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Housing policies appear designed for post-election trade-offs, not implementation

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The sale of housing association homes under the government’s right-to-buy policy will have profound effects on both those who purchase them and the associations themselves.

No one can doubt that the original sale of council housing was popular with tenants and a spur to wider home ownership. The numbers involved will be smaller this time, though the impact on both the associations and local government is likely to be substantial.

Tenants will be offered a discount to buy their homes. As the social housing stock reduces with sales, the government has said that replacement properties would be built one-for-one.

The resources to pay for these new homes will be found by requiring councils to sell off the most expensive of their own housing. The same pot of cash will also be used to compensate housing associations for the homes they are required to sell.

This is a remarkable policy. For a start, housing associations are not part of the public sector, though they generally receive taxpayer support for some of their activities. A Conservative government is effectively requiring not-for-profit bodies, in the private sector, to sell off assets: a form of compulsory purchase.

Despite a commitment to replace the lost housing association resources, there must be a risk that there would not be a one-for-one rate of replacement. The associations, which are often saviours of estates, may be weakened.

Nor is it apparent how the requirement on councils to sell their most expensive housing when it becomes vacant will operate. Not all councils own social housing. Many, in lower-cost areas, have homes whose sale would not raise much money. London boroughs, which own large amounts of housing which would command high prices, will surely have to sell a disproportionate share of theirs. Inter-area redistribution will be required.

This policy, like the repeal of the Human Rights Act, has the look of one which was intended to be traded away during post-election negotiations in a world where the Conservatives had not won an overall majority. Now it is being implemented it will potentially produce an array of unintended consequences. The government needs to understand the wider consequences of this policy before its implementation.

Tony Travers, director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

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