Shaun Fraser is a Labour activist in Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, and works for an Inverness-based charity as a Housing Support Officer. He says we must prioritise the rebuilding of our social housing portfolio.
Last week it was revealed that almost 40 per cent of former council homes sold at discounted rates under the Right to Buy scheme are now being let out on the hugely expensive private rental market. This is great news for landlords, but for tenants and those currently on housing waiting lists it feeds further towards an already pernicious environment.
In some cases landlords of properties originally purchased through Right to Buy are now charging up to seven times average social rent.
Right to Buy has been a definitive disaster which has left us with a legacy of hollowed-out housing provision, extended council waiting lists and, consequentially, homelessness.
It was one of the most popular and defining Conservative government policies of the 20th century. It was a masterclass in political shrewdness from Margaret Thatcher which gifted aspiration to 1980s Britain, but it did this at the expense of future generations.
I would be a hypocrite to dismiss Right to Buy outright. Indeed my grandmother, who worked as a cleaner at Inverness College, seized the opportunity to own her council house. She, along with thousands of other working class folk, benefited greatly from the scheme. However, in 2015, it is now far more destructive than constructive.
We have escalating rents in a growing private rented sector, which means the welfare bill, through housing benefit, continues to grow. As well as this we have a huge rise in evictions for rent arrears. The government spends more money supporting low income families to sustain private lets or to find emergency accommodation than it ever would on maintaining a council house portfolio.
To describe social housing as subsidised – as those critical of council and housing association investment often do – is a fallacy. The one-off development cost of building a social home is supported by government, but the rental value of that home repays the investment. Funds spent on social housing quickly become a public asset.
The principal inheritance of Right to Buy has been a diminished stock of affordable homes nationally. This is something which would have been avoided if successive governments had, at least, replaced each property sold with a new council house – this didn’t happen, and we live with the consequences now.
To their credit, the SNP in government, also supported by Labour, ceased the Right to Buy in Scotland. The entitlement is due to end for eligible tenants in August 2016. This moratorium is a crucial opportunity for government to expand social housing stock and stimulate investment in partnership with local authorities, housing associations and private firms. An integrated approach would benefit both public and private sector.
The priority must be to rebuild our affordable housing portfolio for the betterment of our communities.
We in Labour believe in the empowering state; we should be looking ahead to how we would use the influence of the state to breathe new life into the social housing sector.
There’s an old labour poster from the 1945 general election campaign which reads ‘Let’s Build the Houses – Quick!’. It’s as relevant today as it was then, and it’s a message which should be key to the future of our party.