On repeat

First it was a revolution, then a reboot. Now it is a relaunch and a revamp.

The language has shifted considerably since David Cameron made the right to buy a key part of the ‘housing revolution’ he pledged in his Conservative conference speech in October.

Last month the policy was styled as a ‘reboot’. This month it’s so 21stcentury it’s even got it’s own Facebook page. The good news for the government is that it has 225 likes and news of happy council house buyers Mr and Mrs Watkins from Whitburn, South Tyneside. The bad news is that mixed in with some enthusiastic comments are a series of negative comments questioning the ‘back of a fag packet calculations’ and who is going to lend the money. Oh, and the fact that the Watkinses are actually £1 million lottery winners.

The reception was just as mixed in the national media. Yesterday brought dutiful advance headlines but the news editors’ hearts did not seem in it, possibly because they knew that the announcement had been made three times already (at the Tory conference, in the consultation before Christmas and last month). Those that do cover it today are on the look out for a fresh angle. ‘Mortgage fears cloud right-to-buy relaunch,’ reports the FT, quoting Hometrack calculations that only a small proportion of tenants will be able to get a loan.

On TV, the repeat announcement seemed to be ignored by both the BBC News at Ten and Newsnight last night. Channel 4 News did cover the pictures of Cameron and Shapps having tea with tenants in Wandsworth but rather cruelly juxtaposed with archive footage of Mrs Thatcher having tea with the original right-to-buy family. Not so much 21st century revolution as 1980s rehash.

Even Ravi Govindia, the Conservative leader of Wandsworth Council who has seemed so on-message with other government policies such as evicting the families of rioters, seemed equivocal when questioned by Michael Crick about one-for-one replacement on more expensive rents.

‘The tenants will have to pay more but that is in fact going to be the case for all new social lettings including ones that are existing lettings,’ he attempted to explain, ‘so that when they are recycled into new lettings they will be under the new regime that the government has come up with.’

It was hardly a ringing endorsement and Crick interjected: ‘Sounds like bad news for your tenants.’

Govindia responded: ‘Not necessarily because I think the key issue in London is to find proper and decent housing. For those who can’t afford the rent, housing benefit will be able to support them through that.’

Whether Iain Duncan Smith will agree remains to be seen. Right to Buy 2 is effectively Affordable Rent 2 and despite tortuous attempts in the impact assessment to prove that it offers value for money the calculations on housing benefit were less than convincing.

The government is clearly hoping that a bit of the Thatcher stardust will rub off now. ‘I want many more people to achieve the dream of home ownership,’ said Cameron, donning his gold lamé suit. ‘In the 80s, Right to Buy helped millions of people living in council housing achieve their aspiration of owning their own home. It gave something back to families who worked hard, paid their rent and played by the rules.’

Never knowingly out-clichéd, Shapps added:

‘This country was built on aspiration: men and women who looked to the future and resolved to make a better life for themselves and their families. But years of punitive limitations on the level of discounts under Right to Buy have sabotaged the aspirations of hardworking council tenants who want to take their first step on the property ladder. This government wants to help everyone achieve their aspirations – so I’m delighted to announce that from today these miserly restrictions on discounts are history.’

If it really were a revolution the right to buy would have been extended to the one million housing association tenants who are currently excluded from the scheme (as advocated by David Davis and Frank Field in January and as once promised by the Conservatives). As Shapps and Cameron know that would have caused all kinds of problems, so they have settled for a milder version that still raises doubts about how many tenants will be able to buy without co-purchasers, whether one-for-one replacement is really possible and how much damage it will cause to self-financing.

Whether you call it a revamp, a relaunch, a reinvigoration or even a resurrection, those doubts are not going to go away. 

Originally posted on Inside Edge, my blog for Inside Housing. 

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