Yet again we have the Policy Exchange to thank for a policy, fully incorporated into the Conservative Party Manifesto, aimed at destroying social housing. But with the plan to sell off high-value council houses they have plunged below even their low standards. What, if anything, can councils do about it?
The policy would require the top third in value of all council houses to be sold when they fall vacant, an estimated 15,000 sales per year. A report from a small group of London boroughs has looked at how this would work in more detail. It estimates they’d need to sell 3,500 houses and flats in the next five years. This gives a real measure of the scale of the disaster that’s about to befall those areas where these more valuable homes are located.
As Colin Wiles points out, the effects will be concentrated in certain areas rather than being pepper-potted, as the government is believed to be planning to define ‘high value’ regionally (so London will be one of the regions). In Westminster this would literally mean all relets – 400 units per year – being sold, with none being available to families on the waiting list (including, presumably, those waiting to downsize because of the bedroom tax).
In 2013/14 the number of council lettings to new tenants across England was already down to half what it was ten years earlier, and with rising right to buy sales, estate regeneration schemes and continuing low levels of council new build we could already expect this number to fall still further. But at least every dwelling that falls vacant currently can be relet. Although we don’t yet know the details of how the new scheme will work, presumably any potential relet of a property that appears on a (yet to be compiled) ‘high value’ list will have to be aborted and the property sold. Imagine the frustration of council staff and nearby tenants as – instead of immediately being let to a new family which has probably been waiting for many years for a home, often stuck in temporary accommodation – the most popular houses and flats are boarded up to await a sale.
Chances are that buyers will have no connection to the local area and will very likely be buy to let landlords who will immediately let the homes at much higher rents, with no pre-letting redecoration or the future maintenance they would have continued to get as council properties. What’s worse, in many cases this will happen to every vacancy that occurs in a particular estate, because all will be classed as high value.
At least with right to buy there is a sitting tenant in place while the sale goes through. With the new policy, houses will sit empty while (presumably) council surveyors try to get the best price. And of course there is nothing to stop the buyer themselves keeping properties empty and just using them as an investment. The waste involved simply through the turnover of stock and potential void periods is unconscionable.
Can anything be done to thwart these plans? Of course, we know that housing associations may well take legal advice on whether the government can really force through the linked policy of right to buy sales in their stock, but unlike councils they aren’t (yet) part of the public sector. Local authorities are creatures of government and much more constrained in how they can resist central direction. Much depends on the extent to which councils are willing to stand up collectively to defend their housing stock, and to look at the minutiae of any regulations to minimise the damage about to be inflicted. But surely, faced with a threat on this scale, they can’t just sit back and do as they are told?
The obvious initial tactics will be to amend the legislation and try to secure protection for certain cases. How about – as starters – rural villages where the social stock is below a certain percentage of the total, homes that have been adapted and those built in the last decade? What chances are there of getting a ceiling on sales on particular estates, to ensure that whole areas don’t lose their social housing? Can the formula for designating the high-value stock be challenged, so that boroughs like Westminster don’t lose every new letting?
Then there are the possibilities for legal challenge. How will councils decide if they have two conflicting statutory duties but can’t comply with both? How does the new obligation square with homelessness duties, for example? Doesn’t the obligation to rehouse trump the sales policy? What loopholes will emerge as the legislation and regulations are issued?
Given that there is no sitting tenant/buyer, what is to stop councils letting the property temporarily, for as long as the sale takes? This will at least alleviate the shortage of temporary accommodation and save some pennies that would otherwise be spent in placing the homeless in private sector lettings. Are there other opportunities to go slow – for example, if there is to be a register of high-value properties might it turn out to be a laborious task to prepare it and might designations be challenged by tenants’ associations so the list has to be reviewed before it can be put into effect? No doubt such practices will be challenged, as they were when RTB was originally introduced, but at least they might slow down the process.
Monitoring of what happens to properties that are sold will be vital. Supposing there is evidence that the initial sales in, say, Islington were predominantly to speculators or private landlords, data will be needed on the subsequent rents and if possible who the tenants are (e.g. does it turn out they might have been housed by the council, at much lower cost to the public purse?).
Finally, there must be scope for challenging the government through individual cases. If a council defies the rules and lets a high-value property to someone from the waiting list, using the argument that they had hundreds of people who needed the letting and they did so in pursuit of their housing act duties, what court would say they were wrong and should have sold the property on the open market instead?