Blog: Right to Buy or just plain theft?

This right-to-buy is a real steal at somebody else’s expense 

Right-to-Buy of housing association homes is tantamount to theft, but stealing away social housing is nothing new, writes Mark Cantrell – the political class has done it for decades

YOU'VE got to hand it to the Tories – if you don’t then they take it anyway and flog it off cheap.

Now, that might be considered something of a low jibe and rather unfair, but consider David Cameron’s flashback to the 1980s this week when he launched the Conservative Party manifesto: he basically declared that a future Tory government will help itself to housing association assets.

Or as he put it, extending the Right-to-Buy to housing association properties is all about reinvigorating homeownership and making Thatcher’s vision of a ‘property owning democracy’ a 21st Century reality. Go, Dave!

Slight snag, the Conservative Party doesn’t actually own these homes; nor does the State at either local or national level, but what matter ownership or property rights when there’s an election to win? This is cheap politics, not so much the pork barrel kind as scraping the bottom of the barrel in an effort to bribe a few votes.

To put it bluntly, what Cameron and his Conservative comrades propose is tantamount to theft. Really, somebody should call the police before this miscreant can act on his nefarious plan. Actually, this is more than just a heist he’s planning – it’s plunder by the State. So forget the police, better call the UN.
Stealing social housing assets is nothing new, though; the political class has been at it for years. Go back far enough and you’ve got the original Right-to-Buy, which stole millions of homes from future generations. Great for the individual households concerned, no doubt, but it helped tear the guts out of social housing and for all their efforts, housing associations have never been quite able to plug that gap.

Arguably, the ground for today’s housing crisis was prepared back then, in the heyday of that ‘property owning democracy’, when the foundations of the entire housing system were mined to build up the homeowning apex. Hardly surprising, then, that the whole edifice has started to crumble and sway. To modify one of the Chancellor’s favourite stock phrases, there’s not much point in fixing the roof whatever the weather, if you’ve gone and dug out the foundations.

So, here we are today. The Tory led Coalition Government has effectively spent the last five years stealing social homes from the nation and its communities, stripping bare a critical social, cultural and economic asset.

It stole social homes when it slashed capital investment to build more much-needed stock. It stole them when it revamped Right-To-Buy of council houses. It stole them with its Orwellian ‘Affordable Rent’ model, which all too often is anything but. And with every conversion of an existing social rent home to this so-called affordable rent, it steals yet another.

Now we have Cameron’s latest wicked wheeze to steal the election from under his rivals’ noses, by plundering housing association assets.

All told, the ‘Great Social Housing Heist’ isn’t so much stealing from housing associations – or even councils – but stealing from the millions of people looking for a decent, secure home at a price they can genuinely afford. It’s stealing their security, their sense of well-being, their ability to establish a meaningful life, their very future.

To be fair, the Conservative Party isn’t the only political party to have had a hand in this asset stripping; Labour has done its bit too in the past, but as the main players in the current Government, the Tories are the natural target for today’s ire.

Furthermore, it’s the Conservatives that are the ones proposing to do to private charitable organisations what their forebears did to councils. One might say they are set on finishing the job – of eradicating social housing for good. So, they can’t complain; if they can’t take the heat of criticism, they should leave the political kitchen.
As it is, we can but speculate the kind of future Cameron and his cronies have in mind for housing associations; a model akin to the public schools they attended in their youth, no doubt.

Eton, for example, is also a charitable body; it began life catering for the poor, now it serves to educate the children of wealthy elites, preparing them for life at the top of the pile, with a couple of poor boys thrown in for ‘social purpose’.

With this in mind, will the housing associations of tomorrow – those that survive – cater to the needs of an affluent clientele, with a couple of suitably vetted deserving poor tucked into almshouses to demonstrate those all-important social values? Time and some gritty political battles will tell.

Meanwhile, from the fury that erupted in the wake of the Right-to-Buy announcement, it seems the housing world has finally found some righteous fury; it might even start fighting for its life (now there’d be a thing). Frankly, it’s about time. A little rage on behalf of genuinely affordable housing is long overdue.

We – all of us, housing professional or otherwise – must find a way to steal this election not only from the Tories, but from all the political parties looking to harvest out votes. The time has come to bend them to our will, while there is still something left to save.

Okay, sure, that’s easier said than done. But if you want to help first-time buyers and private renters, and give Britain a firm footing for its future, then it’s way past time to get social homes built on a mass scale.

Forget the roof; it’s time to rebuild the foundations.

This first appeared on the Housing Excellence website, 16 April 2015

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