05 October, 2015

This right-to-buy deal will wreck our plans for truly affordable homes

At Hackney council, we want housing associations to guarantee homes lost under right to buy will be replaced at social rent

This blog post first appeared in the Guardian Housing Network on 5th October 2015.

The past week has seen some of the most significant arguments in years about the future of social housing.

It started when the National Housing Federation and housing minister Greg Clark announced the proposal of a voluntary deal on extending right to buy to housing association properties. It continued through the Labour party conference where myself, many other Labour housing leads, London assembly member Tom Copley and shadow housing minister John Healey challenged housing associations to reject the deal. But following the vote on Friday 2 October, the vast majority of housing associations have signed up.

Last Tuesday, I wrote to housing association boards because, like many others including Red Kite, I believed a week was too short a time to scrutinise a deal that will bypass parliament and alter the supply of social housing.

The NHF says it does not endorse the forced sale of council homes to pay for it, but given there’s no sign that the government has any funding solution this is what it will do – undermine provision of social housing and do little to ensure future supply, whatever lip service is paid to the idea of one-for-one replacement.

The counter-argument is that it safeguards social housing held in trust, preserves the independence of housing associations and will allow them to continue delivering new homes. London housing associations have promised, according to Inside Housing, to build 93,000 new homes – but how many will directly replace what we have lost?

The key question I put to the government, the mayor of London and housing associations is where and when this new housing will be built, and under what tenure? I ask not just because I’m a Labour councillor who passionately believes in social housing, but also on behalf of the 2,100 families in Hackney in temporary accommodation.

Those families’ lives are on hold as they wait for a stable home in accommodation provided at a high cost to local and national taxpayers, as well as themselves. Our duty and commitment to those families has not changed, but decisions made in boardrooms and Whitehall have undermined their chances of living in a truly affordable home. While hoping I’m wrong, I fear they will not end up in one of these promised 93,000 homes.

If things proceed, council homes will be sold, right to buy (and, by association, buy to let) will expand and nowhere is there a guarantee that homes lost at social rent will be replaced at social rent.

I support the aspiration of home ownership, but not at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable. Hackney is building nearly 900 new council homes for social renting, 500 homes for shared ownership and 1,200 for private sale. Long ago we resolved to stop being dependent on grants and instead self-finance. But just as we start to deliver, the rules are being changed, with the 1% rent cut to social housing and the move to force councils to sell off properties to fund the expansion of right to buy.

Even if this deal is agreed, I hope housing associations will oppose the housing bill and forced sales. I hope they continue to have a social purpose and help us replace all the social homes lost with new homes at social rent.

I support social housing because it is the only hope we have of stopping the hollowing out of communities. It’s why I am supporting the Our Homes, Our London campaign and why I am working with colleagues to oppose this bill.

Council and social housing is not dead. Before May we had started to see a renaissance of ambition and delivery across London. The days and months ahead will determine whether this continues.

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