David Cameron is channelling Maggie Thatcher when he says the tenants of housing associations should have the right to buy the homes they rent. She won working-class voters over by letting them buy their council flats. The left have never forgiven her. Today, they are channelling the left-wing critics of that scheme in the 1980s, complaining that Cameron’s selling-off of housing association properties will increase homelessness.
‘Where will your children live?’, demands Owen Jones. In houses and flats, Owen, just like before. The proposal is not to demolish homes, but to change the legal title of ownership, from being owned by the housing association to being owned by the current tenants. Jones objects that the problem is that too few homes were built. He is campaigning for a Labour vote in this election. But he has not so far pointed out that under the Labour governments from 1997 to 2009, housebuilding fell short every single year, creating the problem we face today.
In the New Statesman, Jonn Elledge mocks the Tory proposal as meaning ‘the only way to make sure we have enough houses is to give away houses’. That would seem to be very clever. How could we have more homes by giving them away? The answer is that the ‘we’ who are giving the homes away is ‘we’ the housing associations. The people that they are proposing to give them to – sell them to, in fact – is the people who live in them. The stock is not lost to its tenants; they just become owners. The stock is lost to the housing associations.
Of course it is right to say that the reform will not solve the housing shortage (for the same reason that it will not make it any worse). Changing the titles of ownership will not increase the number of houses. The underlying problem is not whether they are rented or bought, but whether there are enough of them to house the people that need them. And currently there isn’t.
By the same token, though, the left is lying when it says that the sale of housing association stock will reduce the overall housing stock. Assuming that the sale of housing association flats follows the pattern set by the sale of council flats, there will be only three reasons why people will buy them: to live in, to rent them to someone else, or to sell them to someone else. Whoever owns the properties, they will have no interest in keeping them empty. With prices and rents as high as they are, it should not be surprising that the number of empty homes is at an all-time low.