Right to Buy divides people

Hackney councillor Clare Joseph writes on the practical consequences of Right to Buy and why the policy should be ended.

When the LCCH asked me to write something on the Right to Buy, I wondered what I could say that hadn’t already been said. Right to Buy means we lose irreplaceable Council stock, an average of 50 homes a year in Hackney. It’s a policy that has to stop if we want to protect council housing.

But then I thought about the uncomfortable part of the right to buy policy. The difficult part, and the reason perhaps that it hasn’t been banned before now, is that it makes sense, it’s a really good idea, for the individual. For many others however, as we shall see, it is a terrible idea. The right to buy policy divides people, working class neighbours who probably have a lot in common, into winners and losers. I think this was the intention of the Conservatives who created the policy.

I’m going to give some real-life examples to help explain this. I promise these are real people, and not convenient inventions like those invoked on question time by senior politicians, met “when they are out on the doorstep” or “down the pub”. I would never do this!

Take my friend C. She moved into her one bedroom council flat at 16 and she still lives there, more than twenty years later. Over that period of time she met her partner and had two lovely children. They all live there, tripping over each other, in the same one bedroom flat. They can’t join the housing register to bid for a bigger home because they are not classed as being significantly overcrowded. Councils have so little housing stock these days that many have restricted the criteria that make you eligible to join the housing register. If you have a living room, they say, you can use that as a bedroom, which is what C and her partner do. The children are of opposite sex but being of primary school age they can legally share a room. So, four people living in a one bedroom flat are not officially overcrowded, except we all know that they are, and we know that living rooms are supposed to be for living in, for eating in, not for sleeping in. We know that children need space to play and to learn in, and that we all need some privacy occasionally. The excellent Full House report by Shelter in 2005 also identified sleep disturbance, family arguments and not being able to have friends over, as some of the effects of crowded housing.

The situation has of course got much worse since 2005, and in their more recent 2021 report The Social Housing Overcrowding Scandal, Shelter states that 1.5 million people are now estimated to be living in overcrowded social housing.

Much of the crisis in mental health that we often hear about can, I believe, be linked directly to the crisis in housing. Many of us don’t have enough space or security of tenure, or enough income to pay high rents. Everyone needs a base, a place to call home, an address from which to apply for jobs, bank accounts or benefits. A place where you can shut the door and relax. If you don’t have that security, or a whole family is squashed into a space intended for one or two people, then you are quite likely to have some kind of internal reaction, hence the disproportionate existence of mental health problems amongst people with housing needs. Even if bad housing didn’t cause your mental health problem, it’s unlikely to help it improve, as the charity Mind points out in their analysis of the circular relationship between bad housing and poor mental health.

Regardless of all these potential impacts, C and her family cannot join the housing register. Even if they could, their wait for a bigger home would be many, many years, because the council doesn’t have enough social housing and there are others in worse situations. Governments have not funded council housing. C and her partner do not earn enough to rent privately, and, even if they did, they would arguably be foolish to give up a secure council tenancy for a private sector contract which could easily end in a section 21 no fault eviction, or an above inflation rent rise. They can’t afford to buy either; the average London House price is now £550,000 – £723,738, depending on which source you use. They’ve been on all the mutual exchange sites and tried to upsize. So, what other options are available to them?

I mentioned that C has had her council flat for more than 20 years. She was never a fan of right to buy but when the happiness of your family is at stake, well, yes you might. So they did. They bought their council flat with quite a big discount and eventually they plan to sell it and use the money to buy something a bit bigger and a bit cheaper outside London. Their children will have their own bedrooms and maybe even a garden to play in. Who could blame C for acting in the best interests of her family? Not me. And that’s the problem with the Right to Buy. It pits the individual against society, neighbour against neighbour in an arbitrary way. Someone manages to buy and escape, someone else remains in an overcrowded situation.

What happens next?

What happens when C leaves her flat, the flat she did up bit by bit over more than 20 years? Who buys it? What do they do with it? Well, first of all it won’t be council housing anymore, so it will never again be rented out at a social rent. Unless of course, the council decides to buy it back, which some desperate local authorities have been doing across London, spending millions buying back their own homes at market rate; the homes they were forced to sell at discount, with no guarantee that the same thing won’t happen again and again, in a never ending cycle of expense.

Of course, when a home bought under Right to Buy is sold on, sometimes it is bought by someone who wants to live there and become a resident leaseholder, but 40% of ex-council homes end up being rented out in the private sector, often by buy to let investors for around 340% more than the original social rent. (I got this figure by comparing the average Hackney council rent with the average private sector rent). This is all madness for the tax-payer in economic terms alone, regardless of the social impact. And again, it’s very divisive. We now have people living in exactly the same kind of council homes, but some are paying council rents and their neighbours are paying expensive private sector rents. How can this not create division?

Mr H is an elderly resident in my ward. I met him on a roving surgery on a council estate one day and he took us up to see the flat he was living in. Like C’s, it was overcrowded. But unlike C, he didn’t have the option of buying this flat, because he was a private tenant in an ex-council flat. The two-bedroom ex-council flat he was living in had been divided up using false walls to create a five bedroom house of multiple occupancy. There was no communal living space, and Mr H’s little bedroom (since condemned) was dangerously close to the kitchen. Mr H pays nearly £800 a month to live there. The landlord was making around £4,000 a month renting out a flat that was built using public money (and it’s likely that at least some of the residents were claiming housing benefit, so the taxpayer was paying again). This was all made possible by the Right to Buy policy. Mr H and C have similar housing problems, but the solution C felt forced into – buying under the Right to Buy scheme and planning to sell – could be seen to indirectly make Mr H’s expensive, squalid situation possible. As the housing stock shrinks and conditions get worse, more people who can possibly scrape the money together to buy will likely do so as a means of escape, resulting in even less stock left to go round for everyone else.

Winners and losers

With Right to Buy, there are arbitrary winners and losers. The winners are the family who buy at a discount and can later sell at a profit, or live in their own home, which they can then leave to their children. This is funded by the state, and by default the council tax payer, in the form of the right to buy discount given to that family.

There is no real reason that the person who gets to buy should do so, it is just that they happen to live somewhere covered by Right to Buy. They qualify through length of tenure, and they can get a mortgage and a subsidy from the council. This shifting of money from the state to their family seems unfair and divisive. It seems likely that this was a deliberate side effect of the Tory policy, which has done a considerable amount towards breaking up working class communities and positing people against each other.

Another example of the division caused, is the resultant competing interests on the same estates, for example when it comes to refurbishment. Often tenants are eager for capital works programmes to come forwards to improve things like poor insulation or water ingress, but leaseholders may understandably dread or wish to delay improvements, as they may be obliged to pay substantial amounts towards works.

Similarly and sadly, private sector tenants in ex-council flats tend to be a more transient population than council tenants, for obvious reasons such as their lack of security of tenure, meaning that they are arguably less likely to play a cohesive, long term role in the estate community or to invest in their homes.

As we have seen then, the losers in this are all the potential council tenants who could have lived in the Right to Buy flat in future and benefited from the social rent. The current occupants of social housing lose out too, as they exist in a diminishing pool, which offers increasingly fewer options for internal transfer to more suitably sized and located homes. This means more and more social tenants live in inappropriate, overcrowded housing, not to mention all the private renters living in overpriced and overcrowded ex-council homes, served up to private landlords via the right to buy scheme.

As ever, the pressure on the remaining, scarce social housing contributes to its media characterisation as ghettoised, unpleasant housing from which people should aspire to escape. So the ultimate result of the Right to Buy is that council housing becomes something to get out of, rather than something to live in on equal terms with all your neighbours. When they introduced the policy, the Tories set out to undermine council housing, and that is exactly what they have achieved.

I don’t blame anyone for exercising their Right to Buy. I have good friends who have done it and it’s led to them moving to better housing, in areas they preferred to live in. It’s a sensible personal decision, but what is clear is that the positive effects are limited to just one individual or family, and the negative effects are felt in a wider way. We cannot ask people to choose between their family’s happiness and the happiness of a less tangible, broader society. Why should they have to choose to sacrifice themselves for the greater good? The Labour Party must clearly commit to ending the Right to Buy, so that it is not a matter of individual choice, and so that the remaining pool of social housing is protected. This must be combined with a mass programme of council home building, as well as funding for councils to buy homes back; these combined could make decent council housing for all a possibility.

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