Ending right to buy “full stop”

Tackling the Housing Crisis, produced for Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for the Labour leadership stands in stark contrast to New Labour’s housing policy. The document recognises the need for a large scale council house building programme to tackle the crisis. It’s a welcome contribution which would have been unthinkable coming from a Leader, or potential leader, of the Labour Party prior to Jeremy’s nomination. I’ll comment on the document in due course, but here’s just one important point of difference with it.

Tackling the Housing Crisisis disappointing in one important respect: its failure to call for an end to ‘right to buy’. It says that “we should be reducing the harm it causes to our affordable housing stock”. To that end it proposes giving local authorities “in areas of high housing stress” the power to suspend right to buy “in order to protect depleting social housing assets”. It also says that the discount could be reduced.

The document offers no expressed reason as to why RTB should be maintained and it appears to represent a retreat from Jeremy’s own opinion expressed in an interview with the Housing Blog ‘Red Brick’. There, in response to a question on ‘right to buy’ he said:

I will vote against extending RTB to housing association properties, and would favour ending RTB full stop”.

If his campaign is not proposing to end RTB “full stop” then the least it can do is explain why.

Of course, giving local authorities the right to ‘suspend’ RTB would be a step forward in relation to Labour’s existing housing policy. However, it would leave in place the right of Tory authorities to carry on with it. It’s one thing to say that so long as RTB exists then local authorities should be able to keep all the receipts. However, the leadership debate provides an opportunity to put forward a policy which marks a break with New Labour’s adaptation to Thatcherism. Surely instead of “reducing the harm” it should be ended, “full stop”.

When he was still a shadow housing minister Jack Dromey famously said that Labour supported ‘right to buy’ because it was “a party of aspiration”. What they really meant by “aspiration” was the promotion of self-interest regardless of the social consequences of the policy. New Labour’s promotion of personal aspiration was a complete break from the Labour movement’s promotion of collective aspiration. Thatcher’s policy was designed to promote self-interest in order to undermine Council estates as bastions of support for Labour. It was fine and dandy for those who gained from it but it was at the cost of creating an acute ‘social housing’ shortage. It was a social disaster which increased the cost of maintenance of remaining Council housing stock.

It is no exaggeration to say that New Labour set out to eradicate Council housing by way of two things: ‘right to buy’ and the use of ballots to ‘transfer’ Council homes to housing associations. Indeed they set themselves the target of transferring 200,000 homes year to housing associations. They were even prepared to write off debt to encourage tenants to vote for transfer. The House of Commons Council housing Group rightly called this ‘blackmail’.

Under New Labour from 1997 to 2010 the number of council homes in the UK fell from 4,415,000 to 2,316,000. Taking ‘social housing’ (i.e. Council and Housing Association homes) as a whole their numbers declined from 5,562,000 to 4,907, a fall of 655,000 (DCLG Live Table 101). Under RTB 483,910 council homes were sold under New Labour (DCLG Live Table 670).

‘Right to buy’ was one of the key shibboleths of New Labour’s politics. It worshipped home ownership and helped to promote the conditions in which housing crashed owing to the growth of Britain’s equivalent of the sub-prime mortgage; self-certification with no evidence of earnings sought by the mortgage provider. ‘Right to buy’, introduced by Thatcher, is part of this redundant old ideological baggage which should be junked. What we need from Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign is a clear and unequivocal commitment that ‘right to buy’ should be scrapped.

Martin Wicks

August 8th 2015

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