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Right to Buy: Aspiration or Social Cleansing?

Another day, another dramatic, divisive social policy. The Conservatives are pushing ahead with plans to extend ‘right to buy’- traditionally the right of long term council tenants to buy their homes – to tenants of housing associations. It is a dramatic pledge, as this will extend the right to some 1.3 million tenants of social housing. Housing Associations are charities that manage social housing, and, as historically they have been prevented from selling off their stock, they have provided a valuable source of social housing in a time when elsewhere this is rapidly depleting.

Not anymore. Cheerfully rubbishing critics who say this is just another nail in the coffin of social housing, the Conservatives have said on the contrary this is a policy to benefit the ‘aspirational’ working class, allowing long term social tenants who have the means to do so the chance to become first time home owners. The Conservative press proudly proclaim this pledge will give 1.3 million families “the security of a home of their own. So this generation of Conservatives can proudly say it: the dream of a property-owning democracy is alive – and we will fulfil it.”

To encourage this property owning utopia, the Conservatives have pledged large discounts to housing association tenants wishing to buy their homes – some £77,900 for a property outside London and £103,900 in London. This will be funded by a distinct policy of requiring local authorities to sell off their most expensive properties as they become vacant, which the administration considers would raise £4.5 billion per year. The revenue will partly be used to pay for the extension of Right to Buy, but will also fund a commitment to replace properties sold on a ‘one-for-one’ basis, to prevent diminution of housing stock, and to create a £1 billion ‘Brownfield’ Regeneration Fund.

As housing associations and charities have pointed out, this will of course exacerbate the already critical lack of social housing stock in the UK. The impact will be twofold – not only can housing association properties now be sold off to private individuals, but this will be financed by requiring local authorities to sell their most expensive vacant properties. The will be most fiercely felt in London, as it more or less amounts to a mandate to local authorities to sell off much of their already diminished social housing stock in central and inner London. Imagine the families who have been waiting years for a home, often in temporary accommodation, only to see the most popular properties being boarded up for sale as soon as they become vacant.

As David Orr of the National Housing Federation points out: “We don’t just lose one rented home, but two. Two rented homes lost to social renting forever to allow one lucky household to own a home.” The government’s promise to rebuild social housing on a ‘one-to-one basis’ offers little comfort, as under previous Right to Buy schemes, only 1 house was replaced for every 10 local authority houses sold despite similar assurances. Total stock of social housing has fallen by £1.4 million (26%) since 1981 – while the proportion of dwellings in the social sector has fallen from 31% to 18%.

The sale of these properties would reduce the availability of social housing in the most expensive areas, thereby creating divisions between areas where richer and poorer households are located. The existing lack of social housing has meant that Housing Benefit has picked up an increasing portion of the bill for supporting low-income households in expensive areas. But with the introduction of new household benefit caps, compounding the problems already caused by the previous cap and the “bedroom tax”, the ability of housing benefit to fund low income families living in expensive areas will be reduced still further. This, along with spiralling rents and the lack of a political will to cap rents and make London properties affordable, will inevitably lead to even greater segregation between the rich and the poor. Even post Nzolameso, local authorities also continue to pursue policies to place homelessness applicants out of borough, though their focus now seems to be more on how to justify this rather than stop it from happening. It seems that this new Right to Buy policy will only serve to exacerbate the ongoing problem of low income families being unable to afford any accommodation in London and therefore of the capital being effectively “socially cleansed”

All this, and to benefit whom? Certainly not the Housing Associations themselves – this enforced sale of their stock could result in a significant reduction in their assets and income stream. They are not happy.

And the potential home owners? The National Housing Federation estimates that out of the 1.3 million eligible tenants of social housing, only 221,000 tenants will actually have the financial means to exercise the right to buy. And of these how many will want to do so? The “dream” of owning a home is often a perceived rather than a real aspiration – many do not wish to be burdened with a mortgage and the fiscal uncertainty inherent in owning property. It seems there is a very real danger that ever increasing numbers of council housing stock will be sold off throughout the country to fund a scheme that may well not ever take off.

This policy demonstrates nothing more than a misunderstanding of the nature of the housing crisis – it is not the question of who owns the homes but of the lack of affordable and social housing that so desperately needs to be addressed.

The government and the right wing press have chosen the high ground of simplistic, reductive narrative, arguing that critics of these policies are critics of ‘aspiration’. However, as Jeremy Corbyn has recently pointed out ‘“That’s not aspiration. It’s an aspiration for everyone to have somewhere decent to live!”