On Monday, the Conservatives’ ‘big doorstep offer’ for the general election was revealed: a promise to give 2.5 million housing association tenants the Right to Buy their homes.
Since 1980, more than 1.5 million council houses have been sold off at discounted rates in what is already the largest asset sell-off in British history.
This latest plan would take us deeper into a long-standing economic project that has been the hallmark of each Government since Thatcher: privatisation.
The rate at which the current government has pursued this project is impressive. In the past five years, stakes in the likes of Manchester Airports Group, Royal Mail and, most recently, Eurostar have been sold off to private companies, pension funds and foreign governments. British Rail went years ago, as did coal, steel, electricity and the other ‘commanding heights’ of the economy. Britons now have less of a collective stake in the national economy than most of our continental neighbours, and less than at any time since the birth of our modern welfare state.
While high profile privatisations like those of Royal Mail and East Coast have attracted petitions and protest, the biggest of all has been done by successive Labour and Tory governments on the sly. Over the past 25 years our council housing stock, once owned and managed by local authorities, has been slowly but surely sold. So far, homes worth £45 billion have been sold at a discount. As a result, the proportion of people living in council houses dropped from 31% in 1981 to just 18% in 2011. At the same time the number of people renting from private landlords went up by a third to 18%.
Many of the people who bought their council houses later sold them on to private landlords, who rented them to people on housing benefit who couldn’t get a council house – thus putting evermore taxpayers’ money into the pockets of buy-to-let landlords.
Right to Buy, framed so well as a liberation for individual householders, has decimated this country’s social housing stock and left a generation of people without the prospect of buying a home or renting one from their local council. By extending the Right to Buy to housing association tenants, the Conservatives would further undermine the principal of social housing and the finances of providers who allocate housing according to need, not income.
The privatisation of this country’s council housing is at the very heart of the neoliberal project that has taken hold of the British economy for the best part of the last 40 years. A consensus has formed that says we gain as individuals when we lose what we collectively own. This mantra, which has faced little opposition from the establishment parties, is now beginning to unwind.
In London, where the housing crisis has reached boiling point, the fight-back has already begun. Whether it’s the E15 mums fighting for the right to a home, or the two and a half thousand people who rallied for housing last week – the seeds of change have now been sown.
The time for half measures is over. We need to build houses – hundreds of thousands of them – and keep them in public hands. We need to end the biggest privatisation in British history, and we need rent controls pegged to an affordable level.
Rather than selling our social housing, the Green Party would build 500,000 council homes in the next parliament. Solving this country’s housing crisis will bring us face to face with the free market ideologues who have held power in this country for a generation. But let’s not be daunted. The prize of decent, affordable homes is worth fighting for.