Saturday, February 09, 2008

Burying good news

The government made a major policy announcement this week, which will have massive implications for the future of social housing, prompting a furious reaction from its opponents.

No, not Caroline Flint's speech about plans (already, it seems abandoned) to get new social housing tenants to commit to find work. The major policy change is an amendment to the Planning Bill which will make it easier to build new housing developments on the Green Belt. Daily Mail readers got to hear all about it in a thoughtful piece called 'Labour to strip rural voters of their right to stop green belt destruction'. The Tories joined in the condemnation of these plans, as did the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

If you know people who want to find somewhere affordable to live, people for whom owing a house is just a dream, or people trapped with their kids in desperately unsuitable housing which is making them sick, then you should support the government's changes because without them we won't build anything like the number of new homes that are needed. In the unlikely event that you don't know anyone in any of those situations, there's a short video here that you can watch about the misery of our housing crisis.

The problem is that although a huge majority of people want action taken to sort out the housing crisis, there are a powerful set of vested interests which are conspiring to frustrate and prevent the new homes from being built. On this issue, Labour is on the side of the majority of people, from people who are homeless to the aspirational floating voters in the South East and London, and the Tories are on the side of the rural home owner lobby.

But having the right policies isn't enough if you aren't prepared to fight for them. This new policy, this 'new homes not nimbies' amendment, was presented as an amendment to parliament, with no anouncement or explanation to support it. When asked about it, the government denied the accusations of the anti-homes lobby that this was about making it easier to build new affordable homes even if local people didn't want them. Denying unpopular policies is one thing, this appeared to be an attempt to bury good news.

People who oppose new housing developments may be a small minority, but they are geograpically concentrated, and follow the news closely. People who support new affordable housing are found all around the country, and don't follow the details of housing policy development. (I found out about this policy because of a link on Conservative Home to the Daily Mail article). It's the job of Labour MPs and Labour activists to explain and publicise the implications of our policies and the difference between us and the Tories. This also means rebutting the lies of the special interests. The Daily Mail claim that the new homes are needed because of immigration. The main reason that they are needed is because more people are living on their own. This is a matter of simple fact - and I'd love to hear the Tory policies to stop people choosing to live on their own, they can wheel Iain Duncan Smith back out to talk about marriage and stopping people getting divorced.

By pure coincidence, at the beginning of the week when this new amendment was presented to Parliament, the new Housing Minister had a high profile interview scheduled with the Guardian, ahead of a speech to the Fabian Society. She could have used this opportunity to start a public debate about what the government should do to solve the housing crisis, and explained that they were going to face down the Daily Mail, the Tory Party and the nimbies and make sure that the affordable homes that people need get built. Labour believes that everyone has the right to a decent home, the Daily Mail and the Tories believe that everyone should have the right to stop others having a decent home.

On the substance of policy, the idea that there is no difference between Labour and the Tories is complete and utter nonsense. But if Labour is to be re-elected, then instead of the stunts which divide the government against its natural supporters, we need to show how we are on the side of the people, and the Tories are on the side of wealthy special interests. Social housing tenants aren't a wealthy special interest, the Campaign for Rural England and its backers are.

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