1. Governance
May 29, 2015

In cities where house prices are high, Right to Buy 2 is nothing less than social cleansing

By Colin Wiles

“Nothing is too good for the working class,” said Aneurin Bevan. It’s not a sentiment shared by the number crunchers at Policy Exchange.

In 2012, the influential right-wing think tank published a report arguing that high value council homes should be sold off in order to build new social homes in poorer areas.

The report’s author Alex Morton said at the time, “Expensive social housing is costly, unpopular and unfair… Social housing tenants deserve a roof over their heads but not one better than most people can afford…”

Was this idea unpopular? The report backed it up with YouGov polling showing that 73 per cent of people agreed with the statement, “People should not be offered council houses that are worth more than the average house in their local authority”. Meanwhile, 60 per cent agreed that, “People should not be offered council housing in expensive areas”. I call those leading questions. Had YouGov asked “Do you think mixed communities, where rich and poor live side by side, are a good idea?” that would probably have been popular too.

Few people paid much attention to the report at the time – but given that Alex Morton now works as a housing policy advisor in Number 10, it’s hardly surprising that his proposal has been revived. What no one predicted, however, is that it would be the centerpiece of the government’s plan to offer the Right to Buy to housing association tenants.

The idea is that selling off the top third most expensive council homes as they become empty – about 15,000 properties annually – will raise £4.5bn every year. This money will be used to fund no fewer than five discrete things: to reclaim brownfield land; to replace the sold council property; to repay the grant on the sold housing association home; to compensate the housing association for any financial loss; and to replace the sold housing association home.

You don’t need to be a mathematical genius to work out that one-for-one replacement of Right to Buy homes, something that has been repeatedly promised by ministers, is unlikely to happen. What’s more, any replacement homes will be let at much higher “affordable” rents, rather than the social rented homes that are sold.

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Take a walk through Holborn or Clerkenwell and you will see hundreds of council homes set in mixed, vibrant communities: a stark contrast to the monolithic and sterile streets of Knightsbridge or Belgravia. But under Right to Buy 2 every single one of these will be sold if they become vacant.

The reason for this is simple: the government proposes that the top third most expensive properties by bedroom size and region will be sold. London is counted as a region, and properties in inner London have a much higher value than in boroughs like Barking and Hillingdon, so every vacant home in Westminster and  Camden will be sold as they become vacant.

The same process will happen in places like Cambridge, which has higher property values than Great Yarmouth or Chelmsford. Councils in these areas might as well tear up their housing waiting lists: by denying poor people the chance to live in wealthier areas, it amounts to a blatant form of social cleansing. Estate agents are already salivating at the prospect of these high value properties coming to the market. 

We’ve been here before, of course. In the 1980s a Conservative government tried to force the Right to Buy upon housing associations, but were defeated in the House of Lords. The question is whether the social housing sector will have the guts to stand up for itself once again.

Colin Wiles is a housing and planning consultant at Wiles Consulting.

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