In cities where house prices are high, Right to Buy 2 is nothing less than social cleansing

A social housing block in Lambeth, south London. Image: Oli Scarff/Getty.

“Nothing is too good for the working class,” said Aneurin Bevan. It’s not a sentiment shared by the number crunchers at Policy Exchange.

In 2012, the influential right-wing think tank published a report arguing that high value council homes should be sold off in order to build new social homes in poorer areas.

The report’s author Alex Morton said at the time, “Expensive social housing is costly, unpopular and unfair… Social housing tenants deserve a roof over their heads but not one better than most people can afford…”

Was this idea unpopular? The report backed it up with YouGov polling showing that 73 per cent of people agreed with the statement, “People should not be offered council houses that are worth more than the average house in their local authority”. Meanwhile, 60 per cent agreed that, “People should not be offered council housing in expensive areas”. I call those leading questions. Had YouGov asked “Do you think mixed communities, where rich and poor live side by side, are a good idea?” that would probably have been popular too.

Few people paid much attention to the report at the time – but given that Alex Morton now works as a housing policy advisor in Number 10, it’s hardly surprising that his proposal has been revived. What no one predicted, however, is that it would be the centerpiece of the government’s plan to offer the Right to Buy to housing association tenants.

The idea is that selling off the top third most expensive council homes as they become empty – about 15,000 properties annually – will raise £4.5bn every year. This money will be used to fund no fewer than five discrete things: to reclaim brownfield land; to replace the sold council property; to repay the grant on the sold housing association home; to compensate the housing association for any financial loss; and to replace the sold housing association home.

You don’t need to be a mathematical genius to work out that one-for-one replacement of Right to Buy homes, something that has been repeatedly promised by ministers, is unlikely to happen. What’s more, any replacement homes will be let at much higher “affordable” rents, rather than the social rented homes that are sold.

Take a walk through Holborn or Clerkenwell and you will see hundreds of council homes set in mixed, vibrant communities: a stark contrast to the monolithic and sterile streets of Knightsbridge or Belgravia. But under Right to Buy 2 every single one of these will be sold if they become vacant.

The reason for this is simple: the government proposes that the top third most expensive properties by bedroom size and region will be sold. London is counted as a region, and properties in inner London have a much higher value than in boroughs like Barking and Hillingdon, so every vacant home in Westminster and  Camden will be sold as they become vacant.

The same process will happen in places like Cambridge, which has higher property values than Great Yarmouth or Chelmsford. Councils in these areas might as well tear up their housing waiting lists: by denying poor people the chance to live in wealthier areas, it amounts to a blatant form of social cleansing. Estate agents are already salivating at the prospect of these high value properties coming to the market. 

We’ve been here before, of course. In the 1980s a Conservative government tried to force the Right to Buy upon housing associations, but were defeated in the House of Lords. The question is whether the social housing sector will have the guts to stand up for itself once again.

Colin Wiles is a housing and planning consultant at Wiles Consulting.


Academics are mapping the legacy of slavery in Britain’s cities

A detail of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership map showing central Bristol. Image: LBS/UCL.

For 125 years, a statue of the 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston stood in the centre of Bristol, ostensibly to commemorate the philanthropy he’d used his blood money to fund. Then, on 7 June, Black Lives Matter protesters pulled it down and threw it into the harbour

The incident has served to shine a light on the benefits Bristol and other British cities reaped from the Atlantic slave trade. Grand houses and public buildings in London, Liverpool, Glasgow and beyond were also funded by the profits made from ferrying enslaved Africans across the ocean. But because the horrors of that trade happened elsewhere, the role it played in building modern Britain is not something we tend to discuss.

Now a team at University College London is trying to change that. The Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project is mapping every British address linked to a slave-owner. In all, its database contains 5,229 addresses, linked to 5,586 individuals (some addresses are linked to more than one slave owner; some slave owners had more than one home). 

The map is not exact. Streets have often been renumbered; for some individuals, only a city is known, not necessarily an address; and at time of writing, only around 60% of known addresses (3,294 out of 5,229) have been added to the map. But by showing how many addresses it has recorded in each area, it gives some sense of which bits of the UK benefited most from the slave trade; the blue pins, meanwhile, reflect individual addresses, which you can click for more details.

The map shows, for example, that although it’s Glasgow that’s been noisily grappling with this history of late, there were probably actually more slave owners in neighbouring Edinburgh, the centre of Scottish political and financial power.

Liverpool, as an Atlantic port, benefited far more from the trade than any other northern English city.

But the numbers were higher in Bristol and Bath; and much, much higher in and around London.


Other major UK cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle – barely appear. Which is not to say they didn’t also benefit from the Triangular Trade (with its iron and weaponry industries, Professor David Dabydeen of Warwick University said in 2007, “Birmingham armed the slave trade”) – merely that they benefited in a less direct way.

The LBS map, researcher Rachel Lang explained via email, is “a never-ending task – we’re always adding new people to the database and finding out more about them”. Nonetheless, “The map shows broadly what we expected to find... We haven’t focused on specific areas of Britain so I think the addresses we’ve mapped so far are broadly representative.” 

The large number in London, she says, reflect its importance as a financial centre. Where more specific addresses are available, “you can see patterns that reflect the broader social geography”. The high numbers of slave-owners in Bloomsbury, for example, reflects merchants’ desire for property convenient to the City of London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the district was being developed. Meanwhile, “there are widows and spinsters with slave property living in suburbs and outlying villages such as Chelsea and Hampstead. Country villas surround London.” 

“What we perhaps didn’t expect to see was that no areas are entirely without slave owners,” Lang adds. “They are everywhere from the Orkney Islands to Penzance. It also revealed clusters in unexpected places – around Inverness and Cromarty, for example, and the Isle of Wight.” No area of Britain was entirely free of links to the slave trade.

 You can explore the map here.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

All images courtesy of LBS/UCL