We owe it to our customers to pursue the Voluntary Right to Buy

Read Mark Henderson’s thoughts on why, as a sector, we should stand firm in our commitment to push forward with the Voluntary Right to Buy scheme, which appeared today in Inside Housing.

The old adage “if at first you don’t succeed…” doesn’t wash with me – if you don’t succeed the first time, make sure you get it right the second time. That’s what we, as a sector, plan to do with the Voluntary Right to Buy (VRTB) scheme.

There’s no doubt the VRTB is a topic that divides the industry. We are all well acquainted with the historic difficulties in replacing the homes sold since the launch of the Right to Buy policy. A fair number of the homes sold have since re-entered the market as private rented properties. This is not a policy without its issues.

However, does this mean we should walk away? As a sector we have agreed that we shouldn’t.

We believe that the key to successful social housing provision and delivering on our social purpose is listening to customers, the people who use what we provide every day.

We have to be open to what they tell us, and a very high proportion of the people who live in Home Group properties tell us that they want to own their own homes. So, why shouldn’t they?

In our last survey, a compelling 87% of our customers told us this. It is our role to listen to feedback like this and to work hard to find solutions.

I make no apologies for listening to our customers.

Homeownership is, and always will be, a really important part of British society. Just as a mixed-tenure community is better than the alternative, so too is a mixed-tenure society. Yet, too many people struggle to get a foot on the housing ladder.

We mustn’t accept the failings of past practices but learn from them and offer our customers an alternative affordable homeownership product. VRTB is one of several ways that we can help customers to get onto the property ladder, alongside offerings like our Deposit Builder product.

The key difference between VRTB and its statutory predecessor is that it is determined to learn and adapt.

A central part of the National Housing Federation’s offer to government in October 2015 was the commitment to replace every home sold with a new property. The compensation pledged by government and different capacity, resource and business models mean that there is no reason why this can’t happen. We have learned and adapted.

At Home Group, for example, we want to go a step further. We will be able to replace homes sold with two homes for social or affordable rent.

This means that the VRTB deal will lead to a net increase in the amount of affordable homes in an area, alongside helping customers achieve their aspirations of homeownership.

This is a pilot and I’m sure there’ll be lessons to come from it. As such, it may not be the exact model to be taken forward. The very nature of a pilot is you learn from it and either adopt it in its entirety or tweak it to suit.

For example, one of the crucial features in this one which simply has not been tested before is portability.

We don’t want to see Section 106 properties sold, as they are subject to a legal agreement and renegotiations would be complicated, nor do we want possible VRTB properties to hold up estate regeneration. So the ability to port into another property was a key feature of the deal. It is important this is tested and evaluated.

The sector has been criticised in the past for being rigid, risk averse and lacking creativity. Pilots like this, I feel, go some way to redressing that misperception. We need to learn from past failings, adapt and push forward, not accept a negative historic marker and throw in the towel.

At the very least, we owe it to our customers to be ambitious and to pursue this on behalf of those who want it, and to learn from it. If we continue to listen and strive to deliver what they want today and in the long term, we will be delivering on our social purpose.

That is how we succeed the second time.


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