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Andrew Stunell’s speech to Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference

September 20, 2011 3:30 PM
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats

It seems a million years ago that the media were reporting on the coalition talks between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories.

Talking heads endlessly speculating on who was up, who was down and how long it would last.

Newspapers full of the back stories of the four-man Liberal Democrat negotiation team of Danny Alexander, Chris Huhne and David Laws.

I'm not bitter. Honest. The Guardian wouldn't have spelt my name right anyway.

In those five long days coming straight off the back of a gruelling election campaign, we crafted an agreement that saw Liberal Democrats enter government for the first time in over seventy years.

Since I got you into this, Conference, I thought it was only right to come and account for what I've done in government since.

Inside the grandly titled Department of Communities and Local Government we've had a tough year, with hard decisions and difficult cuts required.

That's stolen the headlines, but we're also racing to secure the vital reforms we promised to restore the power eroded from Local Government and local communities by successive governments for forty years or more, ably assisted by Whitehall's mandarins.

And we've also tackled that policy Cinderella: Housing.

During his successful campaign to be our candidate for London Mayor, I heard Brian Paddick make the claim that Housing was the most important issue facing London.

I agree with you, Brian, but you didn't go far enough.

It is one of the most important issues facing the entire country.

There are 250,000 new households formed every year. Social Housing waiting lists have soared to record levels. 5.5 million Households live in fuel poverty, and there were 28,000 so-called excess winter fuel deaths in 2010.

When the Coalition came into power, we inherited a housing crisis.

Labour had continued what the Tories started, selling off council houses, and failing to build enough even to replace them, let alone increase the number.

And in the private sector, even during the boom years of the housing market, we weren't building the houses we needed.

The record of previous governments on social housing was nothing short of a disgrace.
Millions of social homes were sold off, and not replaced, whilst waiting lists soared to record levels.

As things stand, 4.5 million people are on social housing waiting lists. That's 1.8m families waiting for a home they may never see.

Social Housing just wasn't important enough for the last government.

They just didn't get it.

Gordon Brown - remember him? He claimed on Newsnight that "Housing is essentially a private sector activity".

The Shadow Education Secretary, Andy Burnham, went further and admitted that "Labour's failure to build more council homes early in the life of the Government was a major mistake".

He was right.

It was.

Housing just didn't matter to Labour.

For decades, successive governments have taken us backwards - Labour and Tory alike.
We lost over a million social homes between 1979 and 1997.

Blair and Brown then cut the numbers by a further 420,000 in their thirteen years in power.

It was not good enough and the Coalition is determined to do better.

That's why we've introduced the Affordable Rent programme, which will help us build more homes with less, getting better value for money for the taxpayer to boot.

It's been a success so far.

We initially hoped we'd build around 150,000 new social homes for rent over the next four years.

The critics claimed it could never happen. That we'd fall flat on our face. That we'd fail.
But bids to introduce affordable rent schemes exceeded even our own expectations.

So much so, that now, we're on course to build 170,000 new social homes in the next four years.

To be sure, we still have a long way to go and a lot more to do.

But I can stand here today as a Government Minister and tell you Conference, that thanks to Liberal Democrat influence in government, we have a social housing target that we can and will meet.

That thanks to the Liberal Democrats, the coalition will be the first government to deliver an increase in social housing during its term of office for more than thirty years.

But the search for value for money means we must also get the most out of our existing stock too.

That's essential with new household formation outstripping the number of new homes built each year and waiting lists rising every day.

Yet we have 700,000 empty homes in this country.

Over 300,000 of them are long-term empties - vacant for more than six months. That's 2 years' new housing supply. It's a scandal, in fact it's a crime when thousands of families cannot get a decent home

Bringing those empty homes back into use has long been a key demand of Liberal Democrats.

It was one of our big asks on housing policy during the coalition negotiations.

It's in the Coalition Agreement. It's there in the Departmental Business Plan. Now it's down to me to deliver.

The last government's empty homes policies were disjointed, scatter-brained, and lacked a coherent direction.

We must do better. And we will do better.

Last October, we announced a £100m programme to kick start the reuse of empty properties to create thousands more affordable homes right across the country.

In the coming weeks, I will be bringing forward the details of our empty homes strategy - the first time any government has had one.

The strategy will set out what Government is doing, and what more we intend to do to tackle the problem of empty homes.

It will open the door to bids from councils, housing associations and other providers, with work on the ground starting next April.

And it will make the case for one of the most efficient housing investments we can make: giving us more homes per pound, more jobs per home, and plenty of training opportunities too.

And of course I want to see local authorities getting to grips with the empty homes in their areas.

Already, the New Homes Bonus will apply to Empty Homes, so councils will receive six years worth of council tax per home. £9,000 or so.

But we can do more.

That's why today I can announce that we will shortly be consulting on whether councils should be given the power to charge extra council tax on homes in their area that have been empty for more than two years, through an Empty Homes Premium.

Discretionary, naturally. Localist, certainly. With essential safeguards and exemptions, of course. But a nudge to owners to bring abandoned homes back into use.

An extra weapon in a council's armoury in the battle to make better use of our housing stock.

The premium will act as a spur for landlords to bring their properties back into use quickly. And where they don't, it will provide an extra revenue stream for Local Authorities to plough back into bringing more homes back into use.

We will also look to be innovative and find other ways to support local authorities to bring vacant properties back into use, and regenerate their areas.

Homesteading - where empty homes are brought back into use through self-renovation - has proven successful both internationally, for instance in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, and also back here in the UK, such as in Benwell in Newcastle

Homesteading provides a triple benefit, it gives families a foot on the housing ladder, brings empty homes back into use, and it helps to regenerate whole communities.

So I can also announce today that we will work with local authorities to identify areas where effective homesteading schemes could be delivered to rejuvenate local communities.

But it's not just numbers of homes that are important.

We need to ensure that we get quality as well as quantity.

Stopping carbon emissions from our homes may not be as high profile as transport, or renewable energy projects.

But it is essential in the fight against climate change. And a lot more cost effective.
The Built Environment contributes almost half of Britain's carbon emissions each year.
Over a quarter come from our homes.

A two-third cut in CO2 emissions produced in our homes would save more carbon than taking all the country's cars off the road, so the need for more sustainable homes couldn't be more obvious.

Conference - the choice is clear: we either make our buildings more sustainable or we will lose our battle with climate change.

Liberal Democrats take that battle seriously, and want to deliver on the green promises we make.

Liberal Democrats want the Coalition to be the greenest government ever, so that means we need to have the greenest built environment ever.

Not just setting targets, but delivering results.

The last Labour government were big on targets that they always missed.

And we already have the evidence that the existing standards they set aren't being met. A recent study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed that not even an exemplar Zero Carbon Development was performing as it should.

Although residents were comfortable and pleased with their lower heating bills, the homes were losing 54% more heat than designed.

The report concluded that many processes and cultures within the industry and its supply chain need to change if Zero Carbon Homes is to be more than an empty slogan.

That's why, as part of the work my department is doing ahead of the next upgrade of Building Regulations in 2013, I have urgently called together an Advisory Committee on Compliance to look into what more we can do to make sure that standards are met, and that carbon reduction in the built environment becomes a reality.

But it's not just new homes that need attention.

Around three-quarters of today's homes will still be in use in 2050. So if we want to cut carbon, we need to upgrade our old homes, not just the new ones.

That's where the Green Deal comes in.

As you heard from Chris earlier, from September 2012, energy companies will pay up-front to insulate your home, with the money paid back through the savings made on your energy bill.

Real help and real savings for real people.

Chris Huhne and I came up with the initial plan for what's now the Green Deal in our 2006 policy paper "Climate Change Starts at Home".

Little did you know then, Conference, that so much of what you voted for in that paper would be implemented by Liberal Democrats in government.

Back then you could have been forgiven for thinking you'd just voted for the latest bright idea to be stolen by Labour or the Tories.

And believe me, they both tried!

But it's Liberal Democrat ministers who are delivering on our promise of constructing a greener built environment.

And we need to tell people about it.

Earlier in Conference I helped launch the party's new autumn campaign to promote our environmental successes in government.

It's a brilliant example of the influence that the Liberal Democrats have had on this government.

So after this Conference is over I want you to do one thing for me: Go back to your constituencies and prepare the RISO.

Boast about our environmental record.

Show your local residents how, thanks to the Liberal Democrats, it pays to Save Money, Stay Warm and Go Green.

And that message is more important to your residents now than ever, when every penny counts.

So our record on housing in government is clear, constructive, and definitely a cut above the others.

A solid record of achievement.

Is there more to be done?


But when Labour start carping, telling you that the new homes we're building are "Labour's homes", or criticising our record, remind them of their last thirteen years.

Remind them how social housing numbers fell, and waiting lists rose. Remind them of their lack of action on the environment, and their failure to tackle empty homes. And then remind them of our record so far.

More new affordable homes.

The first net increase in the social housing stock by any government for thirty years.

A Green Deal to make our homes warmer and save consumers money.

Action on compliance to ensure that Zero Carbon Homes do exactly what they say on the tin.

And action to bring thousands of empty homes back into use.

Conference, with a record like that, I don't mind how they spell my name.