The Continuing Danger of the Right to Buy – how housing is on the election agenda for the wrong reasons By Vikki McCall (University of Stirling)

Suddenly, housing is back on the election agenda. The Conservatives have pledged to ensure security for people by expanding the Right to Buy in England to housing association tenants. The policy has been framed as helping to give people security at every stage of their lives. The expansion would enable social tenants to buy a housing association home if they have lived in it for 3 years.

The plan has been challenged from several directions on social, moral and economic grounds. The Chartered Institute of Housing has already called for a ‘crack-down’ on the Right to Buy as it has disadvantaged different groups. David Orr from the National Housing Federation has questioned whether handing over assets will break the charitable rules and challenge the charitable status of most housing associations. The Audit Commission also report that fraud around the scheme has cost £12.3m a year. Other commentators such as Owen Jones have stated quite clearly:

“This is social cleansing, as simple as that”

It also sets English policy in direct opposition to the direction of travel in Scotland, where the Right to Buy will be ending in 2016. The abolition of the Right to Buy within the Scottish Housing Bill (2014) was introduced to save the current and future social housing stock. Housing Minister Margaret Burgess has noted that:

“These measures will protect up to 15,500 social houses from sale over a ten-year period and safeguard social housing stock for future generations… With 185,000 people on waiting lists for council and housing association houses, we can no longer afford to see the social sector lose out on badly needed homes” (Scottish Government 2014).

The impact of the Right to Buy on the social rented sector is well known and clearly documented. This can’t be underestimated. Further expansion of the Right to Buy will herald the decimation of the social rented sector in England. It will add to the already pressing demand for more social housing throughout the UK. Why would any landlord build social housing only to be forced to sell it 3 years later?

This policy change is situated within a housing market where ‘expansion is largely dependent upon maintaining demand among a widening section of lower income households’ (Malpass 1986: 241). This trend was continued as the Right to Buy was followed by other schemes that have been targeted at those on lower incomes. It has been shown that these have posed a number of financial challenges for new owners, questioning the appropriateness of home ownership for lower income groups (McKee 2010). There is a perception of ‘winners’ (those who benefited from the policy and became owners) and ‘losers/victims’ (everyone else) with focus on its more negative impact has been predominantly on the social renting sector.

However, this is a debate with much wider repercussions even for the ‘winners’. I recently presented a piece of research written with Drs Madhu Satsangi and Corinne Greasley-Adams at the Housing Studies Association conference in York around older owner occupiers in lower value properties. There was an emerging view that there was a group of owner occupiers whose housing needs were not being met.

The research indicated that the group ‘older owner occupiers in lower value properties’ was synonymous with those who had exercised their Right to Buy. Over half of the group surveyed were in properties built before 1990, which generally have higher repair and maintenance costs and are less energy efficient. A third of the participants reported that there was a part of their home they could not access. Furthermore, a third of them wanted to move, mainly due to ill health, but lack of options and affordability were key barriers to moving.

The investment opportunities, security, freedom and autonomy that were promised to them was therefore not in place for a certain group of owner occupiers. This group, especially after a health crisis, were turning to the social rented sector to help. Despite the presiding myths and the veneration of homeownership in UK housing policy, there has been a perception that people are ‘perceived as victims of housing policy rather than its beneficiaries’ (Malpass 1986: 243).

We therefore have come to a full circle from the initial promises of the 1980s that cashing in on the Right to Buy guarantees future security for everyone. David Cameron introduced the new expansion of the policy on the same promise: security and a ‘good life’ for all. Although clearly some people have won from this policy, what we see now is that housing options can be reduced as a certain group of homeowners grow older and develop new support needs.

This ideologically driven policy ignores the wider socio-economic inequalities that exist amongst homeowners (whom are not an homogenous group). The expansion of the Right to Buy is a dangerous, short sighted policy that will further the socio-economic inequalities in the UK.

Blog by Dr Vikki McCall, University of Stirling

All views represented here are my own.

Follow @vikki_mccall @HousingStirUni

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