Why Richard Steer’s first ever trip to a party conference might just have been worth it

Richard Steer 2014

I have never been to a political party conference before. To be honest it has not been high on my personal bucket list. However given the opportunity to speak to the deputy prime minister, chief secretary to the Treasury and housing minister about the crises in house building in the UK, it was frankly a combination of curiosity and professional pride that found me travelling to Glasgow at the weekend to join the Liberal Democrats at their annual jambouree.

I am meeting these important members of the coalition government at close quarters at a time when the battle lines are being drawn for the forthcoming general election and the provision of housing is clearly a hot topic. All the parties are trying to outbid each other in their desire to be seen to been on top of the issue.

The Labour party wants to build 250,000 new homes per year. It’s not sure where, or how it intends to build these houses but hey!, it looks like a good figure. The Conservatives want to ring fence 100,000 units for the under f40s, apparently offering to pay the first 20% of the costs to encourage fist time buyers. For a party professing to believe in natural market forces this plan seems something of a back of the envelope response to a complex problem. It’s akin to suggesting Jeremy Clarkson enter into talks with the Argentinian government over the return of the Falklands. Unlikely to work and regarded as undesirable by most people.

The fact that our industry is being courted for their views rather than dictated to by a South-east focused clique has got to be a good thing

The Lib Dems themselves have an ambitious plan to build 300,000 houses a year. I found at the weekend that even their front bench team regard this as a wildly ambitious target, but to their credit they also want to consult with the industry before committing their thoughts to print on the manifesto.

Hence my trip to the party conference where it seems wise to help enable a discussion on the topic which can inform thinking. Our rather dramatically named “Housing Summit - a strategy for survival” turned out to be one of the hottest tickets in town, with David Laws the education minister responsible for the manifesto being joined by members of the Lib Dem Treasury front bench from the House of Lords as well as representatives from Skanska, the president of the RTPI and Liberal President Tim Farron all attending. Stephen Williams Housing Minister and myself co-chaired.

It was also gratifying that the deputy prime minister asked me for a private briefing on the topic the day before the seminar, and I found he accepted the charges of skills shortages, planning issues and abandonment of the carbon agenda with good grace. No-one can say these people are not taking the subject seriously.

There is no doubt that the fact the housing “shortage” has now morphed into housing “crises” is not lost on the majority of those attending. The fact that there seems to be no coherent policy by any of the parties is also appreciated. And the fact that our industry is being courted for their views rather than dictated to by a South-east focused clique has got to be a good thing.

I await the outcome of conference later this week to see the Lib Dem policy on housing and I expect it to be founded in a reality that is much more apparent than their competitor parties.

Richard Steer is chairman of Gleeds Worldwide.