Benefits to Bricks and Boris Bluster

This government is stuck on the letter “B”. Build Back Better. Bus Back Better. And now Benefits to Bricks. And, of course, there is the perennial Boris Bluster. The speech Boris Johnson gave in Blackpool on Thursday seemed to be more about keeping Johnson in his home at No 10 than getting others into homes. Although billed as a “housing speech” it was more a rambling justification for Johnson’s position. Although the main topic was meant to be housing, we heard of olive oil and bananas, Suez and Ukraine, inflation, policing, health, cost of living, riots and much more on the way to mortgages and a right to buy for social housing tenants.

We were told we are living in good times: “People don’t face the misery of the 1980s or 1990s”. Johnson failed to mention that all but three years of those decades were under Conservative governments. And that there wasn’t then a food bank in every community. And when he said, “Everyone can see and feel the impact on household budgets”, I briefly fantasised that he too was flat broke and was facing the cruel choice between fuel, heating and food.

This government is out of touch with how hard times are for many people. And that shows in its current announcements, including Benefits to Bricks.

The basics of Benefits to Bricks have only been sketched. The government aims to make “it easier for hard-working people to put away a little each month until they have enough for a deposit on their first home”, perhaps through an ISA. There will more flexibility to use benefits to pay mortgages if people lose their jobs. There is nothing particularly controversial in these measures, though whether this will go down in history as political bluster or as a policy that made a real difference remains to be seen.

The main plank of the policy is to breathe life into a long standing Conservative commitment to sell social homes to tenants at a discount:

“I want us to deliver on the long-standing commitment… to extend the right to buy to housing associations. There are now 2.5 million households whose homes belong to housing associations – and they are trapped. They cannot buy, they don’t have the security of ownership, they cannot treat their home as their own or make the improvements they want.”

Michael Gove has pledged to replace homes sold off on a one to one basis. We have heard that so many times before and councils have only been funded to replace one third of the council homes they have sold.

Like the Right to Buy, this policy may well prove popular but it is bad housing policy. And it is bad timing for the housing sector which has replaced only one third of the council houses sold off. There are now 1.4 million fewer households in England in social housing than there were in 1980. House prices have soared and private rents have soared. Selling off social homes will further reduce the stock of housing available for those who cannot afford a mortgage or need the support provided by a housing association. The policy will reduce flexibility of housing options. An analysis by Shelter shows a significant deficit in social homes, which can only be made worse by this policy.

Lord Kerslake has led the criticism of Boris Johnson’s announcement. He points out that social homes are not the governments to sell, that the Treasury thinks the scheme poor value for money and 40% of council homes sold off under Right to Buy ended up in the private rented sector. As a result, it is suggested that £9bn is paid in housing benefit to private landlords. Kerslake is not the only critic. Shelter called the announcement a “baffling, unworkable, and a dangerous gimmick”. Crisis said: “This ill-conceived announcement is the exact opposite of what we need to tackle the mounting housing crisis.” The National Housing Federation said the pilots “have shown that there is not enough money from sales to build new social homes to replace those sold, meaning a net loss of social housing.”

I have little doubt that part of the political rational for the Right to Buy for council homes and the new policy for social homes is the belief that home owners are more likely to vote Conservative. This was the theory behind for the Homes for Votes scandal in Westminster in the 1980s. Early research showed that purchasers under Right to Buy were more likely to vote Conservative than non‐purchasers. But recent research suggests that Tory voters are more likely to buy homes (rather than buying a home makes you think Tory). If anything, those that change their political views on purchase tend more towards Labour towards than the Conservatives.

This is a wrong headed policy which will undoubtedly be cheered through the Common by backbenchers. But it will just add to the misery of those that cannot get a decent home that suits their needs.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Thursday editor of Lib Dem Voice.

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5 Comments

  • Helen Dudden 13th Jun '22 - 10:46am

    For years, Power Wheelchair users have been stuck in waiting many years after those who need General Needs.
    Yesterday I tried to get to Sainsburys in Bath, so many broken pavements.
    After, the Tower where disabled people passed being told to wait.
    Disability is not respected, many years on things still need desperate change.
    A wheelchair user, I am human.

  • Andy Boddington 14th Jun '22 - 7:36am

    Gove admits that the government does not how to fund Benefits to Bricks.

    https://www.cityam.com/gove-admits-treasury-doesnt-know-how-it-will-fund-right-to-buy-scheme/

  • Helen Dudden 14th Jun '22 - 8:42am

    Andy Boddington. Spending benefits on buying a house, it can’t get more ridiculous than that. I’ve owned my own home, things do go wrong and need servicing and repair.
    I suggested many years ago that a public body should be set up to look at the problems. Would Housing Association problems carried on for so long? Bad repairs and customer service. The anniversary of the fire at the Towers and cladding still an issue.
    To get public opinion in a better place it will take effort and results.

  • Peter Davies 14th Jun '22 - 9:31am

    A more realistic objective might be to allow the homeless to save up enough of a deposit to rent.

    There is a higher work allowance in UC for those not in receipt of housing benefit. It’s worth £1511 p.a. to those earning between £6876 p.a. and the point where UC tapers to below this figure. It would be relatively cheap to convert this to a lower cap on the housing element of £1511 p.a. to be paid even to those not paying rent.

  • Neil James Sandison 18th Jun '22 - 7:17am

    There are plenty of good housing association schemes to enable tenants to convert rented tenures to home ownership for example rent plus . Raising the deposit and securing a mortgage you can afford to pay is a key stumbling block . As we slip into another recession /stag-flation just affording to keep the home you already have will be hard enough getting onto the housing ladder at all be it rented or home ownership will be a struggle many will lose . A sustainable flexible tenure package is required not more rehashed policy from a government that has run out of steam and new ideas .

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