Ignore the spin - social housing is still under threat from the Conservatives

The Tory approach is the last thing we need, argues Tim Farron.

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In my speech at the Liberal Democrat Conference a couple of weeks ago I made housing my number one priority and said that our party would oppose the forced sell off of housing association properties. We would use our influence in the Lords, working with peers in other parties, to defeat the government. I made it clear that Liberal Democrats were prepared to fight them tooth and nail on this dreadful policy.  This is not about dry housing policy, it’s about people. It’s about whether our children and grandchildren will be able to afford a home. I will not stand by as the government flogs off the houses they will one day need to live in. We need action now.

There were record numbers of people at conference listening to this speech, and also many watching on TV - not least, it seems, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Greg Clark.

So I was pleased to see that just days later the Government announced what sounded like a U-turn on its manifesto pledge. Instead of forcing housing associations to sell their properties under the right to buy extension, the government had asked them to decide whether to voluntarily opt in.

Liberal Democrats have long defended housing associations against the forced sell off, questioning the legitimacy of a government decision to force the sale of assets held by charities and not for profit companies. We believe in working with the sector not imposing change from above.

But don’t be fooled by Tory spin. While the voluntary nature of the proposal is a welcome change of heart by the government, critical issues remain. This is still an economically illiterate and socially divisive policy with devastating consequences, which was flung into the Conservative election campaign in a last minute attempt to grab some votes by invoking memories of Thatcher. 

Firstly, selling off housing association homes does nothing to address the national emergency in housing. The huge shortage of affordable homes in the UK causes millions of people to suffer on a daily basis, with 1.6 million people on social housing waiting lists, unable to get on with their lives. The government’s plans still mean giving huge cash handouts to a tiny minority, while making things worse for many others.

Secondly, the policy will be funded by selling off what the government considers ‘high value’ council houses which will slash affordable homes in crucial areas. These are not huge mansions but very ordinary homes, which happen to be in areas where house prices are soaring. The government’s approach should be to build more houses in those areas, not to force those living there out.

Thirdly, there is no requirement for replacement homes to be built in the same area as those sold off. This means affordable homes will be depleted in certain areas, breaking down communities and resulting in social cleansing as people are forced elsewhere. For a party that supposedly upholds family values, they seem completely ignorant of the fact that their policies rip them apart.

If the Tories are serious about tackling a national emergency like housing they need to take immediate action. I have called for bold measures to allow councils to borrow funds to build the homes we desperately need; to ban developers from advertising properties overseas before they advertise them in the UK; to establish a housing investment bank to boost house-building and to lay the groundwork for ten new Garden Cities.

We are at crisis point. We have ludicrous house prices, not enough affordable homes and an overheated private rented sector. The last thing we need is this homes sell off.

Tim Farron is Member of Parliament for Westmorland and Lonsdale and a former leader of the Liberal Democrats.