Buying votes

Well we wanted housing to be a hot election issue and so it has become, but perhaps not in the way we anticipated.

Extending the Right to Buy to 1.3 million housing association tenants (around 25 percent already have a preserved right to buy) had been trailed for months, but it was still a shock when it appeared in the Conservative manifesto yesterday morning. My first reaction was: what’s the bloody point? All this campaigning, writing, lobbying, tweeting and yet Conservative policy makers still go ahead with an illiterate, uncosted, unworkable and possibly illegal proposal. Have we all been wasting our time? This was reflected in the letter sent out by David Orr yesterday which was suffused with a sense of despair that the Federation’s “behind the scenes” lobbying had come to nothing.

After the anger had subsided I started to read what others had written about this proposal and sketched out my own thoughts.

The first and major issue for me is that the Conservative Party, taken as a whole, has little or no interest in, or understanding of, housing policy, and especially social housing. When it comes to the crunch they think that the only solution to housing problems is home ownership and a free market and cannot understand why anyone would choose to rent from a council or housing association, just as Margaret Thatcher felt that any man over a certain age travelling on a bus was a failure. The proud housing legacy of Harold Macmillan appears to have evaporated from Conservative thinking.

The trouble is that if you oppose the Right to Buy you are labeled as anti-aspirational, never mind those people who aspire to live in social housing and who will see the chance growing smaller month by month. Never mind the almost two million households on waiting lists and the millions living in grotty private rented homes who would love the chance to live in social housing. Never mind the millions who are likely to end up renting one of these sold places in the future at a rent that is massively higher than its present rent. Never mind the fact that you are gifting up to £100,000 to people who are already well housed and have had the benefit of years of low rents compared to their private sector neighbours. Trawling through RightMove yesterday I found numerous ex-Council flats, some on the Regent’s Park estate that I used to manage, where the current market rents are four or five times the equivalent social rent. Someone has made and is making huge profits from these ex-public assets, and it’s not right.

Is anyone opposed to home ownership? As far as I am concerned everyone should have the right to buy their own home if that is what they want, just as everyone should have the right to eat at The Ritz every day if they want to. But it’s not going to happen. Unlike clothing, cars and consumer durables we do not have a free market in homes. All the evidence shows, and many of us have been banging on about this for years, that the private sector, left to its own devices, simply cannot provide the homes that are needed to meet the desire for home ownership. The main reason for this is that a restrictive planning system stops us building the homes we need and this system is shored up by the anti-development individuals, groups and politicians who are, paradoxically, more likely to be Conservative voters as not. So these “free marketeers” create a system where a free market in homes is impossible and then make it worse by selling off the social housing stock that could help to solve the problem.

That’s the political rant out of the way, but what about the practical issues? On the global accounts of housing associations there sit £46 billion of grant and £58.6 billion of loans, secured against homes. If properties are being forcibly sold lenders will start to enforce covenants, withdraw from housing association lending and force up interest rates. The cost to the sector will be enormous and will smash the principles of the 1988 Housing Act, put in place by a Conservative government. There are also doubts about the legality of organisations with charitable objectives being allowed to sell stock at a discount. At this very moment M’Learned friends will be rubbing their hands in anticipation of the hefty legal fees that will flow from the legal challenges to this policy.

The idea is that councils will sell off 15,000 high value properties each year to create a fund of £4.5 billion, half of which goes towards reclaiming brownfield sites, while the balance pays off the grant on sold properties, pays for the discount and replaces the sold property with a new affordable home. That’s simply not going to happen and the fact that only one in ten sold properties are currently being replaced (and not on a like-for-like basis) is evidence that this is not going to happen. And will the 15,000 lost council homes also be replaced? Highly unlikely. It also means that London and the south-east will subsidise the north, the very issue that the Conservatives are criticising Labour for over the Mansion Tax. It is an extremely short-sighted policy to make councils sell off valuable stock, which has been one of the best forms of public investment ever, and has created vibrant and mixed communities in the heart of London and other cities.

The final point is that this policy announcement has caused something of a schism in the sector. Already Generation Rent has left the Homes for Britain campaign. Placeshapers Group say “the gloves are off”. But there has been relative silence from some of the larger associations who have been flirting with a more commercial approach. Just to be clear, Right to Buy 2, and the notion of selling off valuable council stock, comes straight from the brain of Alex Morton at Policy Exchange. Those larger housing providers that have been giving financial support to Policy Exchange and supporting other think tanks making similar proposals really should take a deep breath and re-consider their approach. If you flirt with these people you will be sucked into a commercial vortex from which you will not escape unharmed. My plea to them would be come back into the fold. The only credible and safe place for housing associations to be occupying just now is the ground occupied by Placeshapers and the SHOUT campaign, fighting for genuine affordable housing and a pivotal role for public investment in housing.

(First published at Inside Housing 15th April 2015)

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