Right to Buy and home ownership not the only solution to housing - Nicholas Harris of Stonewater

Pic: AdobeStock.Pic: AdobeStock.
Pic: AdobeStock.
Last week, the Government confirmed its plans to extend the Right to Buy scheme to all housing association tenants in England.

But what will this mean, in real terms, for customers and housing providers?

This announcement fulfils a manifesto promise initially made by David Cameron in 2015; however, the Right to Buy initiative has existed, in various formats, for decades. Since the scheme was introduced 42 years ago, the Government says that almost two million sales to tenants have been completed.

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So, while this latest Government announcement may capture the headlines, it’s interesting to consider what it could deliver.

Stonewater manages around 35,500 homes across England, 1,400 of which are in the Yorkshire region through developments such as Cookridge in Leeds, Flanshaw Way in Wakefield and Topcliffe Road in Dishforth.

Our vision is for everyone to have the opportunity to have a place that they can call home, and the Right to Buy plans form part of that overarching goal. But it is not the only solution.

We took part in the Midlands pilot of the housing association’s Right to Buy scheme in 2018, and we have experience first-hand of successfully helping customers buy their own homes.

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The pilot proved that allowing customers the opportunity to buy the home they have invested in, both financially and emotionally, can be hugely positive. However, in 2018, the pilot achieved less than two-thirds of the government sales target, and we know that many customers are in a significantly different financial and personal position now than four years ago.

We’re in the midst of a cost of living crisis. With inflation, interest rates, energy costs and, daily commodity prices soaring. It must therefore be questioned whether this leaves much desire for those already struggling to transition away from the financial stability, security, and support that being a housing association tenant provides?

Additionally, extending the Right to Buy will diminish the supply of affordable homes available to hard-pressed families. Is this policy the right use of scarce resources at this time when it won’t provide more homes for the people that need them most?

It must be said that the commitment from the Government that homes sold will be replaced like-for-like is good — and something we were able to surpass in the pilot scheme where we replaced homes 1:1.65. However, this relied on us using Stonewater resources to build modern, affordable homes and not always in the area in which the houses were sold.

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If the new country-wide scheme is to be successful, it requires significant government funding to build replacements and increase the overall supply of affordable homes needed.

We need to know more about the Government’s intentions of replacing sold properties on a ‘‘like-for-like basis’’. It can typically take up to four years to buy land, secure planning, and build the new home — with a lack of available land in city centres making this even harder.

As a result, it will become more challenging to build the replacement homes needed through the Right to Buy, alongside the number of new properties already needed to combat the housing shortage.

So, selling off housing association homes does nothing to tackle the nation’s housing crisis and could make it much worse. It is time to move on from the days when home ownership was the only solution.

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Rather than repeatedly churning the same scheme through different guises, we need to look beyond the schemes of decades gone by and be innovative in our response to today’s generation.

First, we need to eliminate the stigma around renting. It shouldn’t be seen as a lesser option – because it isn’t. We need to provide choices to suit the wants and needs of our modern society: from homeless veterans to young couples, single young people to blended families. We also need to enable customers to receive support services where needed, whether that be from mental health, personal wellbeing, or practical help experts, something that lends itself perfectly to rented housing association accommodation.

To us, our customers are not just a number. They are individuals, with individual circumstances and individual needs. And we must treat and support customers as such to help them achieve their aspirations and goals. This may be as a rented tenant, homeowner, or shared owner. The Right to Buy has a part to play in these decisions, but it is not the only game in town.

- Nicholas Harris is Chief Executive at social housing provider Stonewater.