Allowing housing association tenants to buy will remove affordable homes

In recent months, there has been a lot of publicity about the threats facing national parks. Now there is another issue looming which, though less well-publicised, could create as big a problem as funding cuts, potash mines, or telecommunications masts.

This is the Government’s plan to give the tenants of housing associations the right to buy their properties – and it could have catastrophic consequences for Dartmoor’s rural communities.

The right for council tenants to buy at substantial discounts was introduced by the Thatcher Government in the 1980s, but it did not apply those in housing association homes. The present Government intends to pass legislation that will extend the right to buy to 1.3million housing association tenants, at a discount of up to £77,000 per property.

Greg Clark, the Communities Secretary, claims that this will create a level playing field, increase house building and reduce social housing waiting lists. A closer examination suggests otherwise.

There is already a shortage of open-market housing in rural areas, which suffer from lower-than-average wages and higher house prices – on average 26% higher than in urban areas – as commuters, holiday home owners and retirees compete to push up prices. In the national parks the premium on house prices is even higher. Many young people on low incomes have been priced out of the property market and driven to seek housing outside the region, denying rural businesses the staff they need.

Social housing has provided a safety net for some

In some urban areas, social housing has provided a safety net. However, in rural communities, the original right-to-buy has already contributed to a serious shortage of affordable housing – about 12% of the total housing stock, as opposed to 19% in urban areas. This will get much worse if right-to-buy is extended further, and many much-needed affordable properties will be lost forever.

The government has pledged to replace each home sold to a tenant with another affordable home; experience suggests that this just won’t happen. Nationally, only 46% of properties sold under right-to-buy legislation over the last three years have been replaced. In Devon, Cornwall and Somerset in 2013, the figure was less than 10%.

In theory, if right-to-buy is extended, local authorities will have to sell off their vacant higher-value properties to fund one-for-one replacements. However, according to the National Housing Federation, about 465,000 council houses have been sold in rural England since the right to buy was originally introduced and 65% of rural local authorities no longer own any homes. So where will these higher value properties come from? The government is consulting and housing minister Brandon Lewis has promised to outline the details when the Housing Bill is published in the autumn.

The economic case for extending right to buy seems questionable at best. Why is the government so keen on this? According to Mr Clark, “it is what a government for working people is about – making sure people have the security they need to build a brighter future for them and their families.” But why should tenants who have already enjoyed years of paying affordable rents be gifted £77,000 towards buying their homes – let alone the potential to obtain significant profits if they subsequently sell them? Are they more deserving than the millions of families who pay much higher private-sector rents, or the 1.8 million families on council waiting lists, or the 3million adult children living with their parents because they cannot afford to rent or buy?

The UK housing problem is not one of too few home owners, but of too few homes. We don’t have a problem with demand, we have one of supply: for more than 40 years we haven’t built the homes the country needs. Extending right-to-buy will not provide more social housing, it will remove it forever; and the money handed out as discounts would be far better spent on building new affordable properties, to provide homes that will remain available to house future generations.

In Dartmoor National Park it is estimated that a large proportion of the 1,600 housing association homes could be removed from social housing stock because of right-to-buy. The temptation to realise a healthy capital gain will be enormous, with erstwhile social housing sold to the highest bidder. In another national park, the Yorkshire Dales, 1,000 homes were built in a recent ten-year period, but the park population rose by only 100 people – they were snapped up for holiday cottages and second homes. Housing provision in the national parks should include the right proportion of affordable rented housing. The Housing Bill should exempt national parks from right-to-buy provisions, or risk causing serious decline in economic and social well-being of areas like Dartmoor. We want to see economically active local communities, not an unhealthy mix of the retired, second homeowners and half-empty holiday properties.

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