In Putney, a relatively prosperous part of the London borough of Wandsworth, there is a block of very ordinary 1960s council flats called Sherfield Gardens. Like many such properties most of its occupants are no longer council tenants. Encouraged by soaring house prices and the huge discounts on offer, they have taken advantage of Thatcher’s Right to Buy and become owner-occupiers.
They have no doubt profited handsomely from their investment, and who can blame them? Some perhaps have moved away to sunnier climes and placed their property in the hands of an agent who rents it out on their behalf at many times the rate they once paid as council tenants. Some indeed may rent their property back to the very local authority that was once their landlord.
The situation in Sherfield Gardens is replicated across London. In Wandsworth 39 per cent of 15,000 ex-council flats are now sublet. In Westminster, the figure is 31 per cent, in Kingston-upon-Thames 46 percent and in Kensington and Chelsea 43 per cent. Across the country more than a third of former council properties are now in the hands of landlords. In Sunderland, where I was an MP for 23 years, one particularly ruthless landlord specialised in buying up ex-council properties and filling them with tenants who had been evicted from council properties, making the lives of their neighbours a misery.
What if none of this had happened? Or at least, if it had happened on a rather smaller scale, as would have been the case without the large discounts and the ban on using the proceeds of sales to build new social housing. The bill for housing benefit would certainly be a great deal lower than it is today. The first thing a buy-to-let landlord does when he acquires a new property is jack up the rent to the limit that the market will bear and since, in many cases, the rents are paid wholly or in part by housing benefit, it is the taxpayer who is taking the hit. Contrary to what George Osborne would have us believe, however, the beneficiaries of the taxpayers’ largesse are not tenants, but landlords.
Second, it is a fair bet that the housing crisis in London and the home counties would be a great deal less serious than it is. The central London boroughs would have been in a far better position to deal with the homelessness on their doorstep if they hadn’t been so keen to offload their social housing. At last count Westminster had 120 families in bed and breakfast accommodation because they have no available housing of their own. This is ruinously expensive and hugely damaging for the children of the families concerned.
Finally, if so many council houses hadn’t been privatised, fewer people who do ordinary, but essential, jobs would be crammed into substandard housing and forced to pay exorbitant rents. It remains to be seen where the future generation of care workers, postmen, shop workers, waiters and their families are going live given the steadily shrinking stock of social housing. Who knows, we might not have to import so many east Europeans, prepared to live four or five to a room, to do the jobs that British citizens could easily do, if they had somewhere decent to live.
Chris Mullin is a former Labour MP