Diary of a Sutton Councillor

Conservatives signal the beginning of the end for social housing

Successive announcements by George Osborne and David Cameron at their 2015 Party Conference signalled a concerted attack on affordable rents and finally revealed the Conservative’s ideological opposition to social housing.

I had seen their clumsy early policies to stimulate more housing as simply incompetence rather than by design. Take the relaxation of permitted development rules to enable the unregulated conversion of offices into residential properties.  An idea that enables developers to pack an abundance of profitable flatlets into a building that wasn’t originally designed for the purpose and without any requirement to offer any at an ‘affordable’ rent, or to make a contribution to mitigate the impacts of suddenly bringing a large number of new residents into an area, who will necessarily require healthcare, parking spaces or transport infrastructure, and school places.

With hindsight I now see that the removal of any obligation to provide an element of social housing in these cases was probably the key driver.

The push to encourage right-to-buy of council properties by offering too-good-to-refuse discounts during their coalition partnership, and the current extension of this to be applied to housing associations is a back door way of eroding the amount of existing social housing. The rules and restrictions placed on the use of the right-to-buy receipts purportedly to support one for one replacements were so convoluted as to make it impossible to deliver anything like the number of replacements required.

I am not surprised that the National Federation of Housing has agreed to a voluntary arrangement on right-to-buy for housing associations – they are fighting for their very existence against a government that is using spurious claims of mismanagement to mask their determination to dissolve the sector altogether. And the requirement for local authorities to sell off their higher-value council properties to pay for this policy is yet another sneaky way to reduce the social housing available.

The imposed reduction on council housing rents is set to make local authorities’ housing revenue accounts unsustainable and significantly reduce their capacity to build new council properties. This is also an interesting picture of how the Conservatives truly see the principle of devolution – devolve the debt and the responsibility, but retain the powers to make the management of that responsibility subject to the whim of central government, and as in this case, undermine it. (See also New Homes Bonus – used as an incentive to build until it starts to generate cash, then call it back in for the Treasury to redistribute.)

The bedroom tax and welfare reforms have all led to what is effectively a social cleansing of the poor from central London. Clearly their vision for central London is for it to be solely the playground of the rich and an asset bank for foreign investors, with the people on low wages who actually keep the city running and enable the better-off to have a good time banished to the peripheries of London or even further, and not allowed to get any richer thanks to the extortionate costs of travelling into London.

And so it all became clear in George Osborne’s key speech on Tuesday. He announced that his government would focus on building more housing – for families to buy! The silence on any commitment to social or affordable housing was deafening. Cameron backed this up with his announcement that they would remove the planning obligation to provide an affordable element on new developments in return for discounted homes for first time buyers. And note that those first time buyers still need to be pretty well off to afford the ‘discounted’ price. It represents the ingrained Conservative ideology that it is all about property. You are nobody unless you own your own house. Or own your own house and rent out the other property you own to make a tidy profit*.

The direction of travel is clear. The question is whether by the end of the Conservatives term in office there will be any social housing left for others to save.

In Sutton we are committed to addressing the housing crisis and working to deliver more homes for local people. We have plans in process to deliver over 100 new council homes using our right to buy receipts. We applied and were granted Housing Zone status from the Mayor of London which should see the faster delivery of over 1,000 new homes in Sutton in the next four years. And we have now formally established our council-owned housing development company Sutton Living Ltd with the aim of delivering new homes across all tenures – market for sale, private rented and social housing with the key aim that they meet local housing need and are offered at prices local people can afford. The local Conservative opposition did their best to scupper these plans by tabling their key concern: that the company would be a way of avoiding right-to-buy and had written to DCLG to imply this. It isn’t, but this shows that our local Tories are firmly on-message with their Party’s determination to steadily erode social housing and prevent opportunities to deliver affordable rents.



*If you want an insight into the origins of this ingrained ideology take a look at Harry Mount’s book: How England made the English.
In chapter 6: Georgian Hedge Funds Harry points out the unique position in England whereby most of the land is still held, relatively, by the few, and those few are the aristocrats and rural gentry.“In a land-starved, people-packed country, landowners can sell off tiny twenty-acre portions of their estates to a supermarket, raise millions and keep their hands on those hundreds of thousands of acres they’ve clung on to. Sir Reginald Sheffield, Bt, David Cameron’s father-in-law, who owns 3,000 acres of Lincolnshire and two stately homes, says he survives on a small private income ‘garnished with a few planning permissions’.”

October 9, 2015 - Posted by | Liberal Democrats, Opinion | , , , ,

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