Political giveaways don’t come much bigger than offering huge discounts on homes, but the manifesto pledge from David Cameron today to extend one of the most Thatcherite of Thatcher policies needs to avoid the mistakes of the past.
When Margaret Thatcher instructed her eventual nemesis Michael Heseltine to sell off millions of council houses in the 1980s, the Tories soon went back on a guarantee that 75% of all the income generated from the sales would go back into building homes for those most in need. As a result we have the housing crisis we see today.
When, earlier this month, I spoke with Lord Heseltine, as he is today, he had few regrets. In fact he admitted to only one, and that was how his right-to-buy campaign was handled. The scheme, which gave families up and down the nation a first step on the housing ladder they could never have dreamed of previously, was, he said, the right thing to do, but when the government stopped forcing local councils to spend at least three quarters of the revenue from the sales on new affordable homes much of the good work that had been done was then undone.
Thirty years on we don’t have anywhere near enough homes in the UK, especially homes for those in the most desparate need. So, if Cameron’s claim that the Tories are the party of working people, then his extension of the right-to-buy programme to include housing association tenants has to avoid that crucial error of the eighties.
Cameron will today claim his government will replace every single housing association sold under right-to-buy with a new, equally affordable one. This time the Conservatives have to stick to a promise almost identical to the one Heseltine made on behalf of Thatcher.
Again, as is typical in this election campaign of grand statements, we know little detail of this vote-grabbing policy, and we’re unlikely to get it before polling day. But, for me it already has big holes.
Much of the Tory pledges, and those of any other party for that matter, focus on the extremes of society. Up until now the Tories have been labelled as the party of the rich, making billionaires richer and the poor poorer. While Cameron is attempting to remedy that with today’s right-to-buy announcement, he, like his rivals, still miss out a huge section of society.
For those not lucky enough to have been given a council house, or the right to buy their housing association home, there is stil a huge problem. Those at the bottom of the socio-economic scale will be able to benefit, and the rich don’t need the help. But what about the huge squeezed middle.
It seems buying a house outright, without the help from right-to-buy, is almost exclusively for the rich. There is a generation of people who are earning too much to benefit from the leg up a council house or housing association home can give, but this generation does not earn anywhere near enough to cobble together the deposit to buy a home on the open market. Who’s helping them?
Cameron is also pledging to builid 400,000 new homes. But, again, there’s little detail and if this is over the period of the next five year government then it’s nowhere near enough. If fact it’s around a third of what’s needed, according to most housing experts.
It’s great news for tenants in hosuing association homes this morning, but a great deal more on housing is needed if everyone is to ever have the hope of having a safe roof over their heads.
Which party will back the private rented sector? The property industry has and so should all shades of political parties. The unsecure six month rolling tenancy agreement offers no one a home, yet it still dominates the landlord/tenant relationship. We need more PRS and we need it supported by government with a more lenient and speedier planning process for these schemes that offer young people the security of tenure the private sector has failed to do for decades.
And then there’s the phrase “affordable homes”. Homes with a 20% discount to market value are not affordable. They’re still ridiculously expensive in almost every part of the country. Rather than affordable homes, why not introduce PRS element into every new housing estate. It’s not owning a home, but owning is not everything. A home a family knows the landlord will not kick them out of in six months can be good enough for many, even if they do have to sit there and watch people who never earned as much as them buy their council house or housing association property and make a fortune when they sell it on a few years later.