Housing experts have warned that the Conservatives’ plans to extend the right to buy to include housing association properties would require a "fundamental rewriting of the agreement between government and civil society".
The Conservative manifesto, published last week, pledges to extend the right to buy, which allows tenants of local authority housing tenants to buy their homes at a reduced rate, to tenants of housing associations.
The maximum discount, which is based on factors including how long the tenant has lived there, is £77,900 in England except in London, where it is £103,900.
"It is unfair that they should miss out on a right enjoyed by tenants in local authority homes," the Conservative manifesto says. "We will fund the replacement of properties sold under the extended right to buy by requiring local authorities to manage their housing assets more efficiently, with the most expensive properties sold off and replaced as they fall vacant."
Most housing associations are exempt charities and are regulated by the Homes and Communities Agency.
Experts expressed concerns about how charitable law could be reconciled with the notion of the government compelling them to sell their assets at reduced rates.
The National Housing Federation, the umbrella body for housing associations, questioned the government’s ability to impose the measure on registered social landlords under charity law.
David Orr, chief executive of the NHF, said: "Housing associations are just as independent from government as Cancer Research UK and Oxfam, and the government has no more right to compel them to sell their property.
"It would be a fundamental rewriting of the agreement between government and civil society and would probably require a change in charity law."
Jonathan Cox, a partner at the law firm Anthony Collins, said that housing associations would probably have to challenge the policy, but the question of the homes being sold at reduced rates might not be a factor.
"The government has said that housing associations will be compensated: if that is full compensation, the undervalue argument might not get very far," he said. "But that isn’t the whole story: the duty of charity trustees to their beneficiaries – given the consequent loss of homes – might mean housing associations will have to challenge this policy in whatever ways are available."