If Liberal Democrats are serious about Housing, we will fix ‘Right to Buy’

Right to Buy is back in the news after it emerged Labour Deputy Leader Angela Rayner made a £48,500 profit on her ex-council house using the scheme. Whatever you think about this, I do agree with Angela that housing aspiration isn’t the issue – it’s failing to replace homes that are sold off. Liberal Democrats need to lead the charge to reform Right to Buy.

Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government introduced the Right to Buy scheme in the United Kingdom, allowing council tenants to purchase their homes at discounted prices. At the time, it was hailed as revolutionary, promising social mobility and homeownership for the masses.

As the years have passed, it has become increasingly evident that Right to Buy has failed to live up to its lofty aspirations, exacerbating rather than alleviating the housing crisis in the UK.

By allowing tenants to buy their council homes at discounted rates, the government inadvertently depleted the stock of affordable housing available for those in need. This has created a vicious cycle where the demand for social housing far exceeds the supply, leading to skyrocketing rents and homelessness. The cost of building new homes is simply not covered by the receipts from Right to Buy.

Amidst a housing crisis of unprecedented proportions, characterized by over a million people on council housing waiting lists and eye-watering spending on temporary accommodation, the status quo of the Right to Buy scheme is untenable.

The latest figures paint a stark picture: while thousands of homes are sold through Right to Buy each year, the number of replacements falls drastically short, resulting in a net loss of social homes. Councils can’t, and the private sector isn’t building enough genuinely affordable homes.

In Southwark, we know all too well the devastating impact this policy has had. Southwark had the 4th highest number of Right to Buy sales in London and the 3rd highest difference between loss and replacements.

The implications of this trend are profound. Vulnerable individuals and families find themselves locked out of secure, safe social housing, while local authorities grapple with dwindling resources and escalating demand. It is imperative that we take decisive action to rectify this situation.

As a Liberal Democrat member of the Local Government Association’s Local Infrastructure and Net Zero Board, I’ve recently worked with colleagues from all parties to publish a paper on three crucial reforms that are urgently required to safeguard our social housing stock and ensure everyone has access to quality and affordable housing:

We need to give councils control over the use of funds raised through the Right to Buy, enabling them to invest in the development, delivery, or acquisition of new council homes as per local needs. Local councils understand their local housing needs best and they know the solutions required for their communities.

· We need to protect council’s investment in social housing to prevent loss-making transactions. We can do this by increasing the tenancy requirements to enable right to buy to 15 years, exempting newly built and retrofitted homes from right to buy and introducing an indefinite cost floor protection so the purchase price of the property does not fall below what councils have invested to build and maintain homes.

· We should allow councils to shape the Right to Buy scheme according to their unique circumstances. For example, councils should be able to set the discount levels on which homes can be purchased, and in some areas, this could be at 0%. This localised approach ensures that housing solutions resonate with the needs and aspirations of local communities.

You’ll see the recommendations align strongly with the major Housing Motion we passed at the Autumn Conference 2023. Both note the significant loss of homes from the social housing sector (amounting to 330,000 during the 13 years of the last Labour Government), as Right to Buy took social housing away and allowed much smaller levels of social home rebuilding. The Motion we passed rightly highlighted the proactive steps taken by the Scottish and Welsh Governments to abolish the Right to Buy, indicating a potential pathway for change. Like the LGA it called for local government to have the power to abandon Right to Buy, depending on local need.

As we gear up to the General Election, we must ensure housing reform and housebuilding is at the heart of the Liberal Democrat Manifesto. Tackling the Housing Crisis is the liberal thing to do. We must be the party that learns from past mistakes, listens to the experts and protects social housing over short-term gains.

If Government were to adopt the LGA reforms it would allow Councils to regain our position as a major house builder of affordable housing. The Right to Buy scheme must embrace transformative reforms that will serve the needs of our diverse communities.

Last Autumn, Liberal Democrats showed we are the party that care about housing and building thousands more homes. We must now show we are serious in tackling our housing crisis and help councils to build the 100,000 social homes we need each year, safeguard the future of social housing, and uphold the fundamental right to safe and secure housing for all which a Liberal Government enacted a century ago.

* Cllr Victor Chamberlain is a Liberal Democrat member of the Local Infrastructure and Net Zero Board at the LGA and is the Leader of the Opposition on Southwark Council.

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  • Stuart Bourne 28th Feb '24 - 1:26pm

    This is absolutely correct. Because of right-to-buy, councils are not encouraged to build the large number of council houses we need. We need it reformed and should be at the heart of a liberal policy.

  • Chris Butler 28th Feb '24 - 3:43pm

    This is an excellent policy idea Victor

  • The discount should be 0% in all cases, otherwise it is just a transfer of community assets to individuals.

  • Martin Gray 28th Feb '24 - 4:45pm

    @Alan ..The discount took into account the amount of rent paid across the tenancy..If it was based on market value – then many tenants would never be in a position to meet that valuation, & would never get on the housing ladder …The real tragedy is they were not replaced when ‘sold’… As the author points out – 1 million + on the social housing list & billions spent servicing that list through temporary emergency accommodation etc …One thing the author doesn’t touch on is net immigration running at 600k + ..Adding a city the size of Bristol to the UK population each year just isn’t sustainable…

  • As someone who had spent my working life in Methodist Church houses (a sort of tied cottage arrangement) I was not too keen on getting on a housing ladder and would have not been averse to social housing. However waiting lists were long and the local private rented sector was pretty dire. So I retired into owner occupation and literally learned to live with it. I still worry about the way this country tends to over-emphasise the financial investment element more than most other European countries. Victor Chamberlain’s housing need focus and practical proposals highlight where Liberal Democrats ought to be in the present housing climate.

  • Mary Fulton 28th Feb '24 - 5:59pm

    If we are to retain a right for tenants to purchase the property they rent, it should apply equally to all tenants whether they rent from a council landlord or a private landlord. Of course, I realise we will not adopt such a stance as we don’t want to risk losing the votes of private landlords (and council landlords don’t have votes).

  • Mick Scholes 28th Feb '24 - 10:00pm

    The country need to “acquire” rather than just ‘build’ new social housing. Options include: Refurbish existing derelict properties; buying existing houses and making them available as social housing; converting existing premises to housing etc. We also need to ensure every rented property is fit to live in – safe , secure warm and weatherproof, and available on a secure lease without any type of ‘no fault’ eviction. It is clear to me that being a private landlord should never be seen as a sideline or hobby as many see it, as housing is fundamental to the lives of all people and should be regulated as such.

  • Michael Bukola 28th Feb '24 - 11:10pm

    I would certainly urge against being seen to be introducing punitive measures like 0% discounts and increasing the length of tenure by which one can qualify under RTB and instead move towards incentives. Speaking as someone who actually lives in social housing In Southwark, RTB embodies liberalism, as a privatization mechanism, it opposes the intervention of government and encourages independence and responsibility at the level of the individual. My own view is that RTB was a cynical ploy introduced by the Conservatives to avoid maintaining the upkeep of council properties which were very often poorly designed and readily fell into housing disrepair. In retrospect, Today’s Southwark Council has the third-highest number of Housing Ombudsman complaints in the UK, due in large part to the level of housing disrepair in the borough.

  • Steve Trevethan 29th Feb '24 - 9:30am

    Might “the right to buy” be an assertion and not profound, reliable truth?

    Might the underpricing of council houses have been deliberate, as it was with “privatisation”?

    Might a submerged purpose of “right to buy (below real cost)” be to remove cheaper competition with the private sector as well as to weaken local, more responsive local government?

  • David Franks 29th Feb '24 - 9:43am

    Thatcher certainly did not inadvertently reduce the numbers of social rented homes it was a deliberate part of the plan. When they introduced right to buy their legislation also banned local authorities from using the income to replace their Council houses. there was nothing inadvertent about it!!!

  • David Franks 29th Feb '24 - 9:46am

    In Luton more than 40% of sold Council houses are now privately rented and the Council is renting some of them to use as temporary accommodation for homeless families. The whole thing is madness.

  • @making right to buy mandatory for private rentals would simply eliminate the private rental market!!

  • Whether RTB is a success depends on where you are in the country. It may have exacerbated housing shortages in the South East but elsewhere it created mixed tenure neighbourhoods and allowed people to own assets to pass on to future generations. Many of these properties wouldn’t have become available anyway as if there was no RTB the occupiers would have continued to live there as tenants.

  • Peter Martin 29th Feb '24 - 1:34pm

    @ Marco,

    “Many of these properties wouldn’t have become available anyway as if there was no RTB the occupiers would have continued to live there as tenants.”

    Of course they could have lived there as tenants for as long as they liked.

    But often tenants wish to move on at some point. Even if they don’t no-one lives forever and they’ll move on in a different sense! Sooner or later the council properties would have become available for other tenants.

  • The big question is whether “Right to buy” is appropriate. I suggest it isn’t and the best way to “fix it” is to terminate the scheme and then change the mix of housing on new developments to increase the amount of new social housing, to say 40% and for it to be mingled rather than separated in to “ghettos”.

    A big issue is the way the social housing sector is currently financed and regulated, it encourages large operators rather than community-based operators. I suggest social housing is about local community and so local community engagement and involvement is needed to help breakdown barriers and to get people to appreciate the asset (to a community) social housing represents. This also rather nicely sidesteps the enlargement of local authority control which makes it harder for a future Conservative government to target it in the way Tatcher targeted council housing in the 1980s.

  • Peter Martin yes but then there is the right to succeed to a tenancy and so on. I prefer to reform RTB including the ideas in the o/p, banning profits from early sales and funding councils to buy back RTB properties but would not scrap it altogether.

  • The problem is that many people don’t want the cultural richness that social housing brings, sprinkled around their otherwise exclusive properties.
    I know several families that have chosen to buy old houses in exclusive areas rather than buy a new build in the proximity of social housing.

  • I hate the Tories yet I fully support Right To Buy. This scheme is the only way my elderly disabled mother and I will stay in our home of 35 years without being evicted onto the streets where we will be homeless. I am a fully time carer and we cannot afford a property at full market value. Renting a property is dangerous due to no-fault evictions meaning people are evicted at any moment for no reason. We want security in our life and to stay living in our lifetime home. If the discount is reduced then all that is doing is only allowing rich tenants to buy their social homes. There needs to be a way for poor tenants on low incomes to buy their home, and Right To Buy is the only way to do it. The problem is not tenants buying their homes, but rather the government not building new homes. In addition, if someone buys their social home, then stop them from selling that home or renting it out for a minimum of 10 years, make sure tenants only buy a home to live in. We will never vote Liberal Democrat due to their reluctance to keep Right To Buy in its current form. Ending or changing Right To Buy will increase homelessness as it means social tenants could never buy their home, and will end up homeless on the streets if evicted.

  • Anonymous 6th Mar ’24 – 8:27am………This scheme is the only way my elderly disabled mother and I will stay in our home of 35 years without being evicted onto the streets where we will be homeless…..

    If you have lived in a council property for 35 years what makes you believe that you will be evicted?

  • Peter Davies 6th Mar '24 - 9:52am

    No fault eviction should be banned either by this government (as promised) or the next. Social providers didn’t do it anyway except on grounds that that would justify compulsory purchase.

    A nearby estate was recently demolished. It was pretty horrible and the tennants were generally quite happy to be moved to better homes in the borough. The people who were really hurt were the leaseholders. What right to buy could not cope with is that you can never buy a flat. You can just take out a lease and leasehold has serious problems.

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