David Montague

Conference season part 3

At the crack of dawn on Monday I set off for Manchester and the Conservative Party Conference.
Published on 04/10/2017

At the crack of dawn on Monday I set off for Manchester and the Conservative Party Conference.

A couple of weeks earlier, at the NHF Conference, the Secretary of State and the Housing Minister both committed to make social housing something we can be proud of, to tackle the stigma once and for all. A Macmillanesque vision of housing for everyone. Since then rumours have been circulating about a big housing announcement at conference. Could this be our moment?

As I sat on the train I read the headlines – another £10 billion for the Help to Buy scheme – support for people buying a home of up to £600,000. Popular with buyers and housebuilders alike, but with the average L&Q resident earning £14,000 per annum this wasn't going to be much help for people in, or in need of social housing. And with less than 9,000 Help to Buy customers in London out of a total 135,000 nationally, not much help for Londoners either. Perhaps, I hoped, there was more to come...

From the moment I arrived in Manchester there was no doubt that this was the venue for the Tory conference. Suits were everywhere – the closer I got to the conference centre the higher the concentration became. By the time I reached the security gates it was like a Burton factory had exploded.

Contrast this with Labour, where one rude Radio 4 commentator said you could be mistaken for thinking you had arrived at a conference of polytechnic lecturers. Rude, but the Labour conference is certainly more casual, more at ease.

I arrived at our first fringe meeting where I was due to speak with Housing Minister Alok Sharma and the bosses of Barratt and NHBC. Last year we staged the same event with Gavin Barwell, the then Housing Minister, and the room was at best a quarter full. However this year the place was packed – the Chair even had to reorganise to allow more people in. I concluded one of two things: either housing was a greater political priority this year, or Alok was a more popular Minister. Alok preferred the latter explanation but from the conversation that followed it was clearly the former.

It is remarkable how things change. It wasn't so long ago that social housing was a dirty word, but now things could not be more different. "We have got to get behind new social housing" said one contributor. "Housing and homelessness are Conservative issues" said another. And one message was repeated time and again – if we don't do something about housing, Jeremy Corbyn will.

So, how to reconcile this renewed love of social housing with Monday’s Help to Buy announcement? I could only assume that there really was more to come.

I went straight from this fringe meeting to another where I had exactly the same experience – a full house and a desire to see new housing supply across all tenures. It was clear from the audience that housing associations were seen very much as part of the solution. Remarkable how things change.

The next morning a few of us had a private meeting with the Minister. The thing about private meetings is that they are, well, private. But I can say that we left feeling positive about the future.

By Tuesday evening the rumour mill was on fire. In her closing speech on Wednesday, people said there would be a big announcement from Theresa May on social housing; billions of pounds of investment in social housing, liberation of the housing association balance sheets, a new deal on rents. Should we go to bed with excitement about the future, or have we marched up to the top of this hill before?

As the morning sun broke over the Manchester horizon, Theresa May was preparing for her big conference speech and I was preparing to return to London. Only the day before Boris gave a real barnstormer with rapturous applause and a standing ovation. The BBC reported a polite reception, but I was there, and the ground shook. Was this what awaited the PM?

Back on the train I read extracts from the Huffington Post which suggested that the rumours were true – a big housing announcement, a major programme of new council housing; the first in a generation.

By the time I hit Stoke on Trent, news had travelled to the BBC and the Sun – government ministries to collaborate with housing associations in building hundreds of thousands of new homes, the largest initiative of its kind since Harold Macmillan’s homebuilding programme in the late 1950s.

Finally back at the office I sat at my desk to watch Theresa live – shortly before midday she took to the stage. She spoke of her humble beginnings and her passion to tackle social injustice. At 12.01 I felt my organs leave my body as the PM offered them to someone more deserving.

A clear message to EU nationals – “we want you to stay”. Struggling through a terrible cough and interrupted by a heckler, she spoke of her commitment to the NHS. And finally, at 12.31, she came to housing.

Promising to dedicate her premiership to fixing the broken housing market, Theresa announced a new age of council housing, encouraging councils and housing associations to build. There was an extra £2 billion for affordable housing bringing the total to £9 billion, a commitment to provide certainty for our future rent levels, and a promise to reignite home ownership.

The PM ended with a deal – government will provide the land and the skills our young people need, but in return, we must build the homes.

This is the deal which housing associations make to government: back us and we will invest in apprenticeships, jobs, communities, economic growth and homes; back us and we will back Britain.

Housing associations have so much to offer, as parties on both sides of the House commit to a new generation of housing for everyone. From one government to the next we have listened, adapted and delivered. On 4th October the next chapter began and we are ready to write it in partnership.