The Labour Party’s problem with Right to Buy

The Conservative Party’s popular manifesto offering of extending RTB to housing association tenants has come under predictable fire from members of the Labour Party.

On a recent BBC Politics Show the leader of Brighton Council, Warren Morgan, outlined the Council’s new scheme for tackling Brighton’s chronic affordable housing problem; the plan to build 1,000 new homes in a joint venture with a housing association, structured as a private partnership, and therefore outside the scope of the proposal to extend RTB to housing associations, unless RTB legislation is extended to the private sector. It is an innovative and clever scheme and one I totally support and welcome.

On the same program a happy couple were shown moving into and personalising their new home, a housing association property near Ashford. In the interview the couple strongly reiterated their hope of one day owning their own home.

The concerns people have with RTB are well documented

  • RTB removes an affordable unit from the housing mix
  • 1 in 9 of RTB units were not replaced
  • 40 per cent of RTB units have fallen into the hands of exploitive private landlords

All this against the background of the worst housing crisis since WW2.

So an open and shut case against RTB?

Well, not quite.

All the above issues with RTB point to a RTB system poorly implemented, managed and regulated coupled with unwillingness, not an inability, to build more affordable homes, especially in London and the South east.

New Labour were right to continue with RTB but very wrong not to do it better (they should have unveiled RTB Mark 2), and quite unforgiveable for not building more homes.

The principle of RTB is a sound one; people in the UK, like the couple above, have a preference, a strong desire, for home ownership.  It’s an instinct that the Tories understand and exploit.

People do not accept housing association / council property accommodation because they embrace the principle out of some sort of idealism, but more because they need somewhere to live in a world where the private sector is out of reach or just exploitive and sub-standard, as is large parts of the private rental sector.

Is it equitable to say to those who rent that they should just regard many years of rent paid as ‘dead money’? Tenants should be able to have the opportunity of buying the home they have lived in for many years (it is their home in every practical and emotional sense) at a discount reflecting length of tenure and rent paid.

RTB also offers housing associations and councils the facility of unloading older uneconomical units and replacing with newer technology that offers lower maintenance costs; think of it as recycling.

In a way RTB could become rung zero on the housing ladder.

The Tories have long understood the world as it, and people as they are, and cynically exploited that talent to maintain the status quo. The thinking behind the original Thatcher RTB was basic vote massaging and damn the implementation.  This is how they win elections and Labour does not. It does not mean RTB is bad in principle.

So the Labour Party should reconsider its hostility to RTB, raise the stakes and look to extending the principle to the private sector.


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