We need to right the wrongs of Right to Buy

This month (July) marks 100 years of the council house.

Following the end of the First World War, the then Prime Minister David Lloyd George pledged to build homes ‘fit for heroes’ – marking the start of the council housing system.

While there may have been public housing built in Britain prior to this, it was the Addison Act of July 1919 that really paved the way for large scale council house building.

And now, a century since Lloyd George’s pledge became a reality – the council house, or social housing as it is now, is under threat.

It’s not a new threat – it’s a 40-year-old threat brought about by another of our eminent PMs – it is of course Right to Buy.

Right to Buy was one of the defining policies of Margaret Thatcher’s reign. It was a policy that was widely celebrated by many at the time – providing the opportunity for aspirational working-class folk to own their own home.

But 40 years later, that very policy has had and continues to have a devastating effect on the social housing sector – depleting stock at an alarming rate and compounding the housing crisis.

It may not come as a surprise, but I’m no fan of Right to Buy. It’s a divisive policy that I’d argue increases the gap in equality between those who have and those who have not.

The policy in practice does not work. Research has shown that around 40% of properties brought through Right to Buy end up in the private rented sector (PRS). There’s nothing to stop someone purchasing their home at a fraction of its worth and then renting it out the very next day.

Probably not quite the type of ‘home ownership’ Maggie was peddling back in 1979.

Plus, once these properties end up in the PRS, they often deteriorate in quality – I imagine that Right to Buys account for a large chunk of the 30% of properties here in Greater Manchester classed as ‘non-decent’.

For Salix Homes, since we underwent a stock transfer from Salford Council four years ago, we’ve lost 304 properties through Right to Buy – sold at an average discount of 51.4% of their value. Financially the total lost in discounts is £13.3million, but to society, it’s 304 homes gone from the social housing system forever.

With 6,000 people on the housing waiting list in Salford, where Salix Homes is based, it’s the people in most desperate need who are losing out – the homeless, people in poverty, families on the breadline.

A quick glance at our own housing stock really brings the problem of Right to Buy into perspective. At a recent count, we had just 17 properties available for rent – the lowest number we can ever remember.

Compare that figure with the 24 homes lost through Right to Buy in the first quarter of this year and you can see just how acute the problem is in our own backyard.

Among our own tenants, we’ve got around 5,800 who still have the Preserved Right to Buy. No-one could blame them if they exercised their Right to Buy, but with a total housing stock of 8,000, the consequences would be dire.

I get the attraction of the policy for the lucky few who benefit from it. Who wouldn’t want to purchase a property at up to 70% less than its market worth? You’ll end up with a mortgage less than rent and an asset worth far more than you paid - it’s a no brainer. But that subsidy has to come from somewhere, and ultimately that somewhere is the taxpayers’ pocket.

My own family have benefitted from it – my mum, sister and grandparents all purchased their homes through Right to Buy, but having worked in social housing now for more years than I care to remember, I see every day the devastating effect of this policy, and it’s time it was scrapped.

For every property that’s sold to one of the fortunate few, it’s one less available to those struggling to put a roof over their head. We need more social housing to address housing need, yet this is taking it away.

Here in Greater Manchester, Mayor Andy Burnham has made tackling homelessness a key priority.  Following on from previous initiatives to provide a route off the streets for some of our most vulnerable residents, the Housing First programme has just launched – aiming to provide a place to call home and a pathway to build a better life.

But for such a scheme to be a success, it relies upon a steady supply of properties for people to move into, and while Right to Buy continues, that supply chain is reducing every single day.

Successive Governments have failed to grasp that the answer isn’t just to build more homes. We can’t build them at the same rate we lose them – and there just isn’t the land available. We’re in danger of increased polarisation in communities between those who own their homes, those in social housing, and even worse, those who find themselves homeless.

If this country is serious about tackling the housing crisis then we need to think beyond supply and look at retention in the one area of the housing market that protects the most vulnerable.

So, as we celebrate 100 years of the council house, the harsh reality is that if we’re to still be here in another 100 years, then Right to Buy has to go.