue increasing standards, regardless of cost.
But delegates were not just discussing ‘green’ issues. Zenna Atkins from Places for People noted that while mixed-tenure communities are important, it is equally critical they are properly managed to prevent anti-social behaviour taking place. And Adam Sampson of Shelter noted homeowners are keen for new homes for ‘respectable’ people just like themselves, and prejudices against new social groups moving to an area must be overcome.
Communities secretary Hazel Blears spoke of the missed opportunities high levels of unemployment create, and congratulated the Government on not just looking at how communities can be regenerated physically but also economically, drawing experiences from her constituency in Salford.
However, at the same meeting, writer and broadcaster Simon Fanshawe spoke of the need to avoid identikit regeneration and argued the development of “narratives” is needed to identify particular strengths and niches of towns that can then be used to attract inward investment and prosperity.
Jules Pipe, Mayor of Hackney, spoke of the need to improve housing in his borough. He noted the opportunity the London Olympic Games presents, and of the importance that – unlike the Canary Wharf development – local people are able to get jobs and reap the economic benefits the Games will offer.
With so much going on, Housing Minister Yvette Cooper had a busy time. She enthusiastically defended the Government’s record and achievements on housing, noting house building is currently at its highest level since 1990 and regularly repeating – despite a number of speakers questioning delivery – the Government’s plans for new houses in the future.
Noting a 30% increase of council investment in homes, she spoke of the Government’s determination to ensure all council houses reach a minimum standard, claiming that achieving this remains a vital test for Labour. She also recognised a number of financial constraints on councils that hinder their attempts to build more social housing, and said they will be removed.
However, it was the growing number of Nimbys, and particularly Nimbys of a Conservative persuasion, that the Minister saved her wrath for. She toured the fringe telling anyone and everyone willing to listen that new homes and new developments “are badly needed for the future”, and it is Conservative MPs and councils that are using the planning laws to stymie such development.
She noted that despite the Government’s “hugely ambitious” plans, the Conservatives always campaigned destructively and negatively against plans for new homes, even though they were much needed – if houses are not built now it will be future generations who will pay the price.
Although Gordon Brown may have spent the conference seeking to position himself above party politics, Cooper was not the only minister who spent the week berating the Tories while extolling Labour’s achievements over the last ten years. The E-word may not have been mentioned openly, but it was clearly on everyone’s mind. n
Neil Johnson is PR and policy manager and Rachel Le Brocq is public affairs officer, both at the Building Societies Association