The local Conservative Association ditched my previous MP, Tim Yeo, and selected a new guy, James Cartlidge, before the election. He won, as might have been expected in this blue county. Although I've never voted Tory in my life (and never will), Tim Yeo was better than most, being a leftish Tory, a humanist, and clued up about environmental issues. He served as Minister for the Environment and Countryside from 1993 to 1994 in Major's government and was Chair of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee. I've heard that some MPs don't seem inclined to respond to constituents' letters or emails when they've been critical of Tory policy, but whenever I wrote to Yeo I always got a detailed reply, even if it wasn't what I was hoping for.
When I read Cartlidge's election address, I wasn't impressed. For a start, he has four kids. Has he never heard of population control? As my mum might have said, he should put a knot in it. Apparently, James argues on conservativehome that the property market should be rebalanced more in favour of those who want to own property than rent it out. He doesn't like the surge in buy-to-let investors, but what about social housing? The Tories' pledge to allow housing association tenants the right to buy their homes is just as big a problem, if not more so.
So I wrote to him. Probably a waste of time, but...
I'm writing about your government's plan to allow housing association tenants to buy their homes. This has to be one of the silliest policies imaginable. It's well known that a significant proportion of the council homes sold under Mrs Thatcher's right-to-buy scheme have ended up in the ownership of buy-to-let landlords who charge higher rents than the councils did, and that many of these rents are being subsidised from the public purse through housing benefit. This is especially true of former council homes in the London boroughs. Not only that, but the sale of council houses has actually resulted in fewer homes becoming available. Since 1980, nearly 2 million homes have been sold under the scheme, while just 345,000 new social properties have been built. The experience of one London housing association, Phoenix, illustrates the reality of right-to-buy. 82 of its properties, valued at £12.7m, were sold under right-to-buy. A subsidy of £100,000 to tenants meant proceeds dropped to £7m. A transfer agreement meant a further £5m went to the former landlord, Lewisham council. Selling 82 homes gave Phoenix enough money to build just 12 new one-bed flats.
I know something about council housing and the housing crisis. As a Babergh District Council tenant for 30 years, I was its first Tenants' Forum chairperson and was a tenants' representative on its Housing Panel. I've taken a keen interest in housing issues for a long time. I can confidently claim that selling housing association stock will not have the effect of easing the housing crisis - just the opposite. Not only that, but I'd question the government's right to do this. I believe that the associations plan a legal challenge.
The obsession with owner-occupation in the UK is misguided. Our European neighbours regard renting as an acceptable way to be housed, including in Germany, where 53% of the population rent and most have indefinite tenancies. Rather than selling off our remaining social housing, it would make much more sense to stop its sale, to build a lot more social housing, to bring more empty properties into use, and to do something about bringing the private rented sector under control with stricter standards and rent control.
The National Housing Federation is among many organisations with expertise in housing that strongly oppose your party's plans, and with good reason. Someone may have imagined that it would be a popular policy to include in your election manifesto, but it has not been thought through. I urge you to prevail upon Mr Cameron to think again.
Yours sincerely ...
Photo of Cartlidge from the UK Parliament website.