Cllr Rock Feilding-Mellen is the Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Housing at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
Amongst the many achievements of the last woman Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party was a radical and dramatic reform of housing policy. Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy (RTB) scheme, introduced swiftly after she set foot in Number 10 in 1980, was controversial at the time and its consequences still reverberate today.
In welcoming and congratulating our second woman party leader and PM I hope that she too will turn her attention to the complex and crucial issue of housing, in all its tenures. I would be particularly pleased to see her champion changes to Right to Buy as it stands today.
As a Conservative, I’m instinctively a believer in Right to Buy. I want people from all walks of life to have the opportunity to get on the housing ladder and to own their own home and have a larger stake in our society and their local communities.
As Cabinet Member for Housing in a central London borough, I am involved on a daily basis with the nitty gritty of housing issues and see first hand what our housing officers deal with and just what the implications of changes to housing policy are, for not only London but other economically successful cities such as Bristol, Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester.
That’s why I would like Theresa May to rethink the new rules for Right to Buy. The principle remains sound but should people already lucky enough to have secure social housing (compared to all those in temporary accommodation or in the private rented sector, many flat sharing), who may already have the income to consider a mortgage, really be at the front of the queue for an additional bonus of up to £105,000 of public subsidy? Given that this helping hand will now be paid for by forcing councils to sell the social housing that would otherwise be used to preserve our cities’ mixed income neighbourhoods, I don’t believe this is right and I think there is a fairer way to go forward.
In my opinion, it would be better to fund RTB – for council tenants as well as for housing association tenants – by giving them a shared equity deal, which means that when they sell their home the discount would be repaid to the Exchequer to be recycled to help more people.
An approach along these lines would increase the chance of being able to prevent our cities from becoming polarised between rich and poor areas and preserve mixed communities. To do this the Government must put mechanisms in place that make sure the housing market is working for everyone, not just those privileged enough to be able to access the Bank of Mum and Dad. It is vital that help is on hand for ordinary households to enable them to have a secure home near their work and social and family networks, whether that is owned or rented.
I say rented because although more home ownership is good and something to strive for it does come at a cost. Starter Homes in, for example, central London or Oxford will only be affordable to those households who can get a deposit of £90,000 and who have a household income of £90,000! Where does this leave the mechanics and the carpenters? Or the newly qualified engineers, the young graduates setting out in a career in advertising, public relations, or graphic design.
Not to mention the bus-drivers, nurses, waiters, cleaners and hospital porters. Wouldn’t it be better to allow local councils the discretion to determine what types of affordable housing would work best in their areas so as to preserve the mixed-income neighbourhoods that our cities have been lucky enough to inherit?
Renting, particularly in London is no longer the cheap option. It can be a colossal financial commitment that can eat two-thirds or more of take-home pay, and in so doing leaves zero room to save for future home ownership.
I hope that amongst the many tasks facing our new PM and her Cabinet there will be serious consideration given to amending some of the most recent proposals in the 2016 Housing and Planning Act. Otherwise, ever more swathes of our cities will be just for the privileged few, rather than cohesive, diverse, friendly places where we all rub along.