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14.10.13

Conservative Party Conference 2013

Source: Public Sector Executive Sept/Oct 2013

Adam Hewitt reports from the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester.

For hardworking people’ was the unavoidable phrase at the Conservative Party Conference this year – the words were in every speech, every soundbite, every press release and written in huge letters up on the wall and at the conference centre’s entrance. 

The message seems designed to subconsciously implant the idea that the other parties, specifically Labour, are not for hardworking people – ‘strivers versus shirkers’. 

The conference’s main announcements focused on this debate, such as the proposal to cut benefits eligibility for anyone under 25 who is not ‘earning or learning’, bringing forward the second phase of Help to Buy, and new welfare cuts to help bring about a budget surplus if the Conservatives win the next election.

Outside the hall 

As always, the real debate and the best ideas at the conference could be found not in the main hall but around the fringe. 

Among the sessions attended by the PSE team was an interesting debate on the future of social housing, hosted by Policy Exchange. 

Welfare reform minister Lord Freud discussed direct payments in the social housing sector and getting landlords to help tenants with “basic lifestyle skills” like budgeting and food preparation. He said: “We’re moving to a position where a minority of people in social housing are in work.” 

He said there was a “misallocation of resource” because of under-supply of single-bedroom social housing, adding: “I’d like to see housing associations building the homes we need, because clearly we have got a misallocation. We’re sending the wrong message.” 

But Mark Henderson, CEO of Home Group, said there’s a perception that social housing is misused, but “that’s actually very rare”, and discussed the financing of new social housing. He said there should be more joint venture partnerships and other new delivery vehicles. 

Grainia Long, who leads the Chartered Institute of Housing, noted that housing associations have billions of pounds of debt that has to be funded through rents and that the sector plays a “phenomenal” economic role. 

When managed well, social housing can reduce burdens on the NHS and care systems, on the criminal justice systems and improve society in other ways. 

She noted a shift from capital support to revenue support for social housing, and asked: “Is that shift the best form of value for money for the taxpayer? No – there needs to be a better balance.” 

Selling off high-value social housing 

Alex Morton, head of housing and planning at Policy Exchange, called it a “natural desire” to own your own home, and said the current social housing policy environment was the “worst of both worlds” – not a proper market, but not a properly centrally-planned system either. 

He called for sell-offs of higher-value social housing to fund new housebuilding, which could be funded through better-planned new estates. He said: “We built a lot of very bad estates…we could replace those estates with new homes, rehouse every tenant and pay for it by selling private homes on the land”.

He said the Policy Exchange proposal would prevent a decline in social housing standards by capping both the top and bottom of the market – selling off social housing that was in the top 50% by value in an area, but ensuring the newly built properties were not valued in the bottom 25% either. 

The other panellists and many in the audience disputed the merits of that policy, set out in full in a policy paper last summer, ‘Ending Expensive Social Tenancies’. 

PSE heard more about health service reform at two events covering different aspects of the changes – ‘Clinical Commissioning Groups: How are they working out?’ hosted by Conservative Health, and ‘Commercialising Innovation In The NHS’, put on by think tank 2020health and the NHS Partners Network. 

Full reports from both events can be found online at the website of our sister publication in the health service, NHE: www.nationalhealthexecutive.com 

Francis Maude ‘in conversation’ 

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude had a busy conference, and although his main speech to the conference hall was the usual tub-thumping attacks on the opposition and simplified success stories, he was in a much more reflective and expansive mood in a one-on-one interview with Lord Finkelstein. 

That event – another Policy Exchange fringe session, the recently ennobled Daniel Finkelstein is chairman of its trustees – gave Maude a chance to discuss some of his favourite themes in more detail, from transparency to the Big Society. 

Maude staunchly defended the Conservatives’ record from the 1980s, and said that advocating a smaller state does not equal a lack of compassion, as people on the left often insist. Instead, he said, society fills the gap left by the state, but does it better and without crowding out business and economic growth. People fed up with paying too much tax feel they have “contracted out their social obligations to the state…that’s a weak society”, he said. 

Maude said he wanted more local elected mayors, though accepted that more would need to be done to convince cities of their benefits – everywhere except Bristol rejected the idea at the last set of referendums. 

He spoke about Whitehall reform and decentralisation too, saying it’s not simply a case of “letting go” of power and control – it has to be “actively pushed away”. 

He was asked about public procurement – which he joked was his Mastermind specialist subject – and he said it has been designed in such a way that it has “almost deliberately” frozen out small business, something he’s determined to change (more on pages 56-61). He backed calls for ‘local by default’ on public procurement, at least for smaller contracts not subject to EU rules on open competition. 

A new approach 

Philippa Roe, leader of Westminster council, spoke in the conference hall on the need to go further on joining up services and budgets without Whitehall interference. Troubled families and integrated health and social care should be “just the start”, she said. 

Her council joined its shared service partners Kensington & Chelsea and Hammersmith & Fulham in launching a new paper at the conference, ‘The Case for a New Approach: Public Service Reform Deals’, urging more powers for local authorities. Groups of councils should be able to bid for ‘deals’ that allow them to ignore some national regulations and give them control over services currently provided by central Government departments.

In his keynote speech, communities secretary Eric Pickles avoided all mention of the challenges facing local government, instead focusing on attacking Labour profligacy and the EU. He said his own departments has cut its admin costs by £532m and was saving a further £9m by “bunking in” with the Home Office in an office share announced earlier this year. 

‘Land of opportunity’ 

Prime minister David Cameron closed the conference with a speech labelling Britain a “land of opportunity” for those who want it. The speech was widely seen as workmanlike rather than exciting, and contained little in the way of new policy, with vague promises of tax cuts to come but no detail. 

Cameron said: “I look to our future and I’m confident. There are battles to fight but beyond this hall are the millions of hardworking people who renew the great in Great Britain every day in the way they work and the way they give and raise their families. 

“These are the people we have alongside us together we’ve made it this far, together we’ll finish the job we’ve started, together we’ll build that land of opportunity.” 

Protests in Manchester 

About 50,000 people held a march in rally in Manchester on September 29 protesting against Government policies and the Conservatives’ record on the NHS, jobs and cuts. 

It was organised by the TUC, whose general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Austerity is having a devastating effect on our communities and services, with 21,000 NHS jobs lost over the last three months alone.” 

There were two arrests made at the demo, which Greater Manchester Police said was one of the largest it had ever policed.

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