Right to Buy benefits a lucky few, but what about everyone else?

24 September 2019
By Imogen Farhan
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More than one million households are on local authority waiting lists for social housing. The Children’s Commissioner has warned “children are growing up in B&Bs, shipping containers and old office blocks” while they wait. Paying for temporary accommodation is estimated to cost local authorities almost £1 billion this year. And yet, the government is subsiding the sale of social housing. Right to Buy is not only nonsensical, but also fundamentally unfair.

A central tenet of the Tory vision of Britain as “a homeowning democracy,” Right to buy was launched by Thatcher in 1980 to help council tenants buy their home at a discount. The scheme now enables council tenants, and some Housing Association tenants, to buy their property at a 70 per cent discount up to a maximum of £82,800, or £110,500 in London.  Since 2012, 86,596 social houses have been sold off under the scheme.

Helping a lucky few fulfil their dreams of homeownership comes at a cost. Part of the problem is that the policy is not being implemented properly: every social home sold under right to buy is supposed to be replaced on a one-for-one basis, but last week’s statistics confirm this isn’t the case. Instead, the policy is fanning the flames of the social housing crisis, which has seen the number of social homes owned by local authorities plummet 63 per cent since 1997. The government is now making this very same promise to justify the extension of Right to Buy to Housing Associations, and the public are right to be sceptical.

There is also the bigger question of fairness. For the few fortunate enough to live in an eligible home and able to secure a mortgage, the rewards are significant – but what about everyone else?

Private tenants are paying eye-watering rents, and for many, the dream of homeownership is further away than ever. Low-income renters are struggling to find an affordable home with local housing allowance rates frozen since 2015, and one in four privately rented properties fail to meet acceptable standards. Many couldn’t dream of being able to take on mortgage, even at a heavily discounted rate, when research out from Shelter this week found 63 percent of private renting households have no savings at all.

Reports that 40 per cent of homes sold under the government’s Right to Buy scheme are actually being privately let adds insult to injury.

The type of rental housing someone lives in seems an arbitrary way to decide who gets a £100,000 housing giveaway and who doesn’t. The Conservatives themselves recognised this flaw when they announced their intention to extend Right to Buy to Housing Association tenants, with the rationale that “it is unfair that they should miss out on a right enjoyed by tenants in local authority homes.” But, why stop there? Labour recently announced their intention to extend Right to Buy to private tenants. It is a dangerous policy, trampling century old property rights, and would likely have the unintended consequence of making private renting ever more difficult, but it is nonetheless the logical conclusion of Right to Buy. 

Which is exactly why, when it comes to Right to Buy, reform isn’t the answer. The question of fairness cannot be solved by extending eligibility on a piecemeal basis, as Labour’s ill-conceived policy demonstrates. The Government should instead focus their efforts on policies designed to increase the supply of housing. A much more ambitious programme of housebuilding will reduce prices and make homeownership a more achievable ambition for people regardless of their current tenancy type. This programme must include replenishing the social housing stock that has been depleted, in part, by Right to Buy. And scrapping Right to Buy would protect the purpose of social housing – to provide an affordable roof over the heads of families who are struggling to make ends meet.

Right to Buy may seem like a quick political win, but this reckless short-termism will not be felt by those who need it most. Homeownership is a dream shared by renters in the private and social sector alike, and should not come down to the luck of the draw.

There is also the bigger question of fairness. For the few fortunate enough to live in an eligible home and able to secure a mortgage, the rewards are significant – but what about everyone else?