Right to Buy is making the housing crisis worse. Here's how to reform it

The government should ban private landlords from buying former council housing and abolish discounts on the properties.

In October 1980, Margaret Thatcher’s first Housing Act as Prime Minister introduced the Right to Buy. Over 30 years later, this flagship policy, which was ostensibly about helping aspiring home owners, has facilitated the transfer of thousands of council homes into the hands of private landlords.

Yesterday I published a report, From Right to Buy to Buy to Let, which shows that at least 36% of all homes sold under Right to Buy in London are now rented out privately. Surely there could be no better indication of the extent to which the policy has represented poor value for money to both taxpayers and local authorities alike?

In the case of taxpayers, not only did they pay to build the home, they then subsidised the considerable discounts offered to tenants and then – once the homes were sold – missed out on the rental income that would have covered the build costs. To add insult to injury, with 36% of former council homes now in the private rented sector, taxpayers are left to foot the bill for extra housing benefit to cover excessive, unregulated, private rents. This is because many of these homes will be let to benefit claimants, while many would-be council tenants are now forced into the private rented sector. In some London boroughs, the average housing benefit claim by private sector tenants is over £100 a week – £5,200 a year – more than council tenants.

Even more absurdly, local authorities are now frequently forced to rent their former homes back at market rates to discharge their statutory homelessness duties. Right to Buy has led to the pillaging of local authority housing budgets by central government, and handed a huge state subsidy to those council tenants fortunate enough to be able to raise a deposit. Eric Pickles’s recent announcement that discounts will increase from 60% to 70%, meaning homes can be bought for less than a third of their market value, is nothing short of Whitehall-sanctioned robbery of taxpayers and local authorities alike.

Why on earth should taxpayers, paying sky high rents in the private sector with no hope of raising a deposit to buy a home, subsidise better off council tenants to buy their home? Had local authorities been required to replace the homes sold, the situation today would no doubt be rather different. But not only was there no requirement for them to do this, they were actively prevented from doing so because receipts from Right to Buy sales were kept by the Treasury. To a great extent, the causes of London's current housing shortage can be directly traced to this decision.

When the coalition announced they were reanimating the corpse of Right to Buy, they made much of their commitment that every home sold will be replaced. Yet in London it takes 1.6 sales to fund one new property, with no guarantee that the replacement will match the size or rent of the home sold.

My report makes the case for significant reforms to Right to Buy. Most notably, in recognition that Right to Buy should be about genuinely supporting aspiring home owners, it shouldn’t be possible for these homes to ultimately line the pockets of under-regulated private landlords. Covenants should be placed on these homes to ensure they are never let privately and breaking this covenant should be a criminal offence, as it is to illegally sublet a council flat. Discounts, which force local authorities to write off a huge proportion of a property’s market value, should be abolished. In the spirit of localism, councils should have a "right not to sell" if it is not in the community interest to do so, or if it would undermine their ability to respond to local housing need. Finally, if a home is sold, it should be replaced; one-for-one and genuinely like-for-like.

Housing is the greatest challenge facing London and is the most significant threat to the capital’s economic future. Right to Buy, as it is currently constituted, has played a central role in causing and exacerbating London’s housing crisis and inflating welfare spending. Reform is long overdue.

A resident walks towards council run housing in Lambeth on London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.