The strange case of a government housing policy that won’t happen

Everyone in the sector will recall the surprise late insertion into the 2015 Conservative election manifesto of a policy to extend the right to buy to housing association tenants – funded by the enforced sale of council assets.

I recall chairing a post-election consultation meeting between DCLG and housing association CEOs and local authority directors of housing in July 2015 – when DCLG asked for advice on how to implement the sale of council assets.

Over two years on, DCLG still hasn’t arrived at a formula setting out how it will calculate the value of assets to be disposed by each authority – let alone consult the sector on it. There are two simple reasons for this: developing the formula is difficult, and ensuring all authorities will deem it ‘fair’ is impossible.

London boroughs would be hit hardest

Then there is the issue that the bulk of asset sales will fall on the London stock-retaining boroughs. A flat rate formula (requiring say the top 5% in value of all English retained council stock to be sold when vacant) will not raise enough money to fund the extension of right to buy for housing associations., so any levy is likely to be tougher on London.  The authorities most-effected will be Conservative controlled councils such as Kensington & Chelsea, Westminster and Wandsworth. The leadership of these councils has indicated complete opposition to the government’s proposals.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that there was no reference in the 2017 Conservative election manifesto to housing association right to buy, or to forced council asset sales.

The concept of forced asset sales has become even more toxic in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy, and particularly in light of DCLG’s apparent refusal to support council (and housing association) reinvestment in fire safety.

Parliament approval required

Then there is the fact that the policy requires secondary Parliamentary approval become it can be enacted. The government only has a simple majority with DUP support. Inside Housing has reported that up to 15 Conservative MPs are prepared to either vote against the measure or abstain – presumably including members whose constituencies fall within Conservative-controlled London boroughs. And as we have been reminded this week, DUP support for the government’s legislative programme does not extend to social or welfare legislation.

The simple fact is that the forced asset sales measure will never gain Parliamentary approval and will eventually go the way of the now discarded Pay to Stay proposals.

And if there are no forced asset sales there will be no right to buy for housing association tenants.

My advice to DCLG is ‘come clean’ and formally drop the policy – any further work is a waste of time.  Councils need to know where they stand  as, according to senior sources in local government, the uncertainty is holding back their ability to invest in new housing, essential maintenance and fire safety remedial works.  It is in no-one’s interest to maintain this façade any longer.

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