Just a few weeks ago, David Cameron had not decided whether to extend right-to-buy to a further 1.3 million families in housing association homes. The idea, from Iain Duncan Smith, was relatively new and carried risks. As all radical policies do – but you can see why Cameron would be worried about this one.
Imagine two men, who work next to each other in a factory. One rents privately, the other rents from a housing association and is now offered a massive discount to buy his house: up to £102,700 if he’s in London, £77,000 outside it. He’s is over the moon: his capital gain would be more than he’d be able to save in a decade or more.
But his workmate would be gutted, and would think to himself: I played by the rules. I finished school, never claimed a day’s dole and had the temerity to rent privately. And for that reason, I’m excluded from Cameron’s bonanza. Note to self: never vote Tory again.
Hence Cameron’s caution. Yes, this is a quintessentially Tory policy: it embodies the conservative mission to transfer power from government authorities to the people directly. It’s part of the wider theme of freedom and opportunity. As Thatcher put it in 1974:-
“The right to own the land on which your house stands is quite emotive in English history…. I do not propose to deny that right to people because they live in council houses.”
Much criticism was, then, made of council house sales – a policy that ended up being hugely popular. As Charles Moore puts it in his Thatcher biography:-
It produced huge political loyalty to Mrs Thatcher, often from people who had never voted Conservative before… By 1983, it would become commonplace for people, mainly from the upper working class, to declare ‘Maggie got me my house’.
But at first, there was scepticism. As there is now: polls show just 34pc of voters like the Cameron’s new plan (39pc don’t, and 27pc aren’t sure).
But frankly, caution is a luxury that Cameron can no longer afford. The logic for this policy is sound: we need more social housing, so we need to encourage tenants who no longer need it to vacate it then build more housing with the proceeds. But I am personally unsure that Cameron can communicate this rationale (beyond platitudes about the virtues of home ownership) so his motives will be questioned.
But what the hell. He’s just weeks away from an election that he shows no signs of being able to win and he needs something for the C1 and C2 voters: the kind of people who backed Thatcher then defected to Blair. There was nothing much in George Osborne’s budget for them (or anyone else) which, in retrospect, was a mistake: the Tory campaign needed more oomph then. And extending right-to-buy is intended to supply that oomph now.
In theory, this policy will give 1.3 million households a very good reason to vote Tory – if they can get their head around the policy in time. There are only three-and-a-bit weeks to go until polling day. Cameron will need to start explaining and selling the policy immediately: he has very little time to lose.
UPDATE Here’s what he’ll say..
“Conservatives have dreamed of building a property-owning democracy for generations. The next Conservative government will extend the right to buy to all housing association tenants in this country. So this generation of Conservatives can proudly say it: the dream of a property-owning democracy is alive — and we will fulfil it.”
There are 2.5 million housing association homes, of which 1.3 million have tenants who have lived there for three years or more so would qualify for right-to-buy when it comes into effect in April 2016. And yes, this would cost – but it’d be funded by forcing councils to flog 15,000 of their priciest homes each year as they become vacant raising £4.5bn a year. The idea is to raise enough cash to build a new house for every one sold – but this time remembering not to concentrate social housing in deprived parts of town.