This is a 130-page book of praise for the right to buy, that a judicious editor might have reduced to the size of a pamphlet. Peter King clearly feels alone in the housing world, surrounded by academics and practitioners who oppose not just the right to buy but even homeownership itself. As a result, much of the book is devoted to establishing the philosophy of homeownership (perhaps not surprisingly, as Peter King is a ‘housing philosopher’).
In a book devoted to the subject, the reader might expect the arguments against the right to buy to be dealt with seriously and in context. King evades this in two ways. First, almost all of the critics he cites take a strongly left-wing view. Second, he puts himself in the morally superior position of someone who really understands the motives of humble people who manage to buy the houses they have lived in for years, and says that those who criticise him do not.
And yet his own partial thinking is evident throughout the book. He sympathises most with the respectable council tenant who has a natural desire to own their home. He sympathises least with those who struggle to find decent housing at all, making much of their ‘perverse incentives’ to have babies or keep their incomes as low as possible so as to get housing benefit. Nor does he ask what happens to right to buy properties when they are later sold and in many cases go back into the rented sector at much higher rents. Or why the receipts from the right to buy could not have been recycled into new building.
He avoids a whole set of political and pragmatic arguments. For example, he argues that council housing would have declined anyway, without the right to buy, as the Tories were determined to starve it of funding. Quite. But what if housing policy overall had been different, seeking to build on the best of council housing, not sell it off? He dismisses arguments about the loss of new lettings because of right to buy in two ways. First, because the buyers stayed there (yes – but for how long?). Second, because why think about nebulous future need, when you can satisfy the wishes of a current tenant?
On the basis of King’s philosophy, it would be easy to justify a right to buy for private tenants, but curiously he barely mentions private renting at all. He also finds little space for the argument that the problem is not so much right to buy as the polarising of tenure which it has spearheaded. Those who would like to see a more tenure neutral approach, in which homeownership is not an obsession but one (albeit major) option, do not get their views considered in these pages.
Original post: Housing Magazine