Dispatches from the 2021 party conferences

Kate Henderson, 07 October 2021

There is always a certain back to school feel to party conference season, perhaps even more so this year after a two year hiatus of in-person political events. While attendance was definitely much lower than in previous years, politicians, party activists, business leaders and campaigners were undoubtedly pleased to see colleagues and friends after such a long time.

First for the NHF Team was a two-day stint in a squally Brighton. I was pleased to meet a variety of MPs from the Labour Party, from Ed Miliband and Bridget Phillipson, to Meg Hillier and Mike Amesbury, to discuss local constituency issues, sustainability, building safety and housing quality. 

As ever, there was clear support for social housing across the board and in her address to conference delegates, Shadow Housing Secretary, Lucy Powell committed that housing would be “at the heart of the battle for Downing Street”.

Among a series of proposed policies Lucy Powell pledged to reform CPO powers, rethink the definition of affordability, and increase the numbers of social homes. In a move to take the fight to the government’s door, the Shadow Secretary of State also made a bid to reposition Labour as a party of home ownership with new commitments for first time buyers.

Next, to Manchester, where the convention centre earlier this week was bustling with the “new” 2019 election intake, many of whom were enjoying their very first conference experience.

Following a recent cabinet reshuffle, and ahead of the Spending Review announcement later this month, it was unsurprising that there were fewer major policy announcements at this year’s event. Michael Gove used his first speech as the Secretary of State for the newly formed Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (widely shortened to D-luck) to broadly define levelling up as meaning four things: strengthening local leadership, raising living standards, improving public services, and enhancing a sense of pride in place.

Michael Gove also said that his department would invest in urban regeneration with ‘new homes on neglected brownfield sites’, a ‘better deal for those in social housing’, and helping those who currently rent to own their own homes. And notably, the Secretary of State also committed to ‘keeping faith’ with the victims of the Grenfell tragedy by making our homes ‘safer and greener’, and by sharing the costs of this ‘more fairly’.

His speech very much touched upon the themes we had discussed at our first introductory meeting at Marsham Street the week before. I was pleased to have had the chance to talk to him face-to-face before the conference about the sector’s ambitions on supply and net zero, how housing must play a central role in the levelling up agenda, and our ongoing commitment and concerns around building safety. 

What was particularly striking about both party conferences was the clear focus on net zero and decarbonisation. Conference fringe events were overwhelmingly focused on sustainability, including the NHF’s own sessions at both conferences.

I was pleased to hear first-hand at our events from the Shadow Housing Minister and BEIS Minister, Lord Callanan, that both parties understand the significant gains that could be made in focusing on retrofitting and decarbonising homes.

Even more pleasingly, both representatives seemed to understand how crucial it is to prioritise making homes more sustainable to create jobs, support local economies and, vitally, ensure people on the lowest incomes have warmer homes that are cheaper to run. This was good to hear in the week where so many families’ finances have gone from precarious to desperate.

It is now for us to make the case that housing associations can lead the way in making the country’s housing greener, not only to tackle the climate emergency, but also to help make communities stronger.

I was also able to meet Michael Gove recently to discuss building safety, levelling up, the supply of affordable homes, quality and net zero.