Comment: Right to Buy might win votes – but it will make the housing crisis worse

By Frances Brill

Yesterday David Cameron announced an expansion of The Right to Buy. This expansion means the policy now includes housing associations. Some 1.3 million more people will be entitled to buy their social housing.

Right to Buy was one of the most successful political strategies of the twentieth century. Granting long term council house tenants the right to buy their homes effectively converted lifelong Labour supporters to vote for Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives in the 1980s. The policy cashed in on the British homeownership fetish and meant the working classes of Britain could get on the property ladder. It forever changed the British political landscape, as Thatcher boasted to her Labour rivals. Thousands of Labour supporters would now vote for the new party of the working family: the Conservatives.

Yesterday's expansion builds on this. The Conservative manifesto and the speeches which accompanied it emphasised the 'working', the 'British' and the 'family'. It means 1.3 million more people previously locked out of the housing market have a way in. The National Housing Federation estimated the policy will cost £5.8 billion a year, which the Conservatives hope to finance by forcing local authorities to sell their most valuable houses when they become vacant. The Conservatives believe there are 15,000 such homes a year.

Right to Buy was also the most disastrous housing policy the UK has adopted. It lead to the depletion of social housing stock, undermined the idea of the welfare state as a safety net and drove up the housing market beyond the means of many. Selling off social housing also meant the properties which remained were the least desirable: the ones no-one wanted, often in poor condition. Overall it lead to a fall in the average quality of social housing and further stigmatised those who live in it. The only way to save social housing is to build more social housing – something the Conservatives have failed to do. Since 2010 they have sold 26,000 homes and built only 2,998.

The extension of the Right to Buy has three main flaws: it fundamentally undermines the welfare state, it privileges social housing renters over private renters and it goes against previous Conservative messages.

The Conservatives have promoted themselves as the party of devolution. In 2010 they passed the localism bill: the beginning of devolving powers. They tried to give local councils more authority. This is completely undermined by the new Right to Buy. The new policy results in national government dictating what local authorities must do to their housing stock and any profits earned.

Housing stock can be very valuable in the UK. The question the Conservatives asked themselves is why the state should own land which could instead be sold and the money used elsewhere. But the requirement to sell a certain number of houses will artificially deflate these property values, reducing the potential money the state could make while still not being sufficiently affordable to act as homes for those most in need. It will be a Westminster-dictated policy which undermines regional nuances and local authority power.

The policy doesn’t even make sense in relation to Conservative efforts over this parliament. The bedroom tax was the Conservatives' first attempt to fix social housing. To incentivise a more efficient allocation of resources, those with unoccupied rooms in their social housing were fined weekly. Those who needed homes and had them inefficiently allocated by the state were penalised by the same state which organised it. Right to Buy, on the other hand, offers more positive view of social housing tenants. It presents them as hard working and deserving and it helps them. It is a clear flip in attitude towards those in social housing.

Secondly, selling off council homes and housing association properties to their renters, at discounted rates, privileges those renting outside of the private sector. This is especially important in areas which already suffer from a lack of social housing, since those living there are already more likely to be renting privately and thus less likely to be able to realise the British dream of homeownership.

Thirdly, the selling off of social housing fundamentally undermines the role of the welfare state. If the welfare state is there to protect people when they need it – to give everybody a certain quality of life and the basic necessities – then housing provision must be included. Further reducing the stock of social housing will increase competition for the remaining homes and mean the state will be incapable of helping people when they have nothing left to turn to.

The Right to Buy extension is another example of where Conservative housing policy could be an effective political tool but fails to grapple with housing affordability and provision. The Confederation of British Industry and property developers Jones Lang LaSalle have both warned the policy will fail to address the chronic situation the British housing market faces.

It could convert more voters, especially the working class voters the Conservatives fear they are losing, but the price will be high. There will be fewer homes left for those most in need and the properties left will be the least preferred. The wait for a property will grow, leaving people in precarious positions for longer.

Frances Brill is a PhD candidate at UCL. She is involved with Civic Voice, writes for the Global Urbanist and tweets from @fnbee22.

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