Tories talk up social housing sell-off

Fight for quality council homes for all in need

Jack Jeffrey, Sheffield Socialist Party

Faced with worrying polls, growing public criticism and just ahead of local election day, Boris Johnson’s government made a traditional Tory move – talking up selling off more of our dwindling stock of social housing. This time, the focus was on properties owned by housing associations, which have been mostly exempt from ‘Right to Buy’ legislation to date.

This isn’t the first time in recent years that a Tory government has pushed selling off social housing in order to boost a faltering election campaign. In 2005, Right to Buy for housing associations was a key feature of Michael Heseltine’s campaign. In 2015, David Cameron put together a bodged plan to extend Right to Buy and force councils to sell their most valuable stock. And at the 2019 party conference Robert Jenrick announced a plan to extend the scheme to housing associations, but with a new twist – now houses could be bought in instalments.

Right to Buy has only exacerbated the housing crisis in the UK. Since its inception in 1980, the number of homes available for social rent has declined by almost 2 million. At the same time, the average price of a home has skyrocketed from £19,000 to £240,000 – an increase of over 1,000%! On average, rent has increased from 10% to 30% share of salaries.

40% of properties that have been bought under Right to Buy are now being rented out by private landlords, according to research by Inside Housing. Many of the renters are working people in receipt of housing benefit, the same group who previously could have applied for social housing!

Private rents are considerably higher than for social housing. This has contributed towards a huge ballooning in housing benefit payments – standing at £17.29 billion in 2020, up from £2 billion in 1980. Extending the Right to Buy to housing associations will only worsen the crisis.

Many housing associations have become commercially driven conglomerates far divorced from their charitable origins. Their opposition to Right to Buy is driven by self-interest, and they care little for their tenants or their contribution to the public good – as recent media stories about the shocking standard of their accommodation have shown. There is no better example of this than their continued support and lobbying for ‘Help to Buy’, which subsidises them to build homes for private sale to first-time buyers. Another failed housing scheme that has cost £29 billion, and that the House of Lords has found to be wasteful and counterproductive, inflating prices “by more than its subsidy value in areas where it is needed the most”.

Decent quality affordable housing is at the centre of any meaningful resolution of the cost-of-living crisis. Rather than selling off even more social housing stock, only for it to end up in the hands of private landlords, we need real investment in council homes run by democratically accountable local authorities. We need an end to Right to Buy, and councils that are prepared to defy the government and spend what is needed to meet housing need.