When it was first introduced, the “right to buy” was meant to offer long-standing council house tenants the chance to own their property. And many have hailed the scheme as a success, arguing that it engendered respect for the houses and gave people much-needed security.
However, it has also had downsides. The principal issue is that new council housing has not been built in sufficient numbers to replace the properties being bought by tenants—and sometimes the right to buy has created mini-fiefdoms, where unscrupulous landlords take control of several properties and push up rents. Many argue that alongside regular housing, more council housing should also be built.
There are several reasons why many councils have failed to keep pace with council housing sales. Part of the issue is that councils do not receive the money when a council house is sold. Additionally, it is only this year that the government announced a relaxing of the rules around councils borrowing to pay for more council housing construction. Cllr Simon Miller of Waltham Forest Council has argued for more of the sales revenue to go to councils:
“The right to buy scheme has undoubtedly reduced the amount of social housing in Waltham Forest and across the UK which is why we have been lobbying government to try and keep more of the receipts from sales so we can replace the homes we lose.”
However, even if councils receive more money, they will face the same issues the entire construction industry faces—particularly in London. The price of land in the capital will make innovative design a priority for a new breed of council housing.
Council housing needs to be made on a budget, because they’re designed for people who can’t afford flats that cost a million pounds. Yet some architects in Hackney have worked this into the design. Their model for new council housing involves using premium flats to subsidise so-called “affordable” housing or even new council flats. This also includes opportunities for residents to buy shares in a flat, renting it at the same time as owning a piece of it. Part of the attraction of this idea is that existing council housing, or buildings that are no longer fit for purpose, can be upgraded and refurbished as well using the same financial scheme.
Despite the pluses, there is one small caveat, as Rowan Moore explains for the Guardian:
“The Colville estate is an unquestionably better place than it was before. Together with the work of other London boroughs, and taking into account the raised standards of current building regulations, this is some of the best council housing ever built. There’s a reason why such projects are mostly in London: they are made possible by the high property values of the capital, which enable councils to cross-subsidise social housing by selling homes on the open market.”
There’s no doubt that London has the greatest demand for new council housing, but it’s an issue all over the country, and no less pressing for those in need of it.
Photo by Iridescenti