Brenda's baby is a crisp, economic document that contains a persuasive audit of the effectiveness of existing schemes to help people into home ownership, but also offers a simplified framework for taking policy forward.
It is probably inevitable that the report's recommendations on right-to-buy will attract most attention. Its analysis of existing schemes to help people into home ownership comes to the wholly expected conclusion that right-to-buy eclipses everything else put together as a popular and accessible route. The problem is that its virtues are precisely why many professionals don't like it very much – it is non-means-tested and operates to a standard format across the country, except in the areas of housing stress where it has been trimmed back. Even then it still comes in comfortably as the best buy. The report's language is an interesting giveaway. It notes: "Currently there are more than 50,000 purchases per annum under right-to-buy and the scheme as a whole has led to nearly 1.6 million local authority properties being lost to social housing since it was introduced in 1980." It could, of course, have noted that the scheme had enabled 1.6 million families to own their home since 1980.
It is true that right-to-buy may attract dead-weight subsidy because it helps people who could afford to purchase without support (the report suggests that in the North and Midlands, more people could afford open-market housing). It is equally true that in areas of the most severe housing pressure affordability may remain above tenants' means even with subsidy. And yes, there have been cases of abuse that have led Prescott to tighten the conditions of purchase – more restrictions are promised in the housing bill. But when so many government programmes are being criticised for their complexity and confusion (for example, Lord Haskins report on the delivery of services in the Countryside), simplicity, accessibility and popularity might just be regarded as virtues.
The idea has hit a gap in the market just when parties are beginning to sketch out manifestos
In fact, the report's recommendations are relatively cautious. It seeks to align the conditions applying to right-to-buy, right-to-acquire and the voluntary purchase grant, which would have the effect of reducing the discounts on right-to-buys. The most eye-catching of the proposals is the admittedly sketchy idea for a home equity bond, an idea that is a logical but imaginative extension of the existing equity loan. What the report rather primly calls "residents of standing" would be offered a bond to purchase their existing home, purchase an open market property or, indeed, a new house. The bond would be transferable in areas of housing stress and could be bolted on to shared-ownership transactions in areas of high prices. People on the waiting list would also be eligible and the bond would be personal not attached to a particular property. One benefit would be to get rid of the division between private and affordable homes on new estates.
The idea poses a host of questions, notably how much freedom would be accorded to the potential purchaser and how rapidly the bond could be activated. There would, also, be income cut-offs and restrictions on resale. But at first sight the idea looks to have hit a real gap in the marketplace – just at the time when the political parties are beginning the sketchy outlines of their manifestos. There is one other comment in the report that caught my eye: "In line with other reforms there is little reason to continue to differentiate between local authority and housing association properties so products should be streamlined across social housing." Given that housing association tenants have fewer opportunities to acquire their homes than people in local authority housing, and given the difficulties in applying right-to-buy to properties built with private funds, this is a tantalising comment.
David Curry is MP for Skipton and shadow secretary of state for local and devolved government affairs.