During his first leadership election Jeremy Corbyn was interviewed by Red Brick, the blog of London Labour Housing Group. He was asked about the issue of Right to Buy (RTB). He responded that he would vote against the extension of RTB to housing associations and was personally in favour of “ending RTB, full stop”.
However, such was the symbolic importance of RTB in relation to New Labour that even Jeremy's campaign team was hesitant about crossing this particular Rubicon and calling for an end to RTB sales. His campaign document “Tackling the Housing Crisis” spoke instead of “reducing the harm it causes to our affordable housing stock”. It proposed giving local authorities the power (though only in “areas of high housing stress”) to suspend RTB in order to protect “depleting social housing assets”. We know there was a discussion in the campaign team though we don't know the detail. Undoubtedly there were fears that ending RTB would be denounced by his opponent as left wing lunacy. Small c conservatism won the day.
RTB was identified with “aspiration”. Jack Dromey when Shadow Housing Minister declared that Labour supported RTB because it was “a party of aspiration”. This was personal aspiration, in fact self-interest, which was blind to the social consequences of the sales. RTB was one of the key causes of the deepening housing crisis. There were 484,000 RTB sales in England alone under the New Labour government.
Fast forward to the coup attempt against Corbyn. The Shadow Housing Minister, a supporter of RTB, who thought that ending the policy would be an electoral liability, took part in the coordinated Shadow Cabinet resignations in an effort to force Corbyn to resign. In his absence the role was taken on by Teresa Pearce. During her tenure Labour's policy was announced to be suspension of RTB. She said that the policy “could only make sense in a time of surplus, in a time of shortage it makes no sense at all.” This was a step forward even if the Party did not adopt Corbyn's position of ending it “full stop”.
When the coup attempt failed John Healey was magnanimously asked to return as Shadow Housing Minister. Would he support this policy which he had not agreed to? In March of 2017 Housing Minister Gavin Barwell said that RTB could only be “politically justified” if homes sold were replaced by new homes built. This was the equivalent of an open goal. On behalf of Swindon Tenants Campaign Group, I wrote to John Healey suggesting that Labour should pick up on this comment and demand that Barwell suspend RTB precisely because homes sold were not being replaced.
The reply I received managed to ignore commenting on the suggestion. I wrote again asking for clarification as to whether suspension was still Labour policy with John Healey at the helm. I was told that there had been no change of policy since Teresa Pearce's announcement. Policy it may have been but the Shadow Housing Minister refused to do anything about it. We could only conclude that he was on strike against the policy.
I am pleased to record that, for the first time that I am aware of, John Healey has publicly said that Labour's policy is to suspend RTB. He recently told the Daily Mirror that “In the midst of the Housing crisis, the Conservatives' wasteful Right to Buy is indefensible.”
This is positive. However, Labour's Manifesto introduced a caveat to this policy. Councils could “resume sales if they can prove they have a plan to replace homes sold like-for-like”. Not all plans come to fruition, of course. Why should councils be allowed to operate RTB on the basis of a promise to replace them?
John Healey's office has confirmed that the caveat is still Labour policy. It should be abandoned. Even if one for one replacement was actually applied it would only ensure that council stock numbers did not decline. Yet tackling the housing crisis requires a big increase in council house stock. At the end of the last financial year the number of council homes left in England had fallen to only 1.601 million. It will fall again with each year's sales.
RTB has been ended in Scotland and Wales. Only the conservatism of those in the Labour leadership who cling to the dying remnants of New Labour's corpse want to hang onto RTB. If suspension is as far as they will go at the moment Labour should at least commit to applying the policy universally, with no room for manoeuvre given to councils that would want to continue to sell their homes.