The by-election in Oldham and Saddleworth on Thursday will not mean much in the long-term, but it will be the first short-term public verdict on the performance of the coalition.
I say ‘public’ because in private there seems plenty of verdicts already being drawn up.
Vince Cable and his colleagues made it quite clear what they thought of many Tories in the Daily Telegraph’s sting operation; likewise there are rumblings on Conservative benches about too much ground being given away to Lib Dems on Europe and civil liberties.
But where is the coalition, and where is the comment, when it comes to housing?
It strikes me that Eric Pickles and Grant Shapps, both amongst the more strident of the Conservatives in government, are carrying out their party manifesto to the letter without any apparent concession to the Liberal Democrats. There has been the occasional mutter of concern about housing benefit reform from Lib-Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes, but he has fallen silent since taking a coalition role to market higher fees to poorer students.
This ‘one party, no compromise’ approach to housing contrasts actively with the give and take we are told happens in most other parts of government.
We have had a series of Conservative manifesto housing promises honoured, such as:
- reducing expenditure on housing benefits;
- scrapping of regional planning processes and housing targets;
- relaxation of small-scale planning regulations;
- introducing development incentives and veto powers for communities;
- promoting self-build as a major component of overall house building.
But where are the Liberal Democrat promises? They may have not been to the property industry's tastes but, in every other department, such promises have been at least taken into consideration. I'm talking about ones like:
- keeping Home Information Packs;
- reducing or scrapping Right to Buy;
- a mansion tax on homes worth £2m and above;
- building “tens of thousands of affordable homes to rent”;
- introducing VAT on new homes;
- controlling the numbers of second homes through planning powers.
No doubt Liberal Democrats will say their influence has changed the coalition’s housing policies in the past eight months. But if you read the Conservative manifesto for the 2010 election, it looks very much like the list of initiatives we have seen since May.
Do the Lib Dems not care about the issue, or do they now agree with the Conservatives?
It clearly matters little to Oldham and Saddleworth voters as polls suggest the party most likely to win is Labour - which has said next to nothing about housing since the election. Housing, it seems, is something most parties simply aren’t interested in....
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