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By Graham Norwood

Editor, LAT & LLT

Graham Awards


Right To Buy - what on earth is government playing at?

What a difference two months and some local elections make.

Cast your minds back to March 9 and the annual report of the Chartered Institute of Housing. Did you not read it? Well here’s a summary of part of it.

It reported that the results of in-depth research it conducted into Right To Buy showed that the initiative, first introduced under Margaret Thatcher four decades ago, had led to a decline in the size and success of the social rent sector.


And that far from boosting private ownership and owner-occupation, as had been promised by original advocates of the idea, the CIH research showed that some 40 per cent of homes purchased under Right To Buy - that’s around 1.1m - were actually now being let out by private landlords.

On top of that there were a raft of social consequences of Right To Buy, such as widening inequality as those council tenants unable to buy their properties were increasingly ghettoized.

The shortcomings were exacerbated, the CIH said, by restrictions on reinvesting the capital receipts from Right To Buy in new council or social housing.

The report didn’t mince its words, stating: “Right To Buy has become a strategic failure in England and, unless reconsidered, the policy will continue to generate uneven spatial and social impacts, contributing to social disadvantage and exacerbating inequalities.”

Fast forward to a few days ago and the government’s pledge, released a few days before the local elections, to extend Right To Buy to housing associations - the very social housing sector squeezed as a result of the original RTB initiative.

Notwithstanding the fact that the Conservatives have announced similar schemes in recent years without actually implementing them, the latest version would push hitherto-reluctant housing associations into selling stock at deeply discounted prices to tenants.

This is despite social housing waiting lists in England alone exceeding one million (according to government figures) with 96,000 families in temporary accommodation - including well over 100,000 children. And - again according to government figures - junder 6,000 social housing units built last year.

We can imagine the upcoming rhetoric, of course.

The new Right To Buy will be accompanied by a pledge to build replacement homes that will be even better; that increasing the proportion of the housing stock that is owner occupied will give more people incentive to improve the quality and energy efficiency of those homes; and that why should predominantly lower-paid housing association tenants be denied the ownership possibilities already enjoyed by mostly wealthier existing owners.

All that’s well and good, and if there was a guarantee of these things happening, the consequences of pushing Right To Buy for housing associations might well be acceptable.

But history suggests that those things do not happen - even under governments which would appear more capable than the current tractor-watching party-going administration.

There are, perhaps, two glimmers of hope.

The first takes the unlikely form of Michael Gove, the current Housing Secretary. As recently as late last month he made what appears an impassioned call for more - not less - social housing.

He told a Shelter conference: “We’ve reached a situation for a variety of reasons where...the availability of social housing is simply inadequate for any notion of social justice or economic efficiency.

“The quality of the private rented sector, the circumstances in which people find themselves, the inadequacy of so many of those homes, the fragility and vulnerability that so many people find in their daily lives ... is insupportable and indefensible ... that is a function of broader supply questions, but it is also a critical function of our failure to ensure that there are homes that are genuinely affordable for rent, our failure to ensure that there are more social homes.

“If we want to have functioning communities, if we want to have our cities and towns having places where key workers and individuals who keep our public services going can ensure that they have a decent roof over their heads and raise a family in stability and security, then we need more social homes.”

Never doubt a politician’s ability to twist 180 degrees in the wind, especially if an election or Cabinet reshuffle might be in the offing, but is Gove really likely to abandon that pledge within a few weeks of making it?

The second glimmer of hope is that we have, of course, been here before - and nothing happened last time, so why should it this time?

Back in 2015, again in the lead up to an election, then-Prime Minister David Cameron came out with a similar initiative to extend Right To Buy to housing associations, saying: “Let the message ring out from this generation of Conservatives: you’ve worked hard, you’ve saved, the home you live in, it’s yours to buy, yours to own – the dream of a property-owning democracy is alive – and we will fulfil it.”

The Conservatives went on to win that election and, bogged down by the consequences of Brexit, failed to do anything: will this administration - still bogged down by Brexit, and a whole lot more these days - be any more pro-active?

For the sake of those one million households on the current social housing waiting list, you have to hope not.

*Editor of Letting Agent Today and Landlord Today, Graham can be found tweeting about all things property at @PropertyJourn

  • Algarve  Investor

    Disastrous policy in the 80s, still disastrous now. Smacks of a government running out of ideas, if they actually had any in the first place. If the results y'day are anything to go by, they might also be running out of time.


    Total rubbish, you don't have the first clue what you're talking about. Neither the Government, the media, opposition, or the average loudmouth champagne socialist, all continually warbling on about this subject for the past 40 years have a clue, quite simply, because they don't understand the lifestyles, mentalities, and demographics of people who live in social housing. The figures reported are almost always misleading, or flat out wrong, and delivered without context that is vital to understanding. The conclusions drawn are invariably wrong, such as in this article. Even the fundamental basics.

    These are the facts;

    - Less than 8% of social properties ever built have ended up in the private rental sector.

    - 'Sell off' figures quoted almost always include those where councils voluntarily transferred their stock to housing associations and non profits, for a quick buck and to remove their own obligations. In other words, stupidity.

    - The properties sold in these mass transfers crucially, CRUCIALLY, don't include any loss of rights for the tenants. They still hold assured tenancies, and all the rights they held previously. For all intents and purposes, they are STILL council properties. In fact, if you surveyed every social tenant in the country, a significant amount of them wouldn't even understand the distinction. Many wouldn't even know that their properties had been transferred, they still refer to their landlords as 'the council'. Yet the media still report this as a 'sell off of council housing'.

    - Councils openly lied to transfer these properties. They couldn't get rid of them fast enough.

    - What instigated all of this? The obligations put on councils by New Labour's Decent Homes Standard in the late 90's and early 2000's (which the Tories are currently trying to appropriate).

    - When a council property IS sold, the council have first right of refusal to buy it back for 10 years afterwards and can block any attempted sale to anyone else. If you do offer it to the council, then it is valued by.... their own valuer. Way below market value. You then have the right to appeal. So it goes to... their own valuer again. Who reassess their original decision. If you refuse their below market offer, then they veto any other sale for a decade. They buy less than 1% of properties sold back.

    The whole narrative around this is, quite simply, propaganda in preperation for the removal of RTB. The private rental sector will become more corporatised, and in 20 years there will be no distinction between council properties and private rentals. Small portfolio landlords will be out of there, and every tenant will rent from an association backed by a large bank's REIT or fund. The richest and most influential will have full control over the only asset that the average person can realistically use to build wealth, and every champagne socialist will still be blaming it on Thatcher.

  • Suzy OShea

    If anyone is unwise enough to think that the great fire-sale of council homes in the 1980s was for the benefit of Council Tenants, under MT administration, I would ask them to look at the underlying cause for this. The stock of social housing was in such parlous state due to under-investment and abuse of the facilities by many of the rogue tenants living there, including the vandalism of the bored youths living on the estates, that to put this right would have sunk the government financially or rather the tax payers. How do you get tenants to respect their living environment? Make them owner occupiers. Then you can raise their services charges for the required repairs and you have a whole private police force to report any abuse of the facilities by delinquent youths. So the government raised lots of money, which they were and are never going to invest in more social housing stock, MT was seen as a huge enabler of property ownership in Britain when the numbers owning properties rose to over 60%, the highest ever, and not tax rises were required. Great solution for that generation. Of course, property owners move on and sell on to the next buyer, many of whom were buy to let landlords, looking for subsidized properties to buy. The fact that 1.1 million of these properties are still part of the PRS is also a triumph of sorts.

    If you want a functioning social housing system, to keep key workers in the towns and cities that need them, then you have to build small, manageable developments, not estates, they have to be properly managed with penalties for breaking the rules for renting there, which must include vandalism. It will be expensive and force taxes up. Who is going to pay those taxes. Allowing right to buy after people have shown a good track record is not a bad principle since it spreads responsibility.

    I don't know why tenants of social housing in England are often so ungrateful to have their homes, that they will not defend them in reporting delinquent behaviour. Still with security cameras this problem can be solved.


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