By Harry Phibbs
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At last we have a clear Labour Party policy in place for the 2015 General Election.
They have given a clear pledge to reinstate the spare room subsidy. The Conservatives will challenge them on how they would pay for this. That is a reasonable challenge. As I noted on Thursday - and if the early figures from Barnet are anything to go by - the savings will be far more than estimated. Well over a billion instead of around half a billion. This is because many of those affected are being prompted to take jobs and come off benefits altogether.
On the other side of the ledger Ed Miliband's claim to pay for it - even if it were a mere half billion price tag - with a £145 million Stamp Duty hike on pension funds is also vulnerable to scrutiny.
The short term politics of Mr Miliband's spare room subsidy announcement are understandable. This has been the big campaign of the year for the trade unions and left wing activists.
Labour's media allies - in the BBC and also such papers as The Independent and the The Mirror - have been denouncing the policy with great prominence. This has had some impact on public opinion. Then there have been Conservative taunts - led by David Cameron at PMQs - about Labour's failure to say what they would do on the subject.
Certainly Mr Miliband needed to clarify his stance on a number of policy issues. However on this one his announcement is a sign of weakness rather than strength. It is also imprudent to have made it at this stage. Labour has seized on the rise of rent arrears, but what will they be in a year's time? Labour has said that many have found difficulty finding a property to downsize into. Can they rely on this continuing?
By Mark Wallace
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Now that both parties are fighting to take credit for the coalition's achievements, rather than seeking to blame each other for its impact, it seems an opportune moment to ask: who is winning the Coalition? Do the Lib Dems or the Conservatives enjoy more success in Government?
Let's tot it up, match by match, across thirteen key policy areas:
With PCCs introduced, an immigration cap in place, the concept of regional immigration limits rejected, spending cuts to the police but crime falling regardless and even the now-famous "Go Home" vans, the Home Office is a round victory for the Conservatives. The Lib Dems will be happy about the scrapping of ID cards, but it's worth remembering that this was Tory policy at the election, too.
Blues 2 - 0 Yellows
Both parties described themselves as localist in the run-up to 2010, but the plan the Government have implemented is almost entirely Eric Pickles'. Spending transparency, guaranteed referenda for council tax increases over 5 per cent and relaxed planning regulations all point to a Conservative win.
Blues 2 - 0 Yellows
It's a little hard to say how the different parties have fared in the Justice department. The failure to fulfil the Tory pledge for automatic jail sentences for carrying a knife illegally and the fact the Human Rights Act still has not been replaced by a British Bill of Rights are certainly points against the Conservatives, but they were respectively scored by Ken Clarke and a Commission set up by the Prime Minister, so count as own goals. Since he took over as Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling has been pushing ahead more productively with cuts to legal aid, reform of the courts system and a new, more accountable prison regime. The Lib Dems have had barely a look-in, but the own goals go on their tally - we can expect a better rematch later in the Parliament.
Blues 3 - 2 Yellows
The Lib Dems had a good sequence of play early on - for a while it looked like they might romp home. They certainly secured the referendum on AV which they had demanded, but then the electorate overwhelmingly rejected the plan. Lords reform briefly came onto the agenda, before being torpedoed by Tory backbench opposition. In revenge, Clegg sank the boundary reform the Conservatives desperately need to iron out structural bias in the election system. Both sides lose out - a no-score draw.
Blues 0 - 0 Yellows
It's fair to say Michael Gove has emerged victorious on almost every measure in Education. The academies scheme has been dramatically extended, Free Schools are springing up and new, more rigorous exams are in place. The flagship Lib Dem policy of the Pupil Premium has been implemented, but their promise to aboilish tuition fees has been entirely reversed.
Blues 5 - 1 Yellows
Both parties supported High Speed 2 in 2010, and despite heavy fire from all sides it remains Government policy. The Lib Dem policy of introducing road pricing has been rejected, and replaced by reductions and freezes in fuel prices, driven by Rob Halfon. Clegg and Cameron both promised that Heathrow would not be expanded, and they've got their way - with Lib Dem support for the policy helping to overwhelm any Tory suggestions it be revoked.
Blues 2 - 1 Yellows
The decision to hold a Strategic Defence Review rather partially removed this department from the realm of pure party politics early on in the parliament. However, the Lib Dems regularly boast that they have managed to delay any decision to replace Trident until at least 2015, while the Conservatives have successfully slimmed down the MoD's size and balanced its budget for the first time in years. A score draw.
Blues 1 - 1 Yellows
Energy and Environment
Chris Huhne, and later Ed Davey, have dominated these policy fields from DECC until Owen Paterson gave DEFRA more Tory bite in the last year. The Green Deal is in place (and splashing money everywhere), wind farms are still going ahead despite the Tories wishing to implement a moratorium and the Green Investment Bank has got the go-ahead. Shale gas has now been given the green light, but only after lengthy delays thanks to Lib Dem opposition.
Blues 1 - Yellows 5
Tax and Spend
Both parties agreed on the need for austerity after the Brown years, but we should note that the Lib Dem manifesto proposed £15 billion of spending cuts, delayed until 2011-12. Austerity has been larger than that, and began immediately. While Clegg and Alexander's presence in the Quad has certainly reduced the fiscal tightening somewhat, Government policy looks closer to Osborne's position than theirs.
On tax, it's a different story. The 50p rate is gone, but it is now 45p rather than the 40p many Tories would have preferred. The income tax threshold is rising to £10,000, following a Lib Dem manifesto pledge - though it's not a policy many Conservatives are uncomfortable about. It's fair to say Osborne's enthusiasm for tax cuts (for example on Inheritance Tax) has been sizeably hindered by his coalition partners.
Goals for each side, but level pegging so far.
Blues 2 - Yellows 2
Like Eric Pickles, Iain Duncan Smith went into the 2010 election with a coherent plan and a deep personal dedication to his brief. As a result, he's got his way on the bulk of his proposals. The two parties have collaborated to protect the Universal Credit scheme from Treasury attempts to axe it or scale it back. It says a lot that the Lib Dems' main impact on the DWP has been to veto IDS' offers to make even more savings from his budget.
Blues 2 - Yellows 1
Business and Banks
Vince Cable has long touted his Department as the heartland of Lib Dem opposition to Conservative leadership of the coalition. He's certainly managed to get the Government to adopt his industrial strategy, and blocked the Beecroft reforms to workplace regulation. But he has also had to accept the abolition of the Regional Development Agencies and the Conservative-driven cuts to red tape. The decider is the Government's decision to accept the Lib Dem policy to break up the banks.
Blues 2 - Yellows 3
To say the Health and Social Care Act proved controversial is an understatement. Various of the policies within it are drawn from the Conservative 2010 manifesto, although Lib Dem opposition forced the Government into a "listening period" and resulted in several changes to the legislation.
Blues 2 - Yellows 1
This always seemed likely to be the sticking point of the Coalition. Clegg has prevented Cameron from offering an earlier referendum, and the Conservatives have been forced to use a Private Member's Bill to pursue their policy post-2015. However, the Lib Dems so far have been too afraid of public opinion to vote against the Wharton Bill, resorting to wrecking attempts in the Committees. The In/Out referendum is on the way, but Yellow blocking tactics have left the Blues open to attack by UKIP.
Blues 1 - Yellows 2
Scores so far
Here are the overall scores from the first half of the Parliamentary season. Of 13 matches, there have been 7 Blue victories, 3 Yellow wins and 3 draws. 25 goals for the Conservatives and 19 for the Liberal Democrats leaves the goal difference at +6 for the Blue team.
The contest is only going to become more hotly contested - as can be seen by Nick Clegg's attempt to take the credit for Rob Halfon's ideas today - so we will continue to watch every match and report back.
By Peter Hoskin
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Reading the papers, this week, has been like running into a brick wall. There are just so many stories about house prices and house-building, including:
The common denominator between all these reports – besides the bricks and mortar – has been the Government’s two-part Help to Buy scheme. Why is demand for houses rising? Because of Help to Buy, say expert witnesses. Why is house-building on the up? Because of Help to Buy (or at least the first part of it), say ministers. Help to Buy, Help to Buy, Help to Buy.
By Mark Wallace
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The Treasury's Help To Buy scheme, which will guarantee billions of pounds worth of mortgages, has raised many concerns. Howard Flight, Graeme Leach and Allister Heath are just three of the well-respected economists and market-watchers who fear the policy will inflate a housing bubble.
Their concern is justified - the scheme effectively commits taxpayers' money to underpinning investments of up to £600,000, fuelling demand without necessarily having any impact on supply. First time buyers and existing homeowners will be eligible, and there is no requirement for the houses involved to be now, so there's no guaranteed focus on the construction sector.
All of which must be a bit irritating for Eric Pickles. For, while "Help To Buy" is generally viewed as one monolithic scheme, it is actually two distinct streams of money, with different conditions attached and very different impacts on the property market.
By Peter Hoskin
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Strolling through Brixton a couple of weeks ago, it wasn’t so much the new, half-finished block of flats that caught my eye as the way those flats were being promoted. A sign had been pinned onto the boarding outside, highlighting the bare facts of the Government’s new Help to Buy scheme: “5% Buyer’s Deposit, 20% Government Loan, 75% Mortgage.” And then, underneath that, the words “Don’t Miss Out”.
For those in No.11, it’s probably the happy housing equivalent of those “Cheers to the Chancellor” signs appearing outside pubs to mark the fall in beer duty: homebuyers can have one on George, and don’t you forget it when the next election comes around. But, to my eyes, it’s all rather worrying. The two-part Help to Buy scheme announced in the Budget – £3.5 billion’s worth of government loans for people buying newly-built homes, and £12 billion’s worth of underwriting for mortgages – contains plenty to fear.
By Mark Wallace
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As Planning Minister, he sees his task as being to get construction going, not to preserve the labyrinthine system in perpetuity. The urgency with which Britain requires new building is beyond doubt - not just to reverse the disastrous decline in the building sector but to meet a large shortfall in housing.
The fortunes of the Chancellor rest in large part on his success, too. Yet another study published today warns that the Help to Buy scheme risks inflating a housing bubble - pouring financial support for purchasers into a market with constrained supply. That threat will only be averted if more houses are built.
Boles' reform programme faces some mighty opponents. The Daily Telegraph has thrown its full editorial weight behind a "Hands Off Our Land" campaign, with the support of the National Trust (an organisation once run by a certain Sir Jack Boles, father of the Trust's 21st century bogeyman).
By Paul Goodman
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Mike Jones, the Conservative leader of Cheshire West and Cheshire Council and a senior figure in the Local Government Association, has reason to raise a sceptical eyebrow at how the details of the Government's compromise scheme over home extensions will work. But there's no doubt that Eric Pickles, who has cobbled it all together, has calmed some quivering nerves. Earlier this week, a Tory backbench revolt over CLG's original proposal cut the Government's majority to 27. Zac Goldsmith, one of the rebellion's ringleaders, tells today's Daily Telegraph that the Communities Secretary's approach is sensible: "Crucially it protects people's right to object, which has always been a red line for me. I'm pleased the Government has listened to concerns."
Pickles isn't being blamed for the original snarl-up. Indeed, it was his appeal to backbenchers, made from the despatch box itself, that soothed the revolt. The Communities Secretary isn't always an emollient figure, but the former Bradford Council leader is a veteran fixer, and friends tell me that he relished the chance to go to the chamber and quell an upset. He was in a marvellous position to do so because Conservative MPs, rightly or wrongly, don't blame him for the original plans: they point the finger at George Osborne. I wouldn't claim for a moment that Pickles encouraged them to do so, but his CLG team is very cool about some of the Treasury's more fervent schemes for growth.
Nick Boles is widely seen as an exception - as a committed ally of the Treasury - but this is to simplify the position. The Planning Minister has indeed been sent into the valley of death by the Chancellor (as I've put it previously), but he's well aware that this mission puts his political life in danger, and though he believes in the cause - after all, he's backed housing growth since his Policy Exchange days - he isn't at all gung-ho about it. Indeed, he didn't seek to go above Pickles's head and appeal to Osborne over the climbdown, and played his part in trying to head off the backbench uprising. But since he's seen as the Treasury's man, he was far less well placed to do so than wily old Pickles.
This week's news from Fitch is a reminder of how desparate Osborne is for growth, and how apprehensive Ministers can be when the quest for it raises thorny questions about principle and practice. Let me raise just one: if localism means anything, is it right not to allow them local discretion over planning practice on, say, ground floor home extensions? Different people will answer in different ways, but the question is legitimate. My own view is that Osborne is more sinned against than sinning when it comes to clashes with other Ministers over growth - that he's on the right side of the argument over housing, airports, infrastructure and green taxes (though he must take a big share of the blame for ensnaring the party in green excesses in opposition).
Which isn't to say that the Treasury's original plans were correct in this particular case. But the resistance of backbenchers to development on their patches, the ambiguity of the Liberal Democrats (some of whom are pushing More Garden Cities Now), the lateness of part of the Treasury push and the long timetable for building houses conspire against the Chancellor getting big housing growth in the little-more-than-two-year-period between now and the general election. If the present moment was the start of a new Parliament, there's little doubt what Osborne could and perhaps would do: cut the rise of spending further in order to cut taxes further. But we aren't there, and it's hard to see where a big upturn is going to come from.
By Tim Montgomerie
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Yesterday morning I blogged some general thoughts on Cameron's immigration speech that he'll give later today. We now have some more detail on the PM's prepared remarks.
His speech will have three themes overall: (i) Cutting immigrants' access to benefits; (ii) ending 'something for nothing' benefits'; and (iii) cracking down on illegal immigration.
By Paul Goodman
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Max Hastings is a former working colleague of Simon Jenkins - the two wrote a gripping book together on the Falklands War - and a former President of the Campaign to Preserve Rural England. So it is scarcely surprising that he sees eye to eye with his old friend about the desire of Nick Boles, the Planning Minister, to build more homes outside cities and suburbs as well as within them. In today's Mail, he describes Boles as "clever, plausible and charming" , but this turns out to be only the feint before the knife is plunged deep between the Planning Minister's ribs. For Boles is also "willing to say, or do, almost anything to advance himself", not to mention crushing "local opinion and expertise" beneath his "jackboots".
I don't know exactly where the Planning Minister is planting his jackboots this morning, but I have spoken to sources close to the Department. They can't comment on the individual cases raised, but point out that a crucial question will be whether the councils concerned have the five year land supply to meet their housing need - which councils are require to have under the National Planning Policy Framework which together with its presumption in favour of sustainable development the National Trust, of which Jenkins is Chairman, apparently supported, along with the CPRE (claims my source, who also disputes Hastings's figures on the amount of land built on in any way).
But regardless of the cases Hastings raises, it should be remembered that Boles's main new housing scheme does not, repeat not, force new homes on unwilling local communities. Rather, it seeks to offer neighbourhood groups a slice of the Community Infrastructure Levy in return for approving development plans. I'm a bit dubious about whether the Treasury will (or can afford to) put enough money into the plan to make it work, but the image of Boles goose-stepping across England's green and pleasant land is just a little exaggerated. The Planning Minister is trying to ensure that younger people get the homes that older people, such as Hastings and Sir Simon, already enjoy, and all power to his elbow, not to mention boots.
By Paul Goodman
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Buried away in the Financial Times's (£) story this morning about a "joint appearance on the eve of the Budget" that David Cameron and Nick Clegg will apparently make - to "make several announcements, including shared equity schemes, social housing and support for first-time buyers" - was the following detail:
At the housing launch, Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg will also promise new “garden towns”, more flats above shops and an expanded private rented sector.
Now it may well be that the reference to garden towns in the appearance will be vague, that no dogs will bark, and that the caravans will move on. However, this may not be so - in which case while there may be no electoral risk to the Liberal Democrats, there will most certainly be one to the Conservative Party.
The Financial Times's story links back to an earlier piece in the paper which reported Nick Boles's speech in which the Planning Minister declared that the percentage of green land that should be built on should increase from 9 to 12 per cent. The paper noted that Clegg had recently promised “garden cities and suburbs for the 21st century”.
I'm all for more infrastructure spending on road and rail (though very sceptical indeed about HS2), nuclear power stations, and airports - though the big decision on the latter has been postponed until after 2015. Housebuilding has its part to play, too, and I like Boles's localist ideas, which draw on the work of Policy Exchange.
There's more to come: the think-tank is shortly to produce recommendations about self-build. But we're at the wrong point of the political cycle for any big move on garden towns or cities.
The time to begin undertaking a project of this kind as at the beginning of a Parliamentary cycle, not in the middle of it. Any such scheme will build few homes, if any, but lose of votes - oh, and discredit any further garden town or city proposals, probably for quite some time. To borrow a phrase from Douglas Hurd, David Cameron should give this madness a miss.