What benefit from the Right to Buy?

The revitalised Right to Buy - what does it mean for rural communities? Stuart Davies investigates.

The revitalised Right to Buy - what does it mean for rural communities? Stuart Davies investigates.

So the Chancellor's autumn statement confirmed that there would be a revitalisation of the Right to Buy policy. Why a revitalisation? Well the policy has been gradually eroded by a rising gap between average incomes and house prices, the increasing concentration of people in social housing on benefits, the recent difficulty of mortgage availability, and the reduction by successive governments' of the discounts available to tenants. The result is Right to Buy sales have slowed to barely a trickle.

The Chancellor called the RTB 'one of the greatest social policies of all time' and undeniably for most, although not all who were able to take advantage of it, it was beneficial. Buying an asset with a 50% discount, brilliant, who in those circumstances wouldn't want to take it up and would not take pride in their good fortune.

But the consequences of RTB going forward have been profound for both urban and rural communities, accentuating the polarisation between the haves and have nots. Not immediately mind, because those who purchase continued to live in their former council houses. But over 20 or 30 years those original occupiers move on. And those homes are lost as a community asset for local people forever.

In urban communities in the most run down estates 'right to buy' was never popular. The assets were never desirable and the discounts didn't mean a great deal when there was no market to purchase when you came to sell. In this sense the RTB policy reinforced the stigma which started to attach to large inner city housing estates in the 1980s and because the supply of new affordable homes was woefully inadequate, the RTB also meant there were fewer chances of getting out to a home on a better estate.

In just as profound a way it has had an effect in rural communities. Disproportionately it is in rural towns and villages that the RTB was most 'successfully' implemented, if success is the right word.

In many cases the available stock of homes at an affordable rent plummeted over that same 30 year time span gradually leading to a growing social exclusion which has broadly meant fewer and fewer people on low incomes being able to stay in their immediate local communities. This added in many cases to other changes such as the migration of retirees to the countryside and the snapping up of smaller cottages as second homes. And those homes that were developed as new affordable housing were not in equal measure back in those most rural of communities.

My concern is that the return to large discounts and the government backed mortgage offer may just continue the movement pushing us further towards a polarisation between those who can afford to live in the country and those who can't. If that happens who will work in the pub, at the farm, provide the care we need in our rural homes as we grow older?

The one hope is that Mr Osborne suggested for every home sold a further new home will be produced I struggle to understand the maths of this. First there will be a discount, then the existing Council and government debt needs to be cleared and then you are left with a receipt which can be used to develop a new home.

I wonder whether this will be enough to build one home for every one sold, I've seen others suggest the best that may be hoped for is one new home for every three RTB sales. Perhaps we should push as the detail emerges for a clear commitment that every new home sold through the RTB in rural communities is replaced with another in a similarly rural location.

Given the difficulties of trying to get development off the ground in rural areas and the relatively limited affordable housing targets generally, I think we are unlikely to get it. So my view is, like the last time round, a new RTB will increase social exclusion in rural communities and because of that should not be supported.


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