Right to Buy (RTB) – argued to be the most successful transfers of wealth since its introduction in April 1980. Yet despite successfully giving aspirational working-class families the ability to participate in the property-owning democracy it once again is under scrutiny.
Incredibly over 1.9 million homes have been sold through RTB since its inception, a take-up that demonstrates its sheer popularity. Once commonplace under Local Authorities the offer has now been made to tenants of Housing Association (HA). But for many this is a step too far.
Labour, Guido Fawkes and Shelter condemn the proposal
On the right, we have seen Guido Fawkes condemn the “buy a house on benefits” scheme as a “stupid idea”. Shelter has claimed extending RTB “couldn’t come at a worse time”. While also suggesting “the government should be building more social homes, not selling them off”. Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Lisa Nandy, recently called into question Boris Johnson’s announcement.
She challenged Johnson over the feasibility of allowing people to use housing benefit towards a mortgage. Tweeting recently whether lenders are “on board” with the Prime Minister’s first proposal after his disastrous vote of no confidence. Nandy also claims the new proposal would “make the housing crisis worse”.
Questions over feasibility and acceptance by the market
The scheme could help 17,000 families a year according to the report on the pilot published in February 2021. However, it found half of the homes under the scheme weren’t replaced despite promises of “one-for-one” replacement. Those “replaced” were often found to be as a more expensive form of tenure. This in large part driven by a Tory grant programme favouring such forms of tenure. Arguably fair kop to call into question.
Notwithstanding the above, we have seen the rise of the for-profit registered provider backed by private equity and institutions. Who have been piling into the sector lured in by government backed income in a supply constrained market. Whether social or affordable rent, or controversial shared ownership, the private sector has been licking its lips.
If these capital providers can accommodate such government-backed income streams, why cannot lenders?
But the proposals actually spur on new supply
Secondly, the argument around the need for one-for-one replacement seems one based on a lack of understanding of basic arithmetic. For those on the left, many feel a tenancy for life forms part of housing as a human right. On that basis, whether an aspirational working-class family lives in a social rented home, or one where they have exercised the Right to Buy, morally this principle holds true. Under RTB total housing stock does not deplete and new build from recycled capital ultimately still contributes to new supply.
The family who can now use their in-work benefits towards a mortgage become the beneficiaries directly of the subsidy. Not the HAs who fail to do repairs and pay their executives investment banker wages. At a time where the National Housing Federation announces an independent panel to review the poor-quality homes endemic under its watch, why would we want to prevent aspirational working-class families from the opportunity to fix and maintain their own home, if they have the means to do so. Ultimately giving them an opportunity to escape the ever-lasting trap of poor housing management they currently endure under HAs.
But how, after all, in a supply constrained housing system does adding new housing stock make the housing crisis “worse”?
Global market headwinds make opportune timing to support demand
All sides have now sought to strawman the Right to Buy, blaming it for the loss of much needed social housing stock. The debate has not become one of supply. Instead some argue these recent measures merely add to demand-side pressures, which an already distorted market does not need. Yet in a time of globally increasing interest rates and a recession, when else is there a better time to broaden access to those on low incomes and counter market forces.
Furthermore, HAs often have low levels of debt against them with the homes valued on the books at Existing Use Value (EUV). Such a low level of debt allows the Government to provide meaningful discounts and unlock wealth for working class families. Of course, the HA lobby and HM Treasury will have kittens if they have to sell their silver, but ultimately who benefits?
Boris Johnson is playing to the aspirational working class
Whatever your politics, broadening access to an affordable home or home ownership should be the end goal. Yes, the Labour Housing Group has taken a stance to abolish Right to Buy. But I argue this policy is targeted at those Labour must seek to win back from the Tories. Boris Johnson is sending a key message to the millions of tenants living under often dreadful Housing Association conditions, that he cares about them.
Meanwhile, Labour and much of the left-leaning housing industry, condemns what has previously been a hugely successful policy for those who have benefitted from it. Right to Buy and the need to provide more social rented homes are not mutually exclusive.
Without means-testing tenancies how else can we recycle capital from those in social housing who can afford to buy?
Many of those who will exercise their right will be those who can afford to, who are still living under the benefits of a social tenancy. These include the members of Parliament who remain in their social rented flat, while earning a top 10% salary in the Commons, as well as the 117,000 households (16%) in London living in social rented accommodation resided in by the top 40% of earners in the capital.
But if we are not to bring in means testing of social rented accommodation throughout a tenancy, is not recycling capital from sales into the provision of new homes an admirable end goal?
I certainly think so if the sellers can keep the receipts. We can argue about whether we “replace” less than half with social or affordable rent. Or we can recognise the use of the benefit systems ability to increase the overall level of stock in a housing market beholden to NIMByism. After all an election message to aspirational working-class families that they have a chance at closing their own personal wealth inequality gap is compelling.