That the Conservatives came up with the idea of extending the right-to-buy to housing association tenants was a symptom of their failure to believe they could win this year’s general election. Such an ill thought-out policy can only have made it into the manifesto in the expectation that it could be used as a bargaining chip in the coalition negotiations which were expected to follow.
Today, communities secretary Greg Clark announced a significant weakening of the manifesto promise. He said he would consider an alternative scheme put forward by the housing associations themselves, which would exempt many properties, such as those funded by charitable donation. In some cases, tenants may be offered the chance to buy alternative properties, with the aid of vouchers funded by taxpayers.
Yet the principle remains: a relative few lucky people with housing association tenancies will be gifted large sums from the public purse to realise their property-owning dreams. These bungs will be funded out of the taxes of many people who would themselves like to buy a property but cannot because house prices are too high.
When Mrs Thatcher introduced the right-to-buy for council housing in 1980 this was not so much of a problem. Then, virtually everyone who was too well-off to qualify for a council property could afford to get on the housing ladder. Now, in London, the south east and several other parts of the country, home-ownership is an impossible dream for vast numbers of people. They are too well-off to qualify for social housing and yet too poor to buy a home. They are destined to spend much of their lives in the private rental market, where there is no right to buy and no bungs on offer.
This demographic is going to feel pretty aggrieved when people who are theoretically poorer than they are suddenly leapfrog over them and become homeowners at their expense. In many cases, rather than just sit and feel aggrieved, they will surely seek to do whatever they can to access social housing – and through it the dream of home-ownership.
This is what seems to escaped the Conservatives. Not only will the right-to-buy diminish the supply of social housing, as housing associations find themselves unable to replace the lost properties; it will also hugely boost demand for it. Imagine you are 25 and looking ahead. Are you going to carry on renting privately, knowing that it will do nothing to help you eventually become a homeowner, or are you going to try to get your name on the social housing list, knowing that it could be a big stepping stone to owning your own home?
There are ways, of course, to boost your chances of getting into social housing. You could engineer a personal crisis, such as unemployment. You could fall ill with stress. You could get yourself pregnant. You could try to get a job as a public sector keyworker – regardless of what you want to do in the long term.
You can bet that entrepreneurial young people will try them all. Giving people bungs to buy housing is never a good idea, but with a £90 billion deficit it is a criminal way to fritter public money.
Former energy and climate secretary Ed Davey called the right to buy a ‘Robert Mugabe-style land grab’. Tories may mock, but that is exactly the expression they use when the Scottish government offered crofters the right to buy their homes from private landowners. Housing associations, too, are private organisations, so what is the difference?
Ross Clark’s musical, The White Feather, is on at the Union Theatre, Southwark, until 17 October