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It’s Time to Take Back Housing

The Right to Buy turned a public good into private profit and birthed the housing crisis. But cities around the world are showing how to reverse this disaster by taking homes out of the hands of profiteers and returning them to public ownership.

An expanded Right to Buy Back could solve Britain's housing crisis. (Getty Images)

Acceptance that the UK’s housing system is in crisis, if not a state of outright emergency, is increasingly widespread. Rents have spiralled out of control, with private tenants now paying on average a third of their earnings to a landlord, with around a third of renters paying more than half their income in rent. Insecurity is ever-present, with tenancies in England among the shortest in Western Europe (beaten only by Luxumbourg) and rates of physical evictions among the highest. It is no surprise in this context that homelessness in the UK is so high, with Shelter estimating homelessness at a minimum of 271,000. Some 8.5 million people have some kind of unmet housing need, according to the National Housing Federation. 

Council housing, once the bedrock of the housing system — providing secure and cheap tenure — is in shockingly short supply. According to the National Housing Federation, 1.6 million households are languishing on the waiting list — more than the number of households in the North-East — while all of England only managed to deliver a pitiful 8,900 council homes in 2021-22. Only 2,500 of these were for social rent, the traditional rent level for social housing, with the remainder at higher-cost tenures. 

In the same period, the UK also sold off or demolished around 20,000 social homes, with 14,000 council homes sold off under the Right to Buy scheme. Over the years, Right to Buy has led to some 3 million homes being lost from the social housing stock. With millions in need of secure and affordable homes, rebuilding the council stock is a vital step — perhaps the most vital — in confronting the housing emergency. Council housing offers secure, lifelong tenancies and rent levels far below that of the private sector and most Housing Association properties, with the homes remaining in public hands, owned by us. 

Amid this backdrop of depleted social housing, Sadiq Khan unveiled his ‘Right to Buy Back’ scheme in 2021, which has subsidised London councils to purchase homes from the private sector for use as council housing. This has allowed for former private sector homes to be added to the council housing stock, so long as the homes meet or are brought up to the Decent Homes Standard. In its first year, the scheme managed to facilitate the purchase of 1500 homes — a long way from what is needed to meet the city’s social housing needs, but almost as many council homes as were built across the rest of England last year 

Following on from the Right to Buy Back scheme, the mayor has pledged to support the purchase of an additional 10,000 homes over the next decade, recasting the scheme as a longer-term programme to build up the council housing stock. This is a slower rate than the the Right to Buy Back achieved in its first year. At the same time though, it entrenches the possibility of converting private rental homes into public housing, converting wildly expensive homes to a secure and truly affordable tenure. This should be thought of as a welcome — if not ambitious — step. 

However, the plans fall short of the achievement of the ‘Right to Buy Back’ scheme so far, which acquired 1500 homes in its first year, 50 percent more a year than the mayor plans to acquire over the next decade. Not only this, but they also fall far short of municipal plans to buy public housing in Barcelona, Paris, and potentially Berlin, where proposals to socialise a quarter of a million homes in the portfolios of corporate landlords are being pursued, let alone a programme to shift from the dominance of private landlordism to one of abundant public housing.  

The scheme is also less bold in key ways than plans Andy Burnham mooted this summer, when the Greater Manchester Mayor called for repossessing substandard homes if landlords refuse to upgrade them to a proper standard. Under this model, private landlords who fail to provide decent housing risk losing their investment, with the home instead brought into social ownership. In Scotland, Humza Yousuf has announced the creation of a fund of at least £60 million — enough to fund the acquisition of well over 3000 homes a year at the country’s average price — an important step. While the Greater London Authority enjoys more limited funding powers than Scotland, the comparison can still be instructive, especially given Scotland has a significantly smaller population. Although London’s Right to Buy Back represents a shift from the housing policy agenda of previous administrations, it does not meet the ambition of policies in Manchester and Scotland, let alone surpass it. 

The right to buy back is not a new innovation in Britain. Labour councils in the past, including Camden, have acquired fairly significant numbers of homes from private landlords for re-use in the council housing sector. In Camden in the 1970s alone, the council purchased almost 7000 homes to be repurposed as council housing. And in the 1950s, it was Labour’s ambition to eventually socialise the entire private rental sector, delivering housing as a social service. It is time for the same ambition. 

Campaigners in London, and the UK much more widely, can also take inspiration from the plans of other cities on the continent such as Barcelona, Paris, and Berlin — where proposals to socialise homes sold off to corporate landlords are being developed.  

In Barcelona, the city has established a right of first refusal for when properties go on the market, giving the city first dibs on homes to be converted to public housing. Through its wider ‘right to housing’ campaign, the city expects to double its public housing stock by 2025, and perhaps even more promisingly, the city aspires for a housing model dubbed ‘Vienna 2.0.’, after the Austrian capital’s system in which social homes comprise the majority. Nationally, the Spanish government is converting 50,000 repossessed homes into use as public housing, rather than leaving them to be sold on through the private market. In neighbouring Portugal, the government has passed legislation that allows the state to turn empty properties into social housing. 

In Paris, the city government has also adopted an ambitious housing strategy, investing 500 million a year in acquiring buildings to be used or converted to social housing. This sits as part of a wider programme to increase the social housing supply: with a target of expanding social rented housing to 30 percent of the housing stock by 2035. To achieve a similar shift in London, the GLA would need a net increase in the total number of social homes by almost 40 percent, while an equivalent programme of acquisitions would cost a minimum of around £1.7 billion a year — over 11 times the scale of the Right to Buy Back scheme. 

Perhaps best known in the UK is Berlin’s ‘Expropriate’ campaign, which saw a successful referendum in 2021 to buy swathes of homes from corporate landlords, many of which are former social homes. The campaign successfully led to and won a referendum backing the policy, with the city government now examining implementation. If the programme were implemented, Berlin could expect to see an additional 200,000 homes added to the social housing stock, around a tenth of the city’s homes. 

While the GLA has comparatively little funding, hamstringing its capacity to confront the housing crisis head on, as much as it has campaigned for rent controls and more money for social housing in recent years, the GLA can campaign for more powers and funding for acquisitions, so they can take place at scale. This would help to raise the level of ambition and point in the direction of a housing system based on affordability and security. 

Decades of privatisation and under-investment have left housing exposed to speculation, volatility and house price bubbles. Shifting away from a system dominated by private landlordism to one of abundant public housing will require a massive expansion of council housing. Here acquisitions can play a crucial part, bringing homes quickly into the social housing stock and tilting the balance toward social ownership at genuinely affordable rents. While building new council housing is critical, it is necessary to shift Right to Buy in reverse. Instead of a continuous flow of publicly-funded homes into the private sector, the opposite can and should happen: taking homes from the private rental sector into ownership by us.  

Learning from the successes of other cities and councils in buying up housing, in both the past and the present, can be a significant step on the long road toward a system of secure, democratic and socialised housing. It is this way that we can build a housing system actually designed to house people. A system where insecurity is no longer the order of the day and, where people are not left to the whims of landlords and housing is organised around meeting social needs.