When in a hole, stop digging: how Right to Buy became bad politics as well as bad policy

The front page of The Times today has the latest attempt to wring some more votes out of Right to Buy. The newest idea is a sort of Right to Buy on steroids: a give away of social homes, for free, to anyone in work longer than a year. Its running mate is applying RTB to housing association properties, without giving them the money to replace the stock.

There’s lots of good reasons this is dubious policy (many picked up by ConHome’s Paul Goodman). It’s already enraged Housing Associations rightly worried they’re about to have a huge hole blown in their balance sheets. It also wouldn’t build any more homes, the only real solution to falling home ownership.

But there’s even more reasons its bad politics, in the short and long-term.

Most obviously, first of all, it’s sure to build resentment among aspiring home owners and their anxious parents – a crucial swing voter group. Despite years of working and saving, all they have been offered by successive governments is piecemeal solutions which do very little to alter their situation (the latest of which is Help to Buy). Now they will see social renters gifted ownership for free.

Much of this has already come through in the reaction to the policy among papers No 10 tend to enjoy the support of. The Times itself wrote it up as a “give away”, while the Daily Mail has picked up the same theme.

But it doesn’t stop there. Right to Buy on these terms is likely to build resentment even among those we are told it’s aimed at: UKIP voters. YouGov data shows that UKIP voters are more likely than any other voter group to be renting but wanting to get in to social housing*. By flogging off all the stock, this policy will make it even harder for them to do so.

So how did we get here? How has a policy once emblematic of aspiration and opportunity in the 80s lost its resonance today?

The answer is simple. Right to Buy, as implemented,  has dug its own grave. Because successive governments failed to build social rented homes, Right to Buy shrunk the social housing stock. As it did so, it residualised it to a smaller group of people: overwhelmingly those in need of housing benefit who couldn’t take advantage of RTB anyway.

Which explains today’s mooted ideas. But the fact remains that the number of social renters is declining significantly, with waiting lists growing, and the private rented sector growing ever larger. As a result, increasingly those struggling and aspiring for ownership in today’s housing market are in the private rented market – whether low or middle income. Right to Buy means nothing to them at all. And if these latest ideas are implemented, over the long term it will only reduce the pool of voters to which RTB is relevant further still.

All which creates an open goal for its opponents (mostly in the Labour party), who can get away with attacking Right to Buy (in Scotland and Wales) in a way they never could twenty years ago.

So, in short, Mr Crosby, if you want an ‘eye catching housing policy’ for lower income voters, but want to keep Right to Buy, combine it with a big programme of new social rented homes. Building more affordable homes will also win you fans in the Conservative party, such as Tim Montgomerie (read his excellent blog here), and bring the housing benefit bill down too.

In addition, you can combine it with an alternative ‘retail offer’ for more middle income aspiring home owners that actually builds homes – we’ve even polled them for you. A new generation of reformed part-buy, part-rent homes or truly affordable ‘rent to buy’ homes, will win votes and sort out the fundamental problem: a shortage of homes.

Either way, today’s solution is simply a dead end politically. Fans of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men will recall Lennie, a lovable giant who just loves his puppy so much, not knowing his own strength, he hugs it to death. So it is with Right to Buy. With every hug of the policy by some of its biggest fans, with every extension without building more social homes, the squeeze on its neck gets tighter.


*Figures below. And that’s based on those who voted UKIP in 2010 – one would expect that figure to be even higher on current voting intention, given the party’s growth since then among the urban working class.


Source: YouGov for Shelter, January 2014. Sample: 6,000+.