The Right to Buy was one of the most successful and defining Conservative policies of the 20th century. It was Margaret Thatcher’s masterstroke, breaking the relationship between people whose homes, jobs and public services were provided by council monopolies, and the Labour Party that controlled those local authorities. It granted the gift of aspiration to those who, in post-war years, had so little – and drew new voters to the right. It made a reality of Tory hopes for a “property-owning democracy”.
But, clever as it may have been, the Right to Buy did this at the expense of future generations. The housing crisis and welfare bill today’s Conservative Government is grappling to control were, in part at least, caused by Thatcher.
Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that almost 40 per cent of council flats sold to council tenants are now back on the rental market under private ownership, let out again – often to households in need of income support and claiming housing benefit to pay rising rents – at rates of up to 400 per cent of social housing rent levels.
The irony is that, had these properties not been removed from council ownership at huge discounts – a nationwide, loss-making, asset-stripping exercise that would not have been tolerated in any other sector – most would be occupied by the same households, paying lower rent without the need to claim benefits.
The Tory commitment to the Right to Buy, which appears undiminished, comes at a cost to the rest of its housing policy – and now the Conservative Government intends to extend this to housing association tenants.
Rising rents in the growing private rented sector means the welfare bill continues to grow, as even those on modest but stable incomes struggle to pay for decent accommodation. The “bedroom tax” encourages social tenants who have spare bedrooms to downsize – an impractical policy because, as The Independent revealed last year, large numbers of one- and two-bedroom properties have been sold off under the Right to Buy in the years since David Cameron became Prime Minister.
The Ministry of Justice has revealed that the number of renters evicted from their homes by bailiffs after failing to pay rent has shot up since housing benefit cuts were introduced in 2011. The Government spends more money supporting these families to find emergency accommodation than it ever would on maintaining a council housing portfolio.
To describe social housing as subsidised – as critics of councils and housing associations often do – is a fallacy. The one-off development cost of building a social home is supported by government, but the rental value of that home repays the investment. Money spent on social housing quickly becomes a public asset.
There can be no doubt now that the Right to Buy was a disastrous waste of public funds that, in the long term, only exacerbated social issues that governments of whatever political hue should seek to tackle. It is a policy designed for an era long gone: less than a fifth of Britons live in social housing and only a fraction of those can afford to manage their tenancy without housing benefit. But the extension to housing association tenants will help a select few at the expense of many. Meanwhile the Scottish Government axed the policy altogether.
If governments had kept up with demand and built more homes of all tenures then the disparity between social and private rents would not be so extreme. Given the Conservative “ideological obsession” (as Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron described it) with the Right to Buy, it is unlikely to heed any warning to rethink the policy. It should, then, channel its efforts into tackling the housing shortage even if that means house prices should flatten or fall.
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