Building and sister magazine Property Week joined forces with the RICS to host three debates with the three main parties’ housing representatives. Here’s what they had to say

Conservative John Hayes

John Hayes turned up at the RICS an hour late and so had a bit of a struggle to win his audience over. He just about managed it, with the aid of some forthright views based on tried-and-trusted Tory maxims. Generally, the Conservatives think there is too much regulation and red tape, particularly in the planning system, and are keen to safeguard the Countryside while helping more people become independent by extending the right to buy.

He spoke well on these core issues and even came up with an economic critique of Kate Barker’s report on housing undersupply. He was less convincing, however, when it came to what to do about nimbyism and how to maintain decent social housing.

Hayes, 46, went to Nottingham University and was the executive director of an IT company in the 1980s and 1990s. He is now MP for South Holland and the Deepings in Lincolnshire, a seat he has held since the 1997 election. He has been shadow spokesperson for local and devolved government since 2003.

What he’d do

  • Abolish the Sustainable Communities Plan
  • Increase home ownership by giving social housing tenants the right to buy
  • Root-and-branch refit of planning system
  • Abolish regional spatial strategies and give councils a say in where to build. However, government would step in if a council refused to build enough
  • Scrap regional assemblies
  • Protect the green belt
  • Free up brownfield land held by regional development agencies
  • Introduce fiscal incentives to bring empty homes back into use
  • Oppose land development tax and capital gains tax on first homes
  • Look at fiscal and regulatory barriers preventing the bringing forward of brownfield land (but no commitment to detailed costs)

Why he says Barker is wrong

  • She assumes the housing situation is a problem of supply rather than demand.
  • She assumes affordability is building-centred rather than people-centred. “The idea that you can freeze a category of housing ignores market control – the nurse won’t always be able to afford the same house.”
  • She assumes central and regional government has the power to impose their will on local councillors. “It’s politically naive.”

Tory alternative to Barker – bring 700,000 empty homes back into use instead of knocking them down via the pathfinders. Regenerate incrementally by paying attention to what the market is saying, not the government.

Weak points

Vague sentiments, such as: “We need on the one hand to support developers and on the other to protect the character of the country.” This is not specific enough for an expert audience. One onlooker pointed out that refusing to set targets for housing, although admirably honest, meant it was impossible to judge how the party had performed. Hayes’ response – “You can’t make a judgment of a commodity in terms of finite numbers” – was unconvincing.

  • Killer quotes

There is a massive plan to concrete over rural Great Britain in four growth areas, formulated by unelected regional assemblies who can dictate on location and design. The massive expansion of regional planning on top of local plans has created a plethora of regulations. Labour has sapped the energy of housebuilders

We want to harmonise urban and suburban Great Britain. Much of late 20th-century development was out of kilter with traditional development. What we build should add to what is there

You need to give people a sense of ownership in their own area, and make them believe development is a positive. Development should be beautiful, and respect local vernacular design

  • Did he cut it?

Rob Davies, Gerald Eve
His policies are actually very similar to those of the Labour party, the only difference being that he would remove the top tier of the planning system by getting rid of regional spatial strategies. The ideas are there but we do need something to back them up. What would they have instead of RSSs, for example?

Alan Bennetts, Corporation of London
He didn’t talk enough in specifics about the things we really need to know. There are also a few contradictions in there: how do you cut red tape on the one hand and acquire 100,000 empty houses on the other?

Liberal Democrat Ed Davey

Ed Davey immediately got one up on his Tory counterpart by turning up on time. He also came across as intelligent, slightly less of a soap-box orator than Hayes, and well briefed. Davey, 39, is one of a handful of ambitious young Lib Dems with a solid background in economics. He went to Oxford and was a researcher for the Lib Dems and a management consultant for Omega Partners before entering parliament in 1997 as MP for Kingston and Surbiton.

Davey had the most adventurous policies of the three candidates, pitching innovative ideas for merging CABE and English Partnerships, making section 106 work for local people and allowing councils more say over what is built in their area.

What he’d do

  • Agrees with Barker on the need for a “step change” in housing supply
  • Agrees that growth areas are in the right place, but has concerns over the threat posed by flooding and the Stansted growth corridor
  • Scrap the charging of VAT of 17.5% on repair and conversion projects by harmonising VAT new build and refurb
  • Supports the idea for construction GCSEs
  • Supports the creation of a dedicated minister for construction
  • Merge EP with CABE to create “national body for best practice”, and devolve it to local authorities to deliver sustainable communities.
  • Change section 106 system to allow local people to benefit financially from development in an area – for example, by paying for local housing to have energy-efficient measures fitted for free
  • Set up “land auction” whereby developers sell land to the local council, which then decides on appropriate uses for local land

  • Killer quotes

On the Barker issue I think we have some common ground. I believe we need to build more homes, and that it is an issue of supply rather than demand

I agree with the government that the growth areas are in the right place, although we are concerned about the Thames Gateway and flooding. However, there are question marks over the Stansted corridor, and too much emphasis on the South-east: the Northern and Midlands markets are changing

The charging of VAT of 17.5% on repair and conversion projects is absolutely bonkers

The ODPM is the weakest department in Whitehall. We need a dedicated minister

English Partnerships has seen major improvements in its structure and delivery over the past couple of years. There needs to be some work done to see whether EP could merge with CABE to create a national virtual body for best practice. This could a high calibre service, devolved to the local authorities, and become a major national resource

What I’d like to see is some way to invest in energy conservation through section 106 for all the homes in the area. It would give a fixed return to the community and give them something out of the project

One radical idea is to set up a local authority land auction. Landowners would state a price at which they’d sell to the council. Then the councils have the right to buy land for a year or so, and could consult with the local community to see what they’d like to take up

  • Did he cut it?

Adrian Singleton, AJS Partnership
He showed that he knows his stuff and he had some interesting ideas. He has an economic background, which helps.

Michael Chambers, director of policy strategy, RICS
I wasn’t too sure about merging CABE and EP as they’re separate bodies with different roles, although merging parts of them might work. I’ve also some doubts about opening up section 106, as there seems any number of things you could apply it to. But it was good he was searching for new ideas.

Labour Yvette Cooper

Yvette Cooper trumped both her rivals by turning up 15 minutes early. Her timekeeping was all the more impressive because she’d spent the first day of election campaigning jetting around the country and turned up at the RICS fresh from a briefing with Tony Blair and a tubthumping tour of North Wales.

Cooper’s CV is equally impressive. She moved smoothly from comprehensive to Oxford to Harvard and is thus as economically literate as her husband Ed Balls, until recently Gordon Brown’s key adviser at the Treasury. She has been MP for Pontefract and Castleford since 1997, a leader writer on The Independent, and a policy adviser to both the Labour party and Bill Clinton’s Democrats. She has been minister for public health, and in June 2003 joined the ODPM as an undersecretary of state. And she’s still only 36.

What she’d do

  • Retain and implement the Sustainable Communities plan, including progressing pathfinders and growth areas
  • Create more millennium communities
  • 75% of local authorities to have design champions
  • Increase design coding
  • White paper on Barker’s planning gain supplement by end of the year
  • John Prescott is likely to continue after the election, although no comment on future of the ODPM
  • Housing Corporation to continue

So will Prescott go after the election?

“There is a very strong sense of commitment and vision from the deputy prime minister and I’m sure that will continue.

“It’s certainly true that the role of the Housing Corporation is evolving and as part of the growing investment in social housing it does have challenges in the coming months. It is very much part of the sustainable communities agenda.

“We can’t do the growth areas without infrastructure. Not all of that should be paid for by the public – it needs to be done in partnership. Mistakes have been made in the past but we have a strong commitment.”

  • Killer quotes

We have a comprehensive strategy for building communities, not just homes. There is very broad support across the country for this, and it is something that the market cannot deliver on its own

We are investing in our communities via our neighbourhood renewal fund and in the Thames Gateway. This would not be available under the Tories, who would cut £1bn from the sector. It’s in their plans – you don’t need to talk to Howard Flight

The Tories don’t see how much economic stability is linked to the housing market. The Barker review shows the need to reduce the supply gap, but the Tories are challenging it, which will lead to rising house prices, less affordable housing and act as a brake on the South-east’s growth

The pathfinders were established to allow local agencies to decide what was needed in their area. Many of them were developed around particular industries where demand had changed. Local communities just need the right kind of encouragement. We will be continuing to fund the pathfinders

We’d like to see stronger community involvement in the development of the local plan. It’s very difficult to make planning seem interesting, but it has a huge impact in a local area

  • Did she cut it?

David Melhuish, RICS
She stuck to housing plans and was more narrowly focused than Ed Davey. On section 106 and Barker her answers were appropriately cautious, given that the election has just been called

Alan Chaney, EDF Energy
She was very bright and stuck to the party line. But I’m worried about using the Tory policy of right to buy - it’s totally flawed, and I’d stop it right now

Jim Green, Baylight Properties.
I thought she was very good, as you’d expect from someone of her intelligence. But I don’t understand the policy of demolishing 400,000 houses in the North, while building 200,000 in the South – it’s still a net loss. I think the government is too obsessed with big numbers. I’m much more in favour of applying smaller treatments in more places

Housing: Election Battleground no1