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Simon Hughes cements his position as the Lib Dems' Coalition-sceptic-in-chief

By Jonathan Isaby

HUGHES SIMON 2 Saturday am update:

Simon Hughes' latest salvo on social housing comes in an interview with the South London Press, which has been picked up by the Next Left blog. The Lib Dem deputy leader says:

"The local housing authority should be free to say that they are not going to grant the Right to Buy, just as the Welsh have done. I represent a constituency with more council tenants than anywhere else in England. We have lost thousands of homes and we can not afford to lose more.

"Right to Buy was a Tory policy and I accept it would be difficult to agree a national policy. But the Conservatives are signed up, like us, to give more power to local councils and it could give them the right to say no to 'right to buy' when there is a desperate shortage of rented accommodation".


We covered this morning the pronouncement by David Cameron in Birmingham yesterday that a council house should not necessarily be for life for new tenancies in the future.

But the Lib Dem deputy leader, Simon Hughes, has been unequivocally critical of the idea.

He has told the BBC:

"It's a prime ministerial idea - it has no more validity yet and I think our party would need a lot of persuading that it has merit or could work."

"I think the Prime Minister is entitled to float any idea he likes but we have to be clear it is not a Liberal Democrat policy, it is not a coalition policy, it is not in the election manifesto of either party, it was not in the coalition agreement.

"The message just has to get out this is now being floated by the Prime Minister - if he wants to pursue it then there are the proper channels to do so. We're very happy to have the discussion."

His suggestion that it was simply the Prime MInister floating an idea is rather tenuous, given that Housing Minister Grant Shapps used interviews this morning to echo the Prime Minister's call when he said:

"It seems crazy that we spend billions of pounds on affordable homes and we carry on doing that whether the person in the home is actually in need or not. That isn't efficient use of the housing we have in this country."

All this goes to underline that Hughes intends being a very vocal and visible sceptic about the Coalition. Moreover, it serves to illustrate, the difficulties ahead for the Government when it comes to making policy outside of that included in the formal Coalition agreement.

6pm update: Hughes' tone was less confrontational when interviewed later in the afternoon by the BBC:

"We need to make sure that people don't continue in housing that is excess to their needs when actually they would be better off, life would be cheaper, and they would be more comfortable somewhere else.

"So we need to work out ways, and many councils have already thought of this, to incentivise people to move from accommodation thats too big, releasing it for other families."

"We are a party open to debates about these issues. We have never said that there isn't an issue we are unhappy to debate and the prime minister is quite entitled to float an idea. But the debate hasn't happened extensively within the coalition."


Meanwhile, in his column for The Times (£) today, Daniel Finkelstein emphasises that the Lib Dems had no realistic option but to go into Coalition with the Conservatives:  

"It is true that opinion polls show the Lib Dems being squeezed. The junior partner in a coalition often finds it hard going. But there is only one way that the Lib Dems could have avoided this problem. They could have avoided it by never holding power at all. They could have clung on to their 20 per cent or so then. But what on earth would be the point?"

"The price of joining with Labour might well have been greater. In May Labour lost the election, had an incredibly unpopular and uncooperative leader, and couldn’t have formed a majority government even with the Lib Dems... If Mr Clegg had gone in with Labour in these circumstances, it is hard to see any circumstances in which he would not have gone in with Labour. And if there were to be no circumstances in which the Liberal Democrats would go in with anyone but Labour, what would be the point of them as an independent party? ...What Labour was offering the Lib Dems wasn’t a higher poll rating, it was extinction."


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