While a UKIP candidate is being questioned for the ancient offence of “treating” potential voters, in this case with sausage rolls (a report here), the Conservatives have unveiled their retaliation. They are proposing to give away £20 billion of housing association property – a madcap commitment which, of course, is rather more expensive than giving away sausage rolls but is not subject to the same legal limitations. They hope to replicate the success of the Thatcher government in persuading tenants with aspirations to vote for them.
The sale of council houses now has a long track history, so we don’t have to guess what the effects of such a policy might be over time. They include:
- the residualisation of social housing: the better housing is sold, the worst remains
- severely reduced access to housing for people on low incomes
- restricted takeup, because tenants tended to be on low or inseucre incomes – that was why the strategy to close down council housing shifted from sale to stock transfer
- gradual transfers of the rented stock into private hands, and
- massive public expense, not just through sale but because of increased costs for government in the form of housing benefits.
There are however three key obstacles to the sale of housing association property, which did not apply to council housing. The first is that the current system of social housing finance depends heavily on the ability of housing associations to raise development capital on the basis of the security of their income, and the sale will disrupt that system. Second, most housing associations have an overriding charitable function, and governments have limited powers to tamper with them – which is why the Thatcher government was defeated in the Lords when it tried to do this in 1980. The third, however, is fundamental and crucial. Housing Associations are independent corporate organisations. The government doesn’t own these houses. It has no more authority over them than it does over the assets of any private citizen. I will be intrigued to see how the government proposes to frame legislation in terms that might apply to housing associations but would not apply equally to the tenants of private corporate landlords.