We need a Right To Buy for private sector tenants, too

Make 'em sell. Image: Getty.

The Conservatives fancy themselves as the party of property ownership, a theme that they hope will win them the General Election. They’ve made the revival of a property-owning democracy a cornerstone of today’s manifesto.

The trouble is, their record on home ownership is pretty terrible. The number of owner-occupied households has been falling since 2003, when it peaked at 71 per cent, and the coalition government has failed to arrest that fall. Owner-occupiers now make up 63 per cent of the population, with renting having increased as more and more people are priced out of the market.

In 2002, more than 500,000 households bought their first home. On the coalition’s watch, the annual average of 248,000 is half that. That’s a lot of thwarted first-time buyers, and a lot of ground to make up.

It’s not like the Tories haven’t tried really hard to promote home ownership. They introduced Help to Buy mortgages and equity loans to make lending more accessible to would-be first-time buyers. Since 2013, 70,000-odd households have taken that up.

The coalition also decided to bribe the hell out of people who are still in council houses and in a position to exercise their Right to Buy. Since 2012, 26,000 council tenants have received discouts of up to 70 per cent to buy their home – though only 2712 new homes have been built to replace them.

That’s around 100,000 families in total. To be frank, that’s a feeble attempt to create a property-owning democracy. What could be the government be doing wrong?

One argument that’s doing the rounds is that house prices are too high. This analysis might appeal to Conservatives, who tend to believe quite strongly in market forces.

The idea is that there is not enough supply of houses to meet our demand for them. That pushes prices up, which means that even with subsidised mortgages, people on average incomes can’t access enough loan to buy an average home. The solution would be to allow more houses to be built.

But for some reason this didn’t appeal to the coalition; 250,000 are needed per year – in addition to the 1m backlog – but only half that were built in 2014. The government vetoed nearly 10,000 new homes this year and its planning legislation makes it hard to expand cities.

The other possible explanation is that the government is not handing out enough bribes – a theory that explains why there are those within the Conservatives who, instead of using taxpayers’ money to build new homes, would prefer to give it to people to buy existing ones.

This is the analysis that appears to hold sway in Downing Street. The Chancellor announced a £3,000 bribe for first-time buyers through the Help to Buy ISA in his March Budget, but that has been put in the shade by newly announced bribes of up to £102,000 for housing association tenants to purchase the home they live in. The Conservatives reckon that will help 1.3m tenants become homeowners.

The policy requires a touch of legal wizardry that makes it possible to sell property that doesn’t already belong to the state. But once the government can force private organisations like housing associations to give up their valuable assets, then the home ownership revolution can really begin.

Selling off housing association homes would boost owner occupation rates back up to 68 per cent. But if the Tories are serious about helping people buy their home – you know, not just saying it because it sounds good – there needs to be a right to buy for tenants in the private sector, too. Why should social tenants have more right to buy a home than private ones, who typically put up with higher rents, lower security and poorer conditions as it is?

There are more than 4 million households renting from a private landlord – 1.4 million of whom have been living in their current home for at least three years. Offering bribes to help these private renters buy their home – and compelling their landlords to sell – would boost home ownership levels past their historical peak to 74 per cent. David Cameron has a golden opportunity to take on the landlord class on behalf of all those hard working private renters and change even more lives. He could achieve more than Maggie Thatcher ever did to forge a property-owning democracy. What’s he waiting for?

Dan Wilson Craw is head of communications for Generation Rent.


Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.

…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.