Opinion: Britain’s housing market has been damaged by Right to Buy, says Matt Gaw

The Right to Buy policy is not built on firm foundations

The Right to Buy policy is not built on firm foundations - Credit: PA

The Government’s home-owning ‘aspiration’ has helped drive house prices ever higher and left us with generation rent.

Shelter really is a pretty basic human need.

But in this region, like many other regions in the UK, it seems that we are paying more and more to have a roof over our head.

Last week it was revealed how housing around towns and villages in east Suffolk had become too expensive for most people to afford – forcing them to uproot and find homes elsewhere.

Indeed, many families, mine included, have now given up on ‘aspiring’ to own, instead relying on an unregulated and increasingly expensive rental market.


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Of course part of the Government’s answer to this problem is Right to Buy.

First initiated by Thatcher in the 1980s, council tenants were granted the right to buy their homes in a move that effectively converted lifelong Labour supporters to Tory banner wavers overnight and allowed thousands of working class people to finally start to climb the property ladder.

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Then this year Cameron announced an expansion of the policy. In speeches littered with references to “working people”, “British people” and “families”, he revealed that the 1.3 million people living in housing association homes would be allowed to buy.

It is of course up for discussion whether the policy was a cynical attempt to tempt back disaffected UKIP voters or make inroads into the Labour faithful again – but there is one thing that is absolutely certain.

Right to Buy is, without doubt, the most damaging housing strategy ever pursued in the UK.

And while it may mean a relatively small number of people will be able to own their own home, in the long term, it will only serve to deplete our badly needed housing stock, undermine the welfare state, push more people into the expensive private rental market while leaving other families with nowhere to live.

First, let’s be clear.

Selling off social housing is not some kind of egalitarian act. The sale of property at a discount rate actively privileges those who are not in the private sector. Private renting neighbours of housing association tenants (no doubt living in property bought under the previous Right to Buy scheme, much of which is now in the hands of wealthy landlords) will wonder why they too are not given a £100,000 subsidy to buy their home.

Second, although the Government’s policy is purportedly about aspiration (something that despite my despicable left-wing leanings I am all for) the policy will end up destroying the dreams of thousands. Because, while many people aspire to own their own home, many more are waiting on long social housing lists – desperate to give their children, their families, the basic necessities. Shrinking the housing stock (the National Housing Federation said despite a 2012 commitment from the coalition government, just 46% of council homes sold off under the Right to Buy had been replaced in the intervening years) will result in many families simply going without.

Squeezing housing stock will have another negative impact. While newer, higher quality homes are bought up, older less well-maintained homes will remain as social, leading to a stigmatised and ramshackle housing offer.

The move of increasing Right to Buy then, doesn’t seem able to solve the housing problems of Suffolk or elsewhere (at least not in the long term). But even as an ideological principle it seems wrong-headed. While it may mean fewer houses are in the hands of the state, it also means more people will be pushed into the private sector with rents they can’t afford. The end result? A state pay out in billions of pounds of housing benefit.

Perhaps you are a homeowner already with no intention of moving? Well this policy will still affect you. Because any lag between the sale of social housing and construction of new houses will put planning authorities under increased pressure to approve unsuitable private schemes to meet demand for affordable housing. It’s quite possible that the roads you wish were quieter could be about to get ever busier, even that bucolic vista that hasn’t changed in generations could be transformed in a heartbeat. Is this really something to aspire to?

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