Analysis by the Local Government Association (LGA) showed that 12,246 council homes were sold to tenants under right to buy in England in 2015-16, but just 2,055 replacements were started by councils – a drop of 27% on the previous year.
The right-to-buy scheme allows low-income tenants to buy their council-owned home at a sizeable discount to market value. Since it was launched by Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s, almost 2m properties have been sold by councils across England and the proportion of homes that are social housing has fallen from 31% to 17%. Use of the scheme was slowing until the Conservative government relaunched the scheme in 2012 and quadrupled the discounts available to London tenants.
Right to buy has been scrapped in Scotland and the Welsh assembly last week confirmed that it planned to do the same. The LGA said the scheme could become a thing of the past in England, too, if councils were not helped to fund replacement homes.
The organisation, which represents 370 local authorities across England and Wales, said it expected 66,000 council homes to be sold to tenants by 2020 and that councils would struggle to replace the majority of them.
A further 22,000 homes will be sold if councils are forced to offload higher-value properties to fund the extension of right to buy to housing associations. The promise to make discounts available to 1.3 million housing association tenants was a key part of the Conservative manifesto at last year’s general election.
The LGA warned that the fall in the number of much-needed council homes would exacerbate the housing crisis and increase homelessness and spending on housing benefit at a time when there were 1.4 million people on waiting lists.
The government has committed to one-for-one replacements for all additional homes sold since the scheme was relaunched. However, the LGA said urgent reform was needed to ensure councils could replace housing quickly and effectively.
It said authorities needed to keep 100% of receipts from sales, rather than the one-third they can currently retain, and that discounts should be set locally to reflect regional variations in house prices. Under the existing system, London tenants can get a discount of up to £103,900, while outside the capital homes are sold for up to £77,900 below market value.
The LGA’s senior vice chair, Nick Forbes, said current arrangements were restricting councils’ ability to replace homes and suggested this would mean that eventually there were no more properties to sell. “Right to buy will quickly become a thing of the past in England if councils continue to be prevented from building new homes,” he said.
“Housing reforms that reduce rents and force councils to sell homes will make building new properties and replacing those sold even more difficult. Such a loss in social housing risks pushing more people into the more expensive private rented sector, increasing homelessness and housing benefit spending.”
The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) said the government was prepared to take action to ensure replacement homes were built.
It said: “We’re committed to building the homes this country needs and investing £8bn to build 400,000 more affordable homes. There is a rolling three-year deadline for local authorities to deliver an additional affordable home and so far they have delivered well within their sales profile.
“However, we have always been clear that if local authorities don’t start building replacement homes within the three-year deadline, then we will step in and build them for them.”
Around 40% of council flats sold through right to buy are thought to be owned by property investors now and are likely to be rented out at market rates. Some local authorities have attempted to stave off sales of social housing with new schemes for tenants. Recently, Barking and Dagenham council said it would allow tenants to buy a stake in their homes but would retain a share in each property.