Right to buy: the Tories continue their campaign to erode the welfare state

The Tories seek to revisit Thatcher's legacy with a policy that will promote social cleansing


The launch of Labour’s manifesto yesterday revealed plenty of initiatives to confront the UK’s growing housing crisis. The manifesto stresses doubling the number of homes to be built annually to 200,000; meanwhile the Tories have announced today the extension of the right-to-buy to housing associations.

The clear dividing line between the parties is Labour’s intention to expand housing supply and extend fairness, while the Tories obsess about dwindling home ownership and seek to revisit their Thatcherite legacy.

Extending the right-to-buy to the country’s 2,000 charitable housing associations, which manage around 2.5m social homes, or around 60 per cent of the total, will confirm the Tories’ aim of furthering the demise of social housing. It will be a part of a wider Tory erosion of the welfare state.

Despite Cameron’s promises to replace social housing sold under the right-to-buy on a one-for-one basis, barely one quarter of those sold since 2011 have been replaced so far.

The extension of the right-to-buy will see thousands of housing association tenants a year take up a discount that will be capped at £103,000 in London and £77,000 for the rest of England.

Looking back over the lifetime of the right-to-buy from 1980 shows that one third of ex-council homes are now in the hands of private landlords who are able to charge much higher rents, often supported by housing benefit, than the former social rents. Coincidentally, more than one quarter of Tory MPs are private landlords.

A further depletion of the social housing stock will be achieved by local councils’ being legally required to sell the most valuable and desirable 210,000 properties from their remaining housing stock. The £4.1bn generated will be used to provide cheaper social homes. So the ‘best’ council homes will be sold leaving social housing as a residual sector just for the poor. London is likely to see further social cleansing.

In contrast, Labour’s emerging housing policy seeks to enact the Lyons review, increase supply and embed fairness. Labour will create a Future Homes Fund by ensuring cash in Help to Buy ISAs is invested in new housing supply. Developers will be required to release land for house building in a new ‘use it or lose it’ powers to be given to local authorities. And smaller builders will be supported to increase competition in the house building industry.

Alongside, local councils will have to prioritise capital investment in housing and council housing financing will be reformed. Councils will be empowered to bring some of the 610,000 empty homes in England back into productive use.

The private rented sector will be reformed with minimum three-year tenancies becoming the ‘norm’ and a rent rise ceiling will be imposed. Councils will be able to negotiate rent reductions on behalf of tenants claiming housing benefit, with savings re-invested in new homes. And a national register of private landlords will be compiled, and a ban will come into effect on excessive letting agent fees.

On benefits, the bedroom tax will be abolished and a review of universal credit to check its affordability and viability will be undertaken. The total household benefit cap will be retained but the Social Security Advisory Committee will be tasked with exploring if it should be lower in some areas. Labour will also tackle the causes of homelessness and rough sleeping.

Finally, a new generation of garden cities will form part of the 200,000 new homes envisaged every year.

Kevin Gulliver is director of Birmingham-based research charity the Human City Institute and chair of the Centre for Community Research. He writes in a personal capacity

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