Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors

Tim Farron: Westminster Update (January)

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Friday, 16th January, 2015

Tim Farron MP writes for ALDC members Tim Farron MP writes for ALDC members

After regularly writing for ALDC members during his term as Lib Dem party president, Tim asked if he could keep in touch. We thought it would be a great idea, and that we would make the offer open to any Members of Parliament who’d like to give ALDC members a ‘Westminster Update’ of their own.

Tim writes:

Happy New Year and thank you for allowing me to continue this blog, even though the Presidency has now passed into the capable hands of Sal Brinton. It’s always good to hear your views and be able to communicate with you so directly.

I never want the national politics to drown out the crucial importance of local government. Our strength and integrity as a party depends on being local community politicians, listening to and working for the communities we work in. It is a huge privilege to be appointed Foreign and Commonwealth spokesperson – and I have written about this here but I want to continue to use this blog to focus on the issues closest to local Government and our communities.

As you know, I’ve been taking a systematic look at housing over the last year so I wanted to pull out three issues which I’ve been continuing to campaign on recently.

The first is right to buy. I have been pushing to give councils full control over this policy. For many families, the freedom to buy the home they have been renting for years is an incredibly good thing. But in the current housing market, it is unsustainable. We are selling off our social homes too fast and too cheaply. Even though Lib Dems secured one-for-one replacement, the Conservative’s short term obsession with this policy is undercutting the ability of councils to cope with the housing crisis. Thankfully, councils are generating innovative ways to get around central government’s imposed rules. But councils need full control over the discounts, the revenue from sales and the ability to suspend Right to Buy.

The second concerns second homes. I’ve been calling for a 10% top up on council tax for second homeowners to create a fund so that local authorities have the funds to support services which are threatened with closure due to reduced demand. Properties that are rarely lived in do not provide pupils for local schools, custom for the local post office, passengers for the bus service or patients for the local small GP surgery. In the South Lakes this would bring in £1.25m a year. We need to build our existing good record on second homes to stop local people being forced out and services being shut up.

The third is affordable housing planning obligations. Before Christmas, the Government announced that developers building sites under 10 homes would no longer make any financial contribution to affordable housing in the area through Section 106. This (Conservative) policy is incredibly ill-considered. While in some areas it will be a welcome boost for small builders, it poses a real threat to keeping our countryside affordable. We managed to secure concessions: for example in rural areas, only sites under 5 homes will be exempt from the charge. But this policy still ignores the complexity of local housing markets and betrays any sense of localism. Developers may start dividing sites to avoid the requirement altogether. I will continue to campaign against it.

Here’s some context. The year the Coalition came to power saw the lowest level of housebuilding in peacetime since 1923. Right now, the figure is around 130,000 new homes per year. But we need around 300,000 per year to address both a historical backlog and current housing need. We have to build more houses urgently. And lots of them need to be council houses. Over the whole of their 13 years in power Labour built only 7,870 council houses. During Thatcher’s time in power there were at least 17,710 built every year. The waiting list for social housing in England has increased by 81% since 1997. And without huge growth in the construction of affordable housing, that figure will only get higher.

Lib Dems in government have ensured that house building is firmly on the agenda. For the first time in decades councils are building social houses. And because of us the houses being delivered from 2016 will all be zero carbon.
At Autumn Conference we voted through policies which will give us the framework to meet a target of 300,000 homes per year. But it won’t happen unless you out there on the frontline get the tools you need to make this commitment a reality, which is why I will continue pushing to get you the freedom you need to best serve the communities you represent.

Congratulations to all of you for working so hard to solve the housing problems which are plaguing our society, forcing people out of their communities and separating familes, and for managing the difficult act of balancing green aspirations with keeping the countryside affordable. Let’s build a great future.

ALDC