At the Labour Housing Group AGM in February 2023, we debated whether the Right to Buy (RTB) for council tenants should be reformed or abolished. The majority of members supported reform.
The mover of the motion to abolish RTB, Martin Wicks, wrote a blog criticising the outcome.
I proposed the amendment making the argument for reform, so feel I should reply.
The Conservatives have been in power for 13 years and I think that a motion aimed to mandate the Labour leadership to adopt an unpopular policy is a mistake. The right wing press will attack us for being against homeownership, and working people aspiring to gain more financial security. In addition, we should not be seen to be telling 1.4m working class families who have bought their own home that they have done something wrong.
Due to the political risk there is little chance of the Labour leadership prioritising the abolition of RTB. However, there is a realistic chance of the leadership signing up for reform, especially if proposals reinforce their devolution agenda.
I do not ‘oppose the campaign to end the Right to Buy’, as suggested by the title of Martin Wick’s blog. I support a campaign that involves talking with working class people, debating the issue and if possible winning the argument. We have to be aware of the charge that we are a largely middle-class party telling working class people what is best for them.
A nationwide ban on RTB is a blunt instrument. The housing crisis is experienced differently in different areas. Whilst the case for stopping RTB is compelling in areas of high housing stress, there are other areas where social housing is less in demand and RTB has stabilised communities. Reform directed towards reducing the negative effects of aspects of RTB will be harder to vilify than a blanket ban. Reform has to be based on the principle that if the Labour leadership supports RTB, because it supports homeownership and giving some working class families greater financial security, it must be prepared to compensate those facing the negative consequences, families on the waiting list and council tenants living in homes that desperately need investment.
In her conference speech, Lisa Nandy talked about council housing being a locally controlled and collectively owned asset. If a government requires this asset to be sold in order to meet wider policy objectives then it should step in to replenish it. This means a commitment to replace the homes sold and providing councils with the funding they need to maintain their housing stock. If it seems a big ask for a Labour government to prioritise spending public money on reforming RTB, the Chartered Institute of Housing estimates that the Treasury has made £47bn from RTB. A small fraction of this amount coming back to councils will make a massive difference. A way to reduce the public money required to compensate communities is to require homes to be sold much closer to their market value; the effect will be to reduce the discount.
The principle of compensating communities for accommodating national priorities, such as infrastructure projects, new houses, industry and wind farms, is increasingly accepted.
RTB represents a huge transfer of wealth to 1.4m working class people over a 43-year period – albeit that the transfer happened in a random way, with those living in the most popular council housing benefiting to the greatest extent. For the first time, some working class people had an asset that they could use to help their families when they hit a crisis.
RTB allows working class people who want to own their own home to stay within their communities. Paul Watts in his book Regeneration and its Discontents writes that some working class people view RTB as strengthening for them and giving their children the ‘right to stay’ in their home. Council tenants have a secure tenancy, but the 2016 Housing and Planning Act demonstrated that this security could be taken away by a hostile government.
An issue to consider is differential financial outcome between council tenants who exercise the RTB and those that do not. Council tenants who have paid their rent for 40 years have effectively paid off the cost of building their home. However, when they die, they will leave no asset for their children. We could consider a cash bonus for long-term council tenants.
This Tory Government has been tightening succession rights, so adult children who have lived their whole lives in a council home are sometimes forced out when their parents, the tenants, die. We should certainly restore succession rights.
Resident activists have struggled heroically to maintain the liveability of their estates in face of funding cuts and Conservative Governments who believe that council housing should be the tenure of last resort for ‘needy’ families. Jane Jacobs, author of the seminal work the Death and Life of Great American Cities understood that to bolster under-threat neighbourhoods you needed to encourage those earning a little bit more to stay within, rather than flee, their community.
A policy solution could be to continue to allow existing tenants to be able purchase their homes. However, introduce a requirement that if they want to move out, or their children want to sell the property on their death, that the local authority should have the option to buy-back the property, with an appropriate allowance for the increased value of the property in the intervening years.
The exception to the continued RTB for existing council tenants should be for those moving into new build properties. These homes are particularly precious and should not be lost at a discounted price.
We need to confront the negative effects of RTB. It has resulted in the transfer out of local, democratic ownership of 1.4m homes, at a time of acute housing shortage. Whilst the focus on the housing crisis has been on urban areas, council housing is a precious resource in rural areas. Access to a council house is often the only way that families can stay in the area in which they grew up. In areas of high housing stress, the abolition of either RTB or the discount is entirely reasonable. The other alternative is for the government to fund the gap between the RTB sale and market value, so that councils can build replacement homes.
We also need to consider the effect on other council tenants of sales below the market value. When a property is sold the council loses the rental income. The RTB discount is £87,200 nationally and £116,200 in London. The sale price is based on a tenanted rather than vacant possession valuation. The valuation can be held for up to 18 months, which means that the benefit of house price inflation is lost to councils. Councils have to predict expected major works costs for five years after the initial sale and have to follow complex leasehold legislation. If they get either wrong, leaseholders cannot be recharged for works and tenants have to pick up the bill.
A consequence of the underfunding of council housing is that when major works do happen the recharges to leaseholders are high. Many councils have schemes whereby tenants fund a three-year interest-free loan to leaseholders to help them pay their charges. When major works recharges have been particularly high, some councils have capped recharges to leaseholders, requiring tenants to cover the shortfall. Council tenants are required to cross-subsidise leaseholders more affluent than them. There is important research to be done on the total cost of selling homes at less than their market value and subsequent undercharging. It is a crude assumption, but if we assume that the combined cost of the under-valuation and under-charging is £50,000 per property, at today’s costs, on total of 1.4m sales the amount lost is £7bn. This amount could have made a significant difference to the upkeep of council homes, and probably saved Michael Grove from having to emote about the ‘deplorable condition of some council homes’.
The current Government has caught council housing in a perfect pincer movement. Whilst being responsible for underfunding maintenance it is offering to act as the tenants’ champion against their ‘incompetent landlords’.
Housing Associations have resisted the imposition of mandatory RTB because it would undermine their business plans, but no such consideration has been given to councils.
Over the last 20 years, whilst the number of social rent homes has been declining, the private rented sector has been growing, to the extent that there are now more properties in the private rented sector. The consequence is that hundreds of thousands of people who need the security and affordability of social housing are now living in the unregulated private rented sector. Lisa Nandy committed a Labour Government to reversing this trend in her Conference speech, with a pledge that there will be more social rent homes than those in the private rented sector by the end of the first term. For this to be achieved, in addition to new council house building, tens of thousands of homes need to be transferred from the private rented sector to councils and cooperatives. If left unchecked RTB is a powerful engine to frustrate this aspiration. Nationally, 40% of RTB properties are now in the private rented sector, with most London Councils reporting over 50%. An incoming Labour Government will need to legislate to include in the lease of future RTB sales a covenant prohibiting the renting out of the property.
What is particularly unpopular with other estate residents is when ex-council properties end up with slum landlords, short-term lets or as AirBnB properties, all of which work against the efforts of resident representatives to sustain communities.
With regard to RTB properties already rented out, covenants cannot be introduced retrospectively to stop this. However, the opportunity to buy properties back will arise. The majority of council housing is over 50 years old; an incoming Labour government will need to invest a substantial amount of money to make these homes liveable, safe, damp free and energy efficient. Leaseholders will need to contribute to these significant major works costs. For many buy-to-let landlords their asset will no longer be profitable and they will welcome the option of a sale back to the council. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has found that adding to the stock of social housing through buy-backs is often less expensive than building new homes.
Whenever the state undervalues an asset and underfunds the administration of its disposal, it invites fraud and dishonesty. Companies and criminal gangs have preyed on vulnerable and cash-strapped tenants. In addition, families have funded aging relatives to exercise the RTB so that they can benefit financially when they die. An incoming Labour government should commit to funding a more robust vetting regime.
LHG member Steve Hilditch reports that Westminster Council is forced to buy back RTB properties that it sold at a discount, at five times the original cost to help meet its obligations to people who are homeless. A Labour government committed to sound public finance should not allow this to continue.
In this blog I have argued for the range of policy initiatives, such as halting RTB in high housing stress areas, reducing the discount, placing restrictive covenants on future RTB sales, central government compensation for lost council income and finance to replace and buy back homes. The effect will be to devolve decision-making powers and finance to local democratically elected representatives, reinforcing Labour’s devolution agenda.
 Paul Watts: Regeneration and its Discontents (2021)
 Jane Jacobs: The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)