Monday, 20 April 2015

A housing association right-to-buy: one of the worst policies ever ends up dead on arrival

Now the UK General Election's hotting up a bit, isn't it? Three UK party leaders, all on the precipice of a kicking in different ways. A (possibly) unbelievably successful Scottish National Party on the brink of a once-in-a-lifetime epochal breakthrough. A government (and an Opposition) on the edge. Well, exciting stuff - if you like politics.

But we're still going to go through the fine print of the actual policies that are constantly being 'offered' to the electorate - and there some real stinkers in here, you mark our words. 

One of the most rancid of the roadkill offerings is the Conservative Party's extension of a 'right to buy' to the Housing Association sector. It's a dud. It won't happen. It'll get junked so quickly in post-election negotiations with the Liberal Democrats that you'll never hear of it again - a bit like all those wiggly lines in Chancellor George Osborne's recent excuse for a Budget.

Let us count the ways that this one is a dud. Oh, let's just start with the fact that the Government doesn't own housing association stock, and it'll probably have to change the law to give itself rights over someone else's property - a deeply un-Conservative and un-Tory approach that will only get them into more and more detailed trouble as they nationalise a great big slice of the country's housing stock.

Let's continue with the fact that this looks likely to do absolutely nothing to meet our real crisis - the lack of housebuilding. As the National Housing Federation has made quite clear, the uncertainty and the upheaval involved might set plans back, not drive them forward. For Housing Associations are usually not-for-profit organisations who rely on their income and surpluses to attract new investment, as even a Conservative Housing Minister has admitted privately. Seize some of their assets, for an as-yet-to-be-decided subsidy from the Government (which probably won't materialise anyway), and you might fatally disrupt their capital flow. Who wants to invest in a business that has a Housing Minister (we use this emotive term under advisement, because a member of the clergy has already uttered it) actively stealing its money? Businesses don't like it, because it wastes money and spreads uncertainty in just the same way as all the other hard-to-credit ponzi schemes we're bombarded with at the moment - as any glance at the 'right' to withdraw your pension funds, Pensioner Bonds and inheritance tax cuts will tell you. It's wide open to fraud and abuse. It's a crude electoral bribe to swing voters in key areas. It makes no sense even in its own terms. 

It might be popular with tabloid newspapers. But Housing Associations themselves hate the idea, because they know it puts the whole sector at risk. Most Londoners, where the housing crisis is at its most acute, are less than keen, to say the least.

It has long been the Conservatives' aim to build up a fourth sector of the housing market - something to fill in where owner occupation, council housing and private renting don't work or aren't appropriate. The sector is what one might call the Big Society in action. Anyone remember the Big Society? Anyone? Keith Joseph, Conservative Housing Minister in the early 1960s, tried to shore it up against the formidable opposition of the Treasury and the Inland Revenue, suspicious of such unorthodox methods - and of engagement with the 'third sector' as a whole. Joseph raged to a colleague at the time: 'you cannot want to contemplate an endless vista of extending municipal ownership any more than I: but that is what we do contemplate if we cannot set up an alternative’. Alas, his ambitions went unheeded, and decisive moves to help Housing Associations had to await the 1980s and 1990s. All those ambitions, all those desires to build up a more complex and granular society of sharp shooters - Toryism personified - are now being threatened. For a few votes. Just like the Union itself, every time Conservative spokesmen think there might be a cheap rabble-rousing cheer in bashing the Scottish National Party.

The whole imbroglio appears to have originated with Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, one of the usual suspects when it comes to spreading dunder-headed, forehead-slapping, blundering chaos across Whitehall over the last five years. Hopefully his officials - and anyone the Conservatives have to negotiate with after emerging as the largest party in May - have got some counter-proposals up their sleeves, because living with this one won't be pretty. 

Now we shouldn't get carried away here. This is a symbolic policy, a re-tread or re-heat of those popular tunes hummed by Conservatives in the 1980s - the last time they won a durable five-year Parliamentary majority, by the way. It's the ghost of a memory of when they were popular - rather than just tolerated as a bunch of apparently necessary tough-guy accountants. Not that many tenants will take up the offer - certainly nothing like the 'up to 1.3 million' that the Conservatives announced. It'd be more like a few tens of thousands, on any measure. But it's still not a real runner - over-complicated, legally questionable, not all that helpful in addressing the real problem, and conducive only to uncertainty, confusion and backsliding.

Please take this policy away, someone. Anyone. It's so undercooked that it's basically a slice of pure poison.