Right To Aspire (but still Wrong To Buy)

The Conservatives latest manifesto pledge to extend right-to-buy to housing association tenants is desk-hittingly wrong...and so is the belief that opponents of right-to-buy are enemies of aspiration.

The Conservatives latest manifesto pledge to extend right-to-buy to housing association tenants is desk-hittingly wrong…and so is the belief that opponents of right-to-buy are enemies of aspiration.

The Story

My head hurts.

Maybe it’s because my mind is struggling to comprehend why, when the CIH, NHF, PlaceShapers, and almost every professional in the UK housing sector is saying that right-to-buy needs to be abolished, restricted, or reviewed, the Conservative party have pledged to do the complete opposite and extend the policy to Housing Association properties in their latest manifesto proposal.

Maybe it’s because, since hearing the news, I’ve been banging my head against my desk in frustration. I thought the sector had a voice, now? Why is no-one listening?

Let me be clear: extending right-to-buy to Housing Associations is a bad idea and there are already a number of articles online from the likes of the CIHNHF’s David Orr (presumably approaching a manifesto-induced aneurism at this latest idiocy), PlaceShapers, and the SHOUT campaign team in response to the proposals.

The acuity of these ripostes is such that I don’t feel inclined to rant on the subject further, save to once again state you don’t solve a supply crisis by reducing supply.

I do, however, feel obliged to respond to the criticisms of the criticisers of right-to-buy…which is to say the counter-critiques?

Which is to say I feel obliged to respond to tweets like this:

It would be easy for me to dismiss this as sneering, blinkered, right-wing buffoonery, because it is, but such views in the wake of the Conservatives’ right-to-buy are not uncommon. Brandon Lewis has levelled the same charge at the sector previously, namely that enemies of right-to-buy are enemies of aspiration.

This is as flawed a view as right-to-buy is a policy.

This is my defence of attacks on right-to-buy, and why opposing right-to-buy has nothing to do with opposing aspiration; quite the opposite, in fact.

Tenets and Tenants of Tenure

Firstly, let us tackle the claim that ‘they’ – which is to say those opposed to extending right-to-buy (so, what, the entire UK housing sector?) – want people to be dependent on the state for housing.

(No, not dependant, Mr Barwell. That means something different. Careful with those homophones, champ…)

Opponents of right-to-buy are not opposed to home ownership – even SHOUT, the campaign for social housing, states in its manifesto that they think all tenures should be regarded on an equal footing, with no one tenure being thought of as inferior or superior. Indeed, it’s widely acknowledged that all tenures of housing will need to be supported if the housing crisis has any hope of being genuinely tackled.

What extending the right-to-buy policy betrays, however, is a rhetoric opposed to mixed-tenure. Homeownership is the be all and end all of this political housing conversation, with social rented stock clearly not seen as a tenure of import – indeed, more right-to-buy just contributes to the slow death of social housing, and any aspiration people had to live in such a tenure.

Quite opposed to this, opponents of right-to-buy are not opposed to home ownership, nor the aspiration to be a home owner. What they are opposed to, as Jenny Osbourne notes, is the decimation of stock.

Aspirations of Supply

Currently, right-to-buy sales are not being matched with promised one-for-one replacements. The recent CIH report Keeping Pace: Replacing Right To Buy Sales suggests that the majority of English councils surveyed (73%) expect to replace half or fewer of homes sold to right-to-buy. If that wasn’t bad enough, the latest proposal to extend right-to-buy to housing associations relies on council’s selling its most expensive properties to fund the extended proposal.

That means the loss of at least two properties – one council, one housing association – further exacerbating the negative impact of right-to-buy on housing stock levels.

To think for a moment that the sale of high-end council properties will fund replacement homes in those same areas where properties are lost to right-to-buy and fund a £1bn brownfield regeneration fund – yes, seriously; that’s the plan – is, presumably, to think that money is actually magic.

Opposing right-to-buy because the promise of one-for-one replacement isn’t happening isn’t opposing aspiration, – it’s pointing out how the policy undermines housing supply and thereby undermines the affordability of property, something which is genuinely spoiling both the aspiration to home ownership and that of having an affordable home as a social rented tenant – you can’t aspire to either without building more homes.

More homes, incidentally, are what is being called for by the CIH, NHF, and a large majority of the UK housing sector, i.e. those same bodies opposing right-to-buy – see the Homes for Britain campaign, among others. The sector want people to have somewhere to live, and recognise that for future generations to have a home more need to be built now. That’s aspirational.

Social Housing: A Platform for Aspiration

Increasingly, new housing developments – whether replacing right-to-buy sales or not – are set at ‘affordable’ rent. The quotation marks are apt – as discussed on Our Castle’s Strength previously, at up to 80% market rent affordable rent is not affordable. You don’t have to go far in the private rented sector to find stories of grossly-inflated rents which leave renting families little option to save for the future.

What does give the option for saving for the future is the genuinely affordable rent of social rented stock. The platform of social housing – which right-to-buy decimates – is precisely the background that allows those on lower incomes to live in safety and security while saving for a future where, if they desire, they can choose a different tenure, maybe even home ownership (if prices would only come down, which will only happen if we build more homes).

Encouraging the sale of genuinely affordable housing stock through right-to-buy forces more people into tenures where rent is genuinely not affordable, contributing to an increasing housing benefit bill and a financial situation where it is not possible to save sufficiently for a future deposit, which is more likely to ruin the aspiration for home ownership more than opposing right-to-buy ever would.

Conclusion

Being opposed to right-to-buy has nothing do with being opposed to aspiration, and everything to do with wanting what’s best for the sector and those it supports. Saying housing associations want people to be dependent on the state for housing is like saying the NHS want people dependent on the state for their health – i.e. it’s nonsense. Housing associations are there to provide housing support for people when they need it, but are always looking to nurture and support tenant’s long-term aspirations, whatever they might be. This support of tenant aspiration runs at the core of many local authorities and housing associations; to suggest otherwise is disingenuous.

Extending right-to-buy to housing associations is a short-term, questionably-legal, demand-stoking, pre-election bribe based on blinkered, right-wing rhetoric that would see a further nail driven into the closing coffin lid of social housing and the aspirational platform it provides.

The opposition to extending right-to-buy is just and deserved, and I hope the UK housing sector will continue to fight for the genuine aspirations of its tenants; maybe with a little inspiration, and a lot of perspiration, it can convince the next government to do the same.

References

Keeping Pace: Replacing Right To Buy Sales, CIH, March 2015

CIH response to Conservative manifesto pledge to extend right to buy to housing associations, CIH, Online: http://www.cih.org/news-article/display/vpathDCR/templatedata/cih/news-article/data/CIH_response_to_Conservative_manifesto_pledge_to_extend_right_to_buy_to_housing_associations, Available: April 2015

Conservative Party manifesto: PlaceShapers blasts right to buy ‘nonsense’, 24Dash, Online: http://www.24dash.com/news/housing/2015-04-14-Conservative-Party-manifesto-PlaceShapers-blasts-right-to-buy-nonsense, Available: April 2015

Councils forced to sell expensive homes under Tory Right to Buy plan, Inside Housing, Online: http://www.insidehousing.co.uk/business/finance/councils-forced-to-sell-expensive-homes-under-tory-right-to-buy-plan/7009259.article, Available: April 2015

Homes everyone can afford, SHOUT, Online: http://www.4socialhousing.co.uk/homes_everyone_can_afford, Available: April 2015

Seven Reasons Why Extending ‘Right to Buy’ to Housing Associations Is Plain Bad Policy, Huffington Post, Online: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/davidorr/right-to-buy_b_7060418.html?1429005819&ncid=tweetlnkushpmg00000067, Available: April 2015

We are witnessing the slow death of social housing, The Guardian, Online: http://www.theguardian.com/housing-network/2015/apr/01/slow-death-social-housing-affordable, Available: April 2015

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