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The government is turning its back on social housing for good – as new plans for shared ownership show – iNews

Robert Jenrick has proposed giving housing association tenants a right to buy their homes through shared ownership

Wednesday, 2nd October 2019, 11:45 am

Updated Wednesday, 2nd October 2019, 12:15 pm

Britain's Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick (ISABEL INFANTES/AFP/Getty Images)

The year is 2019. The Conservative Party Conference is in full swing in Manchester where Prime Minister Boris Johnson was momentarily seen with a single use coffee cup. Knowing how bad the optics of this were - because a teenager is having to school politicians on the severity of the climate crisis - his aides quickly replaced it with a Brexit branded mug.

Elsewhere, housing minister Esther McVey is speaking about another crisis - the housing crisis. Reassuring attendees that the Government is across innovative building methods she said: “We’ve got to get more people into construction full-stop. But if we have this new way of doing it – 3D architects, 3D visionaries, doing it with it on a computer, doing it, there’s a whole new raft of jobs, and lots of younger people want to come into that new era, err, arena of job.”

For the avoidance of doubt, architects have been using computers and 3D modelling for quite a while. It just seems McVey didn’t get the memo delivered to her via owl quite in time for her party’s conference. This gaffe wouldn’t have been so worrying if it hadn’t have come at the same time as an announcement from the Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, which suggests the Government is not only scraping the barrel for ideas on housing but returning to the ideological aversion to social housing that we saw during the Cameron and Osborne years.

At a time when Shelter estimates we need three million more social homes, this is the Government’s offering - to sell off the social housing we do have (Getty)

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Given this Government has said and done relatively little on housing so far, perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that there was next to no mention of housing in Chancellor Sajid Javid’s speech. Indeed, it was conspicuous by its absence. Nonetheless, the Housing Secretary’s announcement was a chance for the Government to showcase their big ideas for what Theresa May called “the biggest domestic policy challenge of our generation”, but they were found wanting.

Jenrick’s new bright idea? To give housing association tenants a right to buy their homes through shared ownership. This makes no sense for several reasons. Firstly, at a time when housing charity Shelter estimates we need three million more social homes, this is the Government’s offering - to sell off the social housing we do have, converting into market housing and diminishing our already limited stock. Secondly, the proposal gives tenants the right to buy 10 per cent of their home and staircase up from there, but this could be costly for the very people it purports to help because their options for shared ownership mortgages are far more limited.

More than this, the idea is hardly new. In 2015, the Conservative Party’s manifesto under David Cameron included an unashamed extension of right to buy for 1.3 million families in housing association homes with huge discounts capped at £103,900 in London and £77,900 elsewhere. As things stand, there is no detail on whether Jenrick’s idea (should it become a reality) would involve discounts at all.

It's not clear if tenants will be given discounts

Regardless of the damage this could do to an already limited stock of affordable housing, or the marked move away, once again, from seeing the value of social housing as an asset for the state that this announcement represents, if anything, Jenrick’s proposal seems rather less radical than Cameron’s because it’s not clear if tenants will be offered discounts at all.

We need more affordable housing for people on lower incomes so why focus on finding ways to sell off social housing when we need to be building more of it?

With an election constantly looming, it seems this is more politics than long term policy. And, as we know, playing politics with housing tends to end badly. As one former Number 10 spad from the Cameron years recently told me, Right to Buy is generally regarded as the most ingenious political messaging of all time. That’s why the architects of Help to Buy so deliberately echoed it.

But four in ten Right to Buy homes are now owned by private landlords, billions of pounds worth of public funds are paid to private landlords in housing benefit and Britain’s population of private renters - many of whom would have once lived in social housing - continues to grow. A policy that was meant to promote home ownership and the “property owning democracy” has decimated it.

Where May put social housing back on the agenda, lamenting that “many people in society - including too many politicians - continue to look down on social housing and, by extension, the people who call it their home,” before putting measures in place to build more of it, Johnson made it clear that he is not interested in social housing by failing to mention it at all. In her first speech in the role in July, McVey pledged “to make the dream of homeownership a reality”. This week Jenrick has said that “the property owning democracy is not an end state but a perpetual goal” that his party “must strive for”.

This government has consistently shown their priorities lie elsewhere and now they are turning their back on social housing as an idea in favour of promoting homeownership, whatever the cost. Just as imploring individuals to buy reusable coffee cups while the politicians look the other way won’t solve the climate crisis, talk of “3D architects” (whatever they are) and tinkering around the edges of housing policy with new versions of old policies won’t do anything to help the housing crisis. In fact, it could just make it worse.

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