We’re in the middle of a housing crisis. There’s no way of escaping that. Despite a population twice the size of Canada, housebuilding in Britain is half theirs. The Tory plan to extend the ‘right to buy’ to housing association tenants will be hailed by some as an example of how the Conservatives are on the side of the low paid working-classes. These are after all, supposedly, the tenants of housing association properties. The reality is far different. And the Conservatives’ resurrection of ‘right to buy’, jolted into life as if a zombie Thatcher walks the halls of Downing Street, is only going to make things worse.
I spent the first five years of my life living in a housing association terrace. I don’t live there any longer, and nor does my family. My parents saved up a bit, waited for their wages to increase, and when they finally scraped together enough for a deposit thanks to a bit of family assistance, they got a mortgage and bought their own house. When we moved out, a new family moved in. No loss to the housing stock. This is how social housing is meant to work.
Like Rowntree’s cycle of poverty, there’s a cycle of housing. And from this cycle, a scapegoat appears: the tenants that prefer to stay in their homes. These tenants are being used to make the extension of ‘right to buy’ a catch-all solution to the housing crisis. The line of argument goes as follows; these tenants are (stubbornly) staying in their houses that they love too long, and are crying out to be allowed to buy their houses and free up capital for more houses to be built.
Never mind the fact that successive governments since Thatcher have failed to build enough social housing, local authority housing continuing to decrease year-on-year. Never mind the fact that many of these tenants can’t afford, or just can’t have (for employment reasons) a mortgage. Never mind the fact that these people are paying rent already. “Let these tenants buy their houses, and all will be well.” These tenants are being used as a means of fulfilling a costly manifesto pledge, to build more housing.
And let’s not forget that the only people that will be able to afford their housing association terraces will be the more affluent of the working-classes. As these workers buy their homes, how can we be sure that the money will actually be spent on new homes? Housing associations are actually in a large amount of debt which rents primarily service. The Tories would have to force housing associations to build more homes, which is ideologically the same as forcing the Co-op to build more stores.
If the housing stock is progressively sold-off to the better-off workers, we run the risk of ghettoisation and marginalisation. If you’re a fairly well-off young family with small children, you’re probably not going to want to buy a house on a street of problem families or drug addicts. Whereas the nicer streets will be quickly snapped-up. The result will be housing associations with housing stocks comprising of the marginalised in society, with declining house values, while the nicer streets will be quickly rising in value. This is just what happened in the 1950s and 1960s under Macmillan, as ‘new estates’ hailed as bastions of a ‘classless society’ were quickly carved up into no-go streets.
Of course, this is exactly what some hard-right Tories would surely like. With some form of Benthamite Victorian relish, social housing becomes a deterrent, like the rest of the welfare system, to get people to aspire out of their class. The streets of the working-classes, once slums, now council estates, become slums again. The extension of the ‘right to buy’ is just a further example of divide and rule. Dividing between property-owners and tenants. Last year, Britain built 141,000 homes, far short of the abandoned 240,000 target set by Labour in 2007. Can the Conservatives really be trusted to ensure more social housing is built with money that isn’t even theirs? We’ll find out on May 7th.