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3 May 2022

The resurrection of Right to Buy shows the Tories’ poverty of ideas

The latest version of an already failed housing crisis policy is a frantic attempt to get good press before the local elections.

By Jonn Elledge

Well, here we go again. On Sunday night, 1 May, there was a kite spotted above the pages of the Telegraph: news that Boris Johnson wanted a new “Right to Buy” for people renting from housing associations. Officials had been asked to come up with a plan, involving either substantial government discounts or (great use of “somehow”, this) to “somehow use the taxpayer billions spent on housing benefit to let those recipients use it to get mortgages”. All this, the paper’s political editor tweeted, could benefit up to 2.5 million households and “be [a] boost for Red Wall” – a line that we must assume came straight from Downing Street, because it certainly didn’t come from this plane of reality.

If all this sounds a bit familiar, let me take you back to the run-up to the 2015 election – when the Conservative leader, a now little-known figure by the name of David Cameron, announced plans to, er, extend right-to-buy to housing associations.

Cameron’s motivation then was clearly exactly the same as Boris Johnson’s now: firing up the Tory base by genuflecting to one of Margaret Thatcher’s most popular policies, that of giving council tenants huge discounts to buy their homes. Sure, that may have contributed massively to the current housing crisis by flogging off social housing stock without replacing it, and by 2017 40 per cent of the ex-council homes sold were in the hands of private landlords. On the other hand, though, it had won the Tories lots of lovely votes. Surely, Cameron must have thought, we can do that again?

No, it turned out they couldn’t. For one thing, house prices had got a lot higher since the 1980s, meaning that the discounts required had got a lot more expensive, too. For another, housing associations are private bodies, not an arm of the state, making it all but impossible to force them to sell their stuff without compensation. And so, despite a self-congratulatory press release, the scheme came under fire from everyone from Shelter to the private real estate industry, and by early 2016 the Tory-dominated Communities Select Committee was calling for it to be shelved.

Why is the policy back now? It isn’t, despite that comment in the Telegraph, because it’ll boost the Red Wall: Tory success in those seats was built on the fact they’re stuffed with brand-new homeowners already. It’s far from clear that this policy would drive more votes there even if it worked. Which it won’t.

It won’t do anything to address the real causes of falling home ownership, either (ever-higher prices, ever-larger deposits, the rise of buy-to-let and so on). Bluntly, the people who want to buy homes but can’t are overwhelmingly private tenants, not housing association ones; yet the government seems oddly shy of finding ways of forcing private landlords to sell to first-time buyers at a discount, even though its commitment to property rights is clearly wobbling.

Some might read this as yet another invitation from the Conservative Party to renter voters to get stuffed. I’m not so sure: I doubt those voters have ever even crossed the Prime Minister’s mind. Nor, come to that, has the housing crisis. In 2015, the head of research at real estate giant JLL described the first version of this idea as “good politics, but… terrible policy”: now, as then, the problem this policy is actually there to solve is the “lack of positive press coverage in the run-up to an election” one.

In other words, the return of this failed Cameron-era policy is a reminder of the fact that, when it comes to actual policy, the cupboard is now entirely bare. Still, it’s very good of the Daily Telegraph to do its bit to disguise the fact.

[See also: The Tories have nothing to show for 12 years in power except low growth and misery]

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