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.

 
 
 
 

How can cities protect common green space for the future?

Newcastle Town Moor. Image: Chabe01/Wikimedia Commons.

Urban green space comes in a variety of forms – parks, allotments, gardens, ‘strays’ to mention just a few. One of the most iconic is the urban “common” – these are often extensive tracts of green space in or adjacent to large urban areas that provide publicly accountable, open, green, spaces vital for culture, health, wellbeing and biodiversity in the metropolitan context. Examples include Epping Forest and Wimbledon common in London, Town Moor in Newcastle, Mousehold Heath in Norwich, or Clifton Downs in Bristol.

The term “common” creates in the public consciousness notions of communal ownership, control and use. In fact, this is often a misconception. Most urban “commons” are not community-owned assets, and many have different legal identities, and differing degrees of legal protection and security. These are often the result of a history of different political, social and economic forces shaping land use in each metropolitan context. Epping Forest and Town Moor in Newcastle are, for example, protected by Acts of Parliament. Clifton Down in Bristol is a “traditional” common registered under the Commons Registration Act 1965, which guarantees its status as common land.

Other areas commonly regarded by the public as commons are in actual fact simply urban green space that is preserved by some lesser legal protection - for example, through the planning system, which may designate them as green space or as conservation areas within the local development plan. But plans can change, and much green space is lost to development annually.

Indeed, in the age of austerity, local authorities have been driven to sell much green space that they themselves own to raise funds to provide front line local services, like schools and social care. In this context, true urban commons – those that have the legal status of common land – are extremely precious community assets, in that they are protected from development and preserved for future generations.

But do we value them highly enough? Do we appreciate their importance in shaping our community’s consciousness of its own identity and history? Do we use them to the full as recreational open spaces and if not, how can we champion our urban commons and develop new ways to engage the urban public more fully in their use, management and stewardship?   


A new interdisciplinary 3-year project (“Wastes and Strays”) involving academics from Newcastle University, Exeter University, Sheffield University and Brighton University will address many of these issues. The project will explore the complex social and political history of the urban common, as well as their legal and cultural status today, and in doing so devise tools and methods of negotiation, inclusivity and creativity to inform their future.

The project will make in-depth studies of four iconic urban commons: Town Moor, Newcastle; Valley Gardens, Brighton; Mousehold Heath, Norwich; and Clifton Down, Bristol. It will look at the multiple, negotiated historic uses and legal origins of the common in each case, and its contemporary meaning, popular perception, biodiversity and public use.

One strand of the research is closely focussed to encouraging the more extensive use of urban commons as vital green space for recreation and other community uses, important for mental and physical wellbeing. It will be looking to develop new strategies for community engagement with the urban commons as community assets and will work in partnership with local communities and relevant stakeholder groups to generate ideas for the future of urban commons, in the spirit of their negotiated pasts.

The big idea is to generate a multifaceted definition of the urban common to provide a robust base for education initiatives and future public policy guidance, informing their development and use as a diverse cultural and ecological space.

For hundreds of years, these unique, open spaces have played a varied, but important, role in the individual stories of our towns and cities. We need to develop new and imaginative ways to use them and foster a greater sense of community involvement if we are to preserve them for future generations.

Chris Rodgers is a professor of Law at Newcastle University.