Boris Johnson used a speech in Blackpool yesterday to announce the government’s latest set of proposals on housing. We’ve heard a lot of those over the past decade. Very few have come to anything. The Prime Minister’s announcement about extending the Right to Buy to housing association tenants had a familiar feel. That is because David Cameron’s Conservative government had the same idea, and in the end all we saw was a small pilot in the West Midlands before the whole thing was quietly dropped.
The problem here is that Johnson is attempting to apply yesterday’s ideas to today’s problems. It is over 40 years since the Right to Buy for council homes was introduced. No one can argue that it wasn’t a popular policy – millions of people have taken it up. But the issue is its knock-on impact. The country as a whole has lost nearly two million council-built homes. And far from creating a new wave of owner-occupiers, nearly 40 per cent of these are now owned by private landlords and let out at market rents, which are much higher than councils or registered social landlords.
In my borough of Barking & Dagenham, homes which would have been let out by the council for £100 a week are now fetching £400 a week in the private rented sector. Homes that were built for families have become homes in multiple occupation instead. The Right to Buy sought to support people who aspired to be homeowners.
Who doesn’t support aspiration? But by selling the family silver and not replacing it, the policy in practice has contributed to the worst housing crisis since the war. Extending it to housing associations will just make the situation even worse. And how can we believe the promise that any housing association homes sold will be replaced when we have not been able to it with council homes?
Johnson’s other big pledge yesterday, that people receiving state benefit support could be allowed to count that as income when seeking a mortgage – a so-called “benefits into bricks” policy – is just another part of the PM’s “partygate” escape plan. It is not a serious attempt to either “level up” or create a property-owning democracy. Such announcements give false hope to those most in need, especially as Michael Gove has already said there’s no additional money coming from the Treasury.
For me, it’s clear that we need a new contract between the state and the citizen that supports aspiration without taking away much-needed housing for the most vulnerable families, who are – as is clear for anyone to see – are struggling most with the cost of living crisis. We need an approach that will work for the 2020s, the 2030s and beyond, not one that harks back to the thinking of the 1980s, as if a Sinclair C5 is the answer to climate change.
Different London local authorities are trialling different models for achieving this. In Barking & Dagenham we want to give our residents the right to rent, the right to invest and the right to move. This means providing rented homes at different prices for different income levels. It also means allowing residents to invest in their homes through shared ownership schemes or shared equity, and enabling them to move to larger and smaller properties as they go through the cycle of life.
Right to Buy saw an unprecedented transfer of public assets into individual ownership. Millions of households benefited from this, thanks to a state-funded discount helping them secure an asset that will have increased in value. But the downside of that is being experienced today by the one million households on waiting lists up and down the country – and the 61,000 homeless households in London who will be sleeping in temporary accommodation tonight.
Along with all, the government is now promising things they simply can’t deliver. It seems the Treasury is not providing new funding for extended Right to Buy to housing associations. This means that even if the policy does get off the ground only a small number of tenants will be able to take advantage of it before the money runs out. If the government was serious about the scheme, it would be fully worked up, fully funded, and not just another soundbite.
Darren Rodwell is Leader of Barking & Dagenham Council. He also serves as London Councils deputy chair and executive member for regeneration, housing and planning. Photograph shows new Barking & Dagenham council homes.
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