Governments have all sorts of housing policies. Very few are as controversial as Margaret Thatcher’s right to buy and David Cameron’s proposed extension of it.
To some, right to buy is the epitome of the politics of aspiration; harnessing private effort for public gain. Giving people a stake in society will empower them, the theory goes, to become more civic minded.
To others, the policy just reduces the stock of affordable housing, penalises councils and housing associations and deters them from building more homes.
The difference in viewpoint tends to hinge on whether you see a 'house' as a private asset or 'housing' as national infrastructure. And how much faith you have in aspiration as a tool for social mobility.
Let’s start with infrastructure. The state builds roads and hospitals because it is in everyone’s interests that people be mobile and healthy. Since Lloyd George’s day, social housing has fallen into the infrastructure bracket too.
If you think of housing as infrastructure, the right to buy makes as much sense as allowing people to buy their hospital bed.
Alternatively, if you see a house as a private asset like an iPad, it seems quite strange that so many people should be given them for free or on the cheap, while others have to pay a lot of money for them. Why should someone on a middle-income pay extortionate amounts to live out of town while others live at taxpayer’s expense in the city centre?
Most people fall between these two extreme positions: they don’t want families on the streets; they do want people to be able to choose where they live at a reasonable price. There is little appetite for economic apartheid. People care about social justice but they also want to be treated fairly themselves. Neither communists nor libertarians get much of a hearing in this country.
In my experience though, a person’s approach to housing is still a good proxy for their political affiliations. The issue ties together concerns about poverty, morality, benefits, taxes and – of course – immigration.
Because the issue is so sensitive it is very easy for people to misunderstand each other before they have even opened their mouths.
Which, to some extent, is what has happened following the Queen’s Speech, given that Her Majesty didn’t really say very much on the subject.
Any attempt that tries to bridge the gap between housing as infrastructure and housing as an asset should be welcomed, even if some apprehension on the subject is to be expected.
The government needs to get this right. Housing associations use their assets as debt security and some use money raised to do other useful things like invest in build to rent to subsidise their charitable activities. The vital work they do should not be undermined. Replacement homes have to actually be built.
The government is right to encourage the aspiration of 1.3 million eligible tenants, but the aspirations of the rest of us are a much bigger problem.