Housing is key to a Conservative vision for working people

May 26, 2015

Chris Walker is Head of Housing and Planning at Policy Exchange.

Homeownership is a key tenet of One Nation Conservatism. As Robert Halfon has said – and Winston Churchill before him – the Conservatives are the party of the ladder. “The ladder symbolises everything are about … not just leaving people to climb up it themselves, we hold that ladder for them.”

Nothing could embody holding that ladder more than Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy. And it is precisely what the extension of the Right to Buy to 1.3 million housing association tenants is all about.

Recent polling by YouGov commissioned by Policy Exchange shows strong public support for the policy – which the Conservatives put at the heart of their election manifesto – and forces councils to sell off their most expensive residential properties in order to pay for it.

As a result of the housing shortage more and more people are being affected by a crisis of affordability, one which has seen home ownership rates plummet from a peak of 71 per cent in 2003 to 65 per cent today.

Not only would the extension of Right to Buy – which Policy Exchange supports – provide a much-needed fillip to homeownership levels, it is fundamentally about supporting homeownership and extending the home-owning democracy to people on lower incomes.

One Nation Conservatism is designed to create wide-spread appeal (and also capture the blue collar vote). It is aimed at aspiring hard working people that want to get on – and up – in life, fully embracing the “white van” men and women of our nation.

Winning over these voters remains vital to achieving and sustaining a parliamentary majority and single party Government.

It is not simply compassionate Conservatism – a moral obligation to help people who are less fortunate, for example, through the enshrinement of the NHS – it is also an aspirational Conservatism of the sort Thatcherism was.

Notwithstanding that home-ownership is a good thing (it gives people a stake in our society and the keys to their own home), there is no escaping that nearly all surveys show people want to own their own home. No less than 86 per cent of people aspire to it, according to the British Social Attitudes survey.

Then there is the issue of fairness. Many housing association tenants – namely those in homes transferred to from Local Authorities to housing association ownership – already enjoy the (preserved) Right to Buy and discounts that average around 50 per cent. So it seems only fair that the remaining housing association tenants should enjoy that right too.

Critics argue it is hardly fair that social housing tenants should enjoy generous discounts to buy a home when hard working people in the private rented sector are not getting the same.That is why the wider policies to support homeownership, including Help to Buy and 100,000 Starter homes – which give a 20 per cent discount on the market price for first time buyers under 40 – are so important.

Under the One Nation Conservatism mantra there has to be an offer for everyone.

Through the commitment to replace the additional homes sold with new homes, the overall policy package also contributes to housing supply. It is an important part of building the homes we need.

Detractors of so-called “one of one replacement” proclaim it is not happening, or that too few replacement homes have actually been built. But recent analysis by Policy Exchange shows it probably is being achieved, when proper account is taken of the time it takes to plan and build the replacement homes (which can take anything up to three years).

Right to Buy supports aspirational homeownership and through one-for-one replacement increases our nation’s overall housing supply. That’s a good thing. It is for that reason this innovative policy of sale and replacement should be applauded.

It is part of an overall theme of entwining homeownership and new build (Help to Buy for new build and Starter Homes are examples) and, rightly or wrongly, not allowing newly built homes to end up in the hands of buy to let landlords. This, ironically, has been one of the issues with right to buy longer term: that many ex local authority homes have eventually ended up in the hands of buy-to-let landlords.

One Nation Conservatism aside, a firm commitment to building many more homes will serve as the ultimate proof that the Conservatives are committed to social justice. Last year we built only 115,000 homes when we actually need to build 300,000 a year. The scale of the challenge is huge, and we need all the help we can get.

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