South of the River – Our house

Compass-SouthComment logo 2I see the Right To Buy is back in the news this week, with a plan to extend it to housing association homes.

Regular readers of this column will not be surprised to learn that I don’t think this is a very good idea. Perhaps it’s worth re-capping a brief history of social housing to see why not.

Apart from alms houses and a few Victorian philanthropists, social housing in Britain really kicked off after the First World War when people like Rev Charlie Jenkinson, the ‘Red Vicar of Holbeck’, became councillors. Jenkinson oversaw slum clearance and the building of new estates such as Belle Isle and Gipton. He then invented what is now Housing Benefit to ensure that the families from the slums could afford the new council houses. If you want to know about the impact this housing had, just read Keith Waterhouse’s autobiography on the genuine joy of moving to Halton Moor.

After the Second World War, when the Britain’s deficit and debt were proportionately far higher than now, there was another great expansion of house building – both private and public. Solidly built with good space standards, these homes were aspirational. Both for owner occupiers and council tenants.

In the 1960s it became clear that family housing wasn’t enough, lifestyles were changing and housing needs with them. Housing Associations were formed to tackle some of these issues building sheltered flats for older people, or renovating older properties in ‘Housing Action Areas’ such as Beeston Hill.

Then I joined the housing industry in the 1980s and everything changed. Of course I wasn’t the agent of change, my arrival coincided with the election of Margaret Thatcher. The Right To Buy had existed in pockets before her, but she really pushed the policy, pumping government money into generous discounts. To many people it really was an offer you couldn’t refuse.

Was it a sensible policy? The argument ran that tenants had been stuck in a straightjacket unable to buy their own home. It wasn’t exactly true, like anyone else they could apply for a mortgage and go and buy a private house. Where would the get the deposit? Well they would have to save up like anyone else whist still meeting their ongoing housing costs – like anyone else.

So if anything was straightjacketing council tenants it was Margaret’s beloved market, not the council and its housing department.

The Right To Buy was massively popular, of course it was – it was free money. It was part of an ideological offensive against collective provision in favour of the individual. From looking after your neighbour to I’m alright Jack.

It’s worth looking at what happened to those properties over the last thirty years. At first they stood out as the proud new owners improved them with new windows and cladding. They stood out because the cash-starved housing departments were unable to keep up with improvement programmes and the council stock was deteriorating.

Nowadays they often stand out because the rest of the estate has been improved and they are looking a little shabby. Meanwhile if it was flat you’d bought rather than a house, the estate improvements could be financially crippling. You were only a leaseholder and had to pay your share of the costs for external cladding or a new lift. These long-term costs were rarely factored into the decision to grab that discount and buy your home.

The biggest problem with Right To Buy was that the councils weren’t able – in fact for many years weren’t allowed – to replace the houses sold off with new ones to rent. With fewer houses and letting to those in greatest need, it meant the social balance changed on the estates. Instead of being respectable a council tenancy was now a last resort and came with a stigma.

Whilst the former tenants continued to live in their properties some balance was retained, but the market had given these families freedom and many sold their house and moved. The long-term effect of this is that up to two thirds of properties bought under the Right To Buy are now owned by private landlords.

Let’s think about that for a moment. Who now lives in these properties? Are they paying more or less rent than if they rented from the council? Have these houses been renovated to the same standard as the council owned homes? In case you haven’t worked it out the answers are: the families that can’t get rehoused by the council; more; and largely no.

So who has benefitted from Right To Buy? Certainly the families that were able to exercise their choice (or take the bribe if you prefer). The mortgage companies have done alright and the cladding salesmen. Oh and of course the private landlords. It’s not been so good for the Council Tax payer, we’re paying out more in Housing Benefit for families to live in worse accommodation and we’ve lost assets too.

So let’s extend the Right To Buy to housing associations? I don’t think so.

I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.

3 Replies to “South of the River – Our house”

  1. This is a very good piece and I agree wholeheartedly with the conclusion. I would add that where previously a council tenant paid rent to a socially responsible local council, if they then “buy” they are paying a “mortgage” to a bank the bank therefore now owns the house. If the owner-occupier subsequently hits hard times – say loss of job or illness or a terrible accident – then repossession can be just around the corner. Then the local authority has to step in to pick up the pieces, but with fewer resources remaining to help such individuals and families. Housing experts reported recently that the last 20 years or so has seen a reduction in home ownership due largely to a lower wage economy where banks won’t lend. Thus an increase in renting sub-standard properties from private landlords and with high eviction rates. It looks like the Housing Associations which are registered charities intend to fight this ridiculous policy. I hope they do and I hope they win. I also hope that we get a government committed to giving powers back to local authorities to build council housing for all with secure permanent tenancies. Entirely sensible, necessary and with endless possibilities for society.

  2. A last ditch policy from the Tories to try and buy votes by giving away something they don’t own (again). A policy that does nothing to alleviate the housing problems we have in the country.
    Lets just hope that no one falls for it and Mr Cameron is unable to act this out.

  3. Right to buy taps into the desire of many people in this country to buy their own home, and in some ways, I can understand why many tenants choose to pursue this particular option.

    I mean… pay rent to a council for your entire life, or buy the property and once the mortgage is paid off, you’re financial obligations in that respect are at an end.

    I’m not a socialist, neither a classic one, or one of the modern, self proclaimed ‘progressive’ ones (whatever that means – but there does need to be an element of housing provided and maintained by a local authority for residents – be it those less fortunate, the elderly or young families.

    I’d also extend this to students and universities – lots of student accommodation provided by the uni is basically privatised, with people taking fees all over the place, but at least it’s safe, typically clean and secure.

    Private housing in places like Headingley and Hyde Park is often shockingly bad in terms of how it’s maintained… surely universities should be looking to provide accommodation for it’s students and use any profit to re-invest in the university and it’s facilities?

Comments are closed.