A year ago the housing association sector gathered for the annual NHF conference in Birmingham reeling from attacks by Prime Minister, David Cameron and Chancellor, George Osborne following the election of a majority Conservative government the previous May and desperately trying to build bridges with the DCLG Secretary of State, Greg Clark. Extending the Right To Buy to housing association tenants had been a late addition to the Tory election manifesto to try to win a few votes. At the time they were anticipating another coalition government. So a policy that would have been unlikely to survive coalition negotiations became, post-election, a Conservative manifesto commitment which had to be implemented.
Twelve months later, remarkably, the situation has changed. We have new Prime Minister, a new Chancellor and a new DCLG Secretary of State. Following the referendum, Brexit is the political priority and, with Labour in disarray, there is no need for the Tories to pursue ‘popularist’ policies for the sake of a few votes here and there. Furthermore, there are plenty of precedents for new mid-term Prime Ministers dropping the election promises of their predecessors.
For the housing association sector, the priority is to build more affordable homes. There is little disagreement about this. We have no problem with home ownership but all the statistics show that there remains a massive need for affordable homes to rent.
The Voluntary Right To Buy deal between the sector and the Government was a compromise, cobbled together a year ago in very different political circumstances. It still hasn’t been implemented. The terms, which are complex, are still being discussed. There are likely to be many properties which are excluded. Take up in the pilot VRTB schemes that have been running has been low. Local authorities are concerned about selling their high value social housing to pay for discounts to housing association tenants.
More importantly, charitable housing associations don’t want to sell their stock with homelessness increasing and when there is so much need for rented accommodation. Some may seek legal advice and other ways to avoid selling their homes. Reclassification will be an issue if the Government tries to force sales.
Many housing associations have shared ownership properties for sale and would subscribe to a practical NHF/Government scheme to help tenants wishing to access shared or home ownership. Some associations are already running such schemes (e.g. Home Group).
But now the circumstances have changed so much, should we not be looking as a sector for ways to resist Right To Buy sales of charitable housing association property rather than embrace a voluntary scheme? Let us instead get on with the urgent task of building more affordable homes.