The Tories promised yesterday to give one million housing association tenants the right to buy their homes with big discounts as the party tried to rediscover the populist appeal of Margaret Thatcher.
David Davis, who shadows the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, delighted the Tory conference by announcing a radical extension of the flagship scheme which enabled the Thatcher government to win the support of many working class voters.
Mr Davis pledged that housing associations could keep the proceeds from the sale of the homes to plough back into building or buying houses and flats for low-income tenants.
The existing right-to-buy scheme does not apply to most housing association tenants and the Tories said many do not buy or rent privately because their rents are subsidised. They argued that it would be a good use of public money to allow the tenants to buy their properties and to spend the receipts on providing more homes.
Under the Tory plan, housing association tenants may receive bigger discounts than the maximum £38,000 available to council tenants. A consultation paper will be pub- lished on Monday.
Mr Davis told the conference: "The right-to-buy scheme is a popular Conservative initiative that has helped nearly two million tenants of council properties to enjoy the benefits of home ownership.
"Expanding the scheme will reverse an alarming trend which has seen the quantity of new social housing plummet by 29 per cent since Labour came to office. The fall has only contributed to the housing crisis."
He said the right to buy was "a lottery" because 95 per cent of housing association tenants came from council lists. "So if they get a council house they get a right to buy. If they get a housing association home they are denied that right to buy."
Mr Davis invoked the slogan of his campaign for the Tory leadership last year by hailing his plan as an example of "practical, modern Conservatism in action". He also pledged to oppose plans being drawn up by the Government to restrict the rights of council tenants to buy their homes to curb abuses such as tenants profiteering from regeneration schemes.
"The contrast with Labour couldn't be more stark," he said. "They want to take away the right to buy. We want to extend it. They want to see fewer homeowners. We want to see more. They want to lock people into dependency. We want to set them free."
In a response last night, Lord Rooker, the Housing minister, said the Tory plan would be "extremely damaging" to public sector workers in need of affordable homes. He said: "Privatisation of housing association stock is not an answer to the widespread need for more affordable housing. Selling off housing association homes would be extremely damaging and do nothing to encourage an affordable and sustainable housing market."
Jim Coulter, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, said: "We need more, not fewer, affordable homes. Extending the right to buy would not achieve that. This policy announcement is a distraction from the real job of providing resources for affordable homes."