Housing associations' deal over right to buy could lead to the "social cleansing" of rich British cities

East London's New Era Estate. Image: Getty.

A gun to the head

Housing associations have until five o’clock on Friday afternoon to accept a “voluntary” deal on the right to buy that could change social housing for ever.

With 2.3m homes, housing associations are now the majority provider of affordable housing in Britain. The Conservative government was elected on a clear manifesto commitment to give housing association tenants parity with council tenants, by allowing them to buy their homes at a discount.

Yet rather than face the prospect of legislation that would force associations to sell their homes, the sector’s trade body, the National Housing Federation, has spent the summer conducting secret negotiations to offer a “voluntary deal” to the government. 

There is a great deal of ambiguity about the exact legal status of housing associations – but at present, their £60bn of debt does not sit on the government’s balance sheet. A compulsory Right to Buy scheme could change this forever: if private assets can be forcibly sold, they are clearly not private assets.

If the government were to find that it “owns” the debt, it could decide to move to privatise housing associations. The rumour is that investment bank Goldman Sachs has been appointed, to model how a nationalisation and privatisation of housing associations could be carried out. 

The NHF believes that introducing a voluntary Right to Buy scheme will avoid compulsion and stave off privatisation. To gauge how many housing associations would follow any voluntary scheme, it sent a form that resembles a ballot paper to 1,100 members of the NHF. Each association will get a vote proportional to the number of homes that they own.


In other words, a large association with 60,000 homes will have 60,000 votes on a single ballot paper. It’s akin to the old union block vote and, according to some critics, deeply undemocratic. (Editor’s note: The NHF say this is because it wishes to know how many homes would be included in the policy.)

Crucially, government statements earlier this year suggested that the discounts offered to tenants (up to £104,900 in London, £77,900 elsewhere) will be funded by the forced sale of high value council owned properties. The NHF doesn’t appear to have consulted the local authorities who would be affected by this “secret” deal, and many councillors are extremely angry.

The deal would allow housing associations to retain the receipt from any sales, and to build a replacement property of any tenure, including properties for outright sale. But individual housing associations will not be required to replace every property sold, or to replace them in the same area.

Instead, the sales and replacements will be totted up nationally – so associations could, at least in theory, sell high value properties in inner London and replace them in Sunderland. Critics fear that the Right to Buy, coupled with the forced sale of council stock, will lead to “social cleansing” in inner London and high value cities like Oxford and Cambridge. 

There are a number of questions hanging over this deal. How can housing associations be expected to make such a momentous decision so rapidly and based upon such scant information? Do individual housing associations and their trade body have a mandate to sell off what some still see as much-needed public assets?

Should the 66,000 families in temporary accommodation have a say? Or the 1.4m people on waiting lists? Or the millions of taxpayers who funded these schemes in the first place? And, crucially, why should Parliament be denied a vote on this critical issue?

The more you look at it, the more this looks like a grubby deal that requires proper public debate.

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

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.