London’s councils spend £22m a year renting back homes they used to own. It’s time to scrap Right To Buy

Some flats. Image: London.

There is a fundamental dichotomy at the heart of the government’s analysis of the housing crisis. On one hand, ministers acknowledge that the housing market – over which they have presided for the last nine years – is broken, and requires change. On the other, they seem incapable of enacting the reform that’s urgently required to fix it. This would of course necessitate a publicly-led programme of large scale housebuilding in places where people want to live, meaningful reform of the private rented sector, and an end to sticking plaster solutions such as Help to Buy which often do more harm than good. All of which they’re seemingly unwilling to confront.

Nowhere in Britain is the scale of the housing crisis more acute than it is in London. The government’s recent announcement of an end to the Housing Revenue Account (HRA) cap is welcome, but without the funding required to enable councils to meaningfully participate in the housing market again, public building will continue to be supressed. London needs 30,972 new low-cost rented houses a year – but despite the best efforts of the mayor and many local authorities, demand continues to far outstrip supply with just 7,905 of these houses completed in the last five years.

Surely then, in the face of increasing homelessness, the last thing that hard-pressed boroughs need is the ongoing legal requirement to sell off this precious public resource, at a discount of up to £108,000 per home, under the auspices of the Right to Buy scheme.

The ostensible aim of the Right to Buy was to increase rates of home ownership; but the reality is that this is in freefall, with Londoners and young people the worst affected. With an ever-greater proportion of former social homes falling into the hands of private landlords, the hard reality is that the Right to Buy isn’t only depriving councils of secure homes to offer to those in the greatest need – it’s also depriving so many more people of the security of tenure they rightly demand.


When I last investigated the impact of this policy in London in 2014, I found that at least 36 per cent of all homes sold by councils in London were being privately let. This week I published a new report, ‘Right to Buy: Wrong for London’, which takes a deep dive into the damaging legacy of this policy in the capital. The sobering reality is that the situation has worsened in the last five years – now an astonishing 42 per cent of former Right to Buy homes are owned by private landlords.

The picture in some boroughs is particularly grim. In Westminster, Harrow and Enfield more than half have fallen into the poorly-regulated private rented sector. Some landlords are building property empires out of what was once social housing: in Greenwich alone there are more than 200 individuals who own five or more former council homes.

With thousands of families across London stuck in temporary accommodation, it beggars belief that our boroughs are forced to line the pockets of private landlords simply to put a roof over people’s heads. Councils across London – already battered by almost a decade of austerity – shell out an astonishing £22m a year, at least, to rent back the very same homes that they were forced to sell at a discount. How can it be right that Newham, for instance, have little choice but to rent 808 of their former homes at a cost to the taxpayer of £12.9m a year?

The solution of course is to build thousands more homes for social rent. While City Hall has announced plans to fund the development of 11,000 more council homes in London, the government is failing to even replace those that have been lost under the Right to Buy scheme. The mayor of London’s new ‘ring-fence offer’ for London councils to protect their Right to Buy receipts is also a positive step. But in order to meet need, some councils are buying back homes they had previously sold under the Right to Buy, with Ealing Council spending £107m on reacquiring 516 homes they were forced to sell for just £16.2m.

It must be recognised that home ownership is important for many Londoners - but that should not come at any cost. The government needs to face facts, protect our capital’s housing stock and scrap the Right to Buy in London.

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.