The biggest long-term threat to the Conservatives is neither partygate nor even the cost of living crisis – but declining rates of home ownership. As Mrs Thatcher understood, when people are able to afford their own home, they become more conservative in outlook. They put down roots in their local area and they gain a vested interest in capitalism – just look how Mrs Thatcher won and held on to aspirational areas such as the new towns. That the rate of home ownership plunged from 70.9 per cent to 62.6 per cent between 2003 and 2017 (it has since recovered slightly) goes quite a long way to explaining why Jeremy Corbyn became such an attraction for young people in the general election of that year.
But Boris Johnson’s plan to instigate a right-to-buy for housing association tenants is not the way to fix this. While right-to-buy might have been a good policy in the 1980s, the problems it created have become very apparent since. The supply of social housing in many areas plunged as social homes became private housing. Receipts from council house sales were supposed to fund new social housing, but how, as a council, are you supposed to fund a new home when you have just been forced to part with a property at a 70 per cent discount to its normal market value?
The right-to-buy classes have tended to cherry pick the best council housing, too – standalone houses with large gardens, for example – taking out sites where development could have been intensified. This is no more than a reheated version of the promise made by David Cameron in his 2015 manifesto, but which was quietly dropped when Theresa May became PM.
With prices in London and many other places now so high, the right-to-buy has become a handout to a very particular group: people who shouldn’t really be in social housing at all. If you are on a low income and living in a central London council property, even a 70 percent discount is not enough to help you exercise your right to buy. If, on the other hand, you are earning £100,000 a year and occupy a council home by virtue of inheriting the tenancy, then you are presented with an extraordinary opportunity to enrich yourself.
Rather than flog off housing association homes, what the government should be doing is ending these mega-developments built almost exclusively for oversea investors in the likes of Battersea. Rather than allow the land to be used for the promotion of London property as a global asset class, local authorities should be granting planning permission for homes which can only be sold to owner-occupiers.
It would be straightforward to do this. There are plenty of properties around the country which have restrictive covenants limiting their use to holiday purposes – banning them from being used as main homes. So why can’t we have new homes in London and other expensive areas which have covenants preventing them being used as rental – or worse buy-to-leave – investments? Then prices would have to come down to the level that owner occupiers could afford.
The right-to-buy is only ever going to be a marginal contribution. What the Conservatives need is a decisive step back in favour of mass home ownership. That can be achieved by pushing back against the mega buy-to-let developers.