Editorial: The Housing Bill will be a battle royal over charitable assets

The proposed extension of the right to buy to tenants of housing associations will involve dismantling centuries-old protections for charities, writes the editor of Third Sector

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

Greg Clark was highly regarded as a junior minister in the last government and before that was for a period an assiduous and active shadow charities minister. He is therefore a welcome successor to Eric Pickles as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. But the moment he stepped through the elegant revolving doors of his department, his party lobbed him a potentially crippling hospital pass.

This is, of course, the Housing Bill, which would extend to tenants of housing associations the right to buy their homes at discounts of up to 70 per cent if they have been paying rent for three years. The associations would be compensated – or so the theory goes – by the proceeds of the sale by local authorities of their most valuable council houses when they became vacant. The idea is to extend home ownership to more "hard-working families". (Will there be a clause, one wonders, that excludes tenants who, for whatever reason, are not in work?)

There is a multitude of reasons why the bill does not make sense in terms of  housing policy, the principal one being that it will almost certainly reduce the stock of what the country most needs – affordable homes. For a detailed account of these reasons, read the House of Lords debate on the Queen’s speech this week, in which knowledgeable and experienced peers queued up to denounce the bill and exhort the government to drop it or amend it drastically. Even Boris Johnson, Mayor of London and newly elected Conservative MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, has called it "the height of insanity" in its present form.

A fundamental concern for the sector, however, is that most housing associations are charities and the government is, in effect, proposing to seize their charitable assets. This is a momentous proposition that, as Baroness Hollis pointed out in the debate, would involve the unpicking of "myriad laws that go back centuries" and dismantling the protection of charitable assets built up since Elizabethan times. Would we, she asked pertinently, be in favour of the government asset-stripping those well-known charities, Eton and Winchester, in order to fund academy schools? Of course not.

The affair has echoes of the NHS reform bill in the last parliament, which all but destroyed the political career of Andrew Lansley when he was Secretary of State for Health. Everyone told the government that the legislation was a turkey, but it refused to listen and, after prolonged bloodletting, a crippled version of it was railroaded through, to nobody’s real advantage. Are we going to witness a repeat of that unedifying process?

Before the election campaign, nobody had been canvassing the extension of the right to buy to housing association tenants. When the right to buy for council houses was first implemented in the 1980s, such an extension was specifically excluded, for good reason. But during the election campaign, alarmed at the tied opinion polls, the Conservatives rashly reached for this as a quick crowd-pleaser that might break the deadlock. Now that they are faced with trying to make it work, they have a battle royal on their hands and would be well advised to effect a dignified retreat.

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