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30 September 2015

Don’t be fooled – housing associations are still under threat

The threat to social housing is still very real, and it hasn't gone away, warns Tom Copley.

By Tom Copley

When I heard that Greg Clark had announced that the government’s promised extension of the Right to Buy to housing associations would be voluntary and not mandatory I had an initial sense of relief. Whilst the policy was still fundamentally wrong, at least it was better than that which was originally proposed in the Conservative manifesto.

But the devil is always in the detail, and in this case the detail is horrifying.

In reality this is not a voluntary scheme. Housing associations will collectively vote on whether to accept the government’s terms. If they do, even those associations that oppose Right to Buy will be expected to sell their homes. The small print of the scheme essentially says, “you have discretion about whether you sell a home, but you must sell a home.” That is a gun to the head of social landlords.

But what is more damaging is that the scheme will still be paid for by the most pernicious aspect of the Conservative manifesto pledge: namely the forced sell-off of council housing.

This will dramatically deplete the stock of social housing in inner-London, where the UK’s housing shortage is already most desperate. It will ensure that the thousands of families on housing waiting lists in inner-London never get an opportunity to enjoy the security of a council home. It will also drop a bomb in the middle of new council house-building programmes that are actually delivering new social housing in London for the first time in generations and threaten regeneration schemes.

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The Communities Secretary, Greg Clark, claimed the deal would preserve housing associations’ social mission. It does not.

By agreeing to this deal, housing associations would preserve their own independence, but they would be directly agreeing to attack social housing in the council sector, thereby condemning thousands more families to a lifetime of unnecessary insecurity. The reality is that the depth of the housing crisis in London means that many more lower-income households would be forced out of London altogether as a direct effect of this ‘deal’.

For months there has been an all-out attack by the government on housing associations. During this time housing associations’ outstanding house building record has been slandered (even though 40 per cent of all new homes in the UK are currently built by housing associations) and their very existence as organisations independent of government has been brought into question.

I can therefore understand why associations may feel the need to agree to this deal in order to maintain their independence and give them marginally more discretion over where they sell affordable homes.

But the reality is that the deal would gift the government their damaging election pledge on a silver platter and ensure the government policy avoids an almost inevitable defeat of the Housing Bill in the House of Lords. During a time of austerity, and with the prospect of £60 billion worth of additional debt ending up on the Government books, it is also highly debatable whether the Government would want to threaten the independence of housing associations by having them reclassified as government liabilities.

In London it doesn’t really matter whether a social home is lost voluntarily or via a mandatory scheme, each lost home deprives a family in need of a much needed place to live.

Agreeing to the deal would suggest self-interest, not social conscience. The extension of Right to Buy deserves proper and full parliamentary scrutiny, not a shady deal between the NHF and government. Housing associations should not become collaborators, and I urge them to do the right thing and reject this “deal”.