First right-to-buy sales go through after pilots
The first sales have taken place under the government's controversial right-to-buy policy for housing association tenants, it has announced.
A handful of sales have gone through in recent days in London and Merseyside following a pilot project involving five housing associations.
The housing minister said every house sold would be replaced.
But the chairwoman of the public accounts committee said ministers had no idea how much the scheme would cost.
Allowing housing association tenants to buy their own homes at a discount was a pledge in the 2015 Conservative Party manifesto.
The housing association is then reimbursed as councils are forced to sell off high-value properties that become vacant.
'Sense of security'
Under the pilot schemes in London, Merseyside, Norfolk, Oxfordshire and Surrey, tenants had to have been resident for 10 years before they could become eligible to buy.
Among the first buyers are Sasha Dudley and her partner Peter Taylor.
They have lived in their house in Croydon, south London, for 19 years but finally became the owners on Thursday.
They paid just under £300,000 for the property after receiving the maximum discount available of £105,000.
"We've lived here a long time but now, suddenly overnight, it feels more important, and yours," said Mr Taylor.
"It's always felt like a home to us, but knowing we now own the place has given us that sense of security."
Housing Minister Gavin Barwell, who visited the couple, said the policy was important but only part of a larger housing strategy.
"You heard very clearly from Sasha and Peter that they don't think they could afford to buy their home any other way without this policy," he said.
"So there are a significant number of people we can help on to the housing ladder, but there are other things we need to do as well.
"The fundamental thing, if we want to deal with the problem of affordability in this country, is to build more homes. And that is something that is absolutely top of my agenda."
The pilot schemes
- London, Merseyside, Norfolk, Oxfordshire, Surrey
- 54,000 residents were eligible to apply
- There were 4,000 expressions of interest
- 800 households applied to buy, each paying a £250 fee
The scheme builds on a policy introduced by the Tories in the 1980s, which allowed council house tenants to buy their homes.
That policy was hugely popular but has been blamed for contributing to the lack of affordable housing.
Ministers have promised that each house sold under the new system will be replaced on a one-for-one basis.
"You can absolutely hold me to account on that," said Mr Barwell.
The discounts given to the buyers under the pilot schemes will be repaid to the housing associations by the government, but the exact details of how the scheme will operate once it rolls out across England are still to be finalised.
Crucially, campaigners in areas of high-value council houses, such as London, fear they will lose out as they will have to subsidise homes sold in other parts of the country.
Some councils have no homes to sell as they transferred them all over to the housing associations years ago.
The difficulties that some residents might have buying their homes, even with a large discount, became apparent during the pilot schemes.
Some potential buyers in London, where the average price before discount was over £400,000, couldn't afford the properties.
Officials were therefore forced to increase the proportion of sales available to buyers in Merseyside, where houses prices are a lot lower.
Replacements 'not like-for-like'
The chairwoman of the public accounts committee, Labour MP Meg Hillier, criticised the length of time it is taking the government to develop the scheme.
She added: "When we looked at this, there wasn't even a back-of-the-envelope calculation - there was no envelope.
"And what's really clear is that one-for-one replacement isn't like-for-like.
"So, new homes built as a result could be in a different area, of a different size and of a different tenure."
David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, said: "The voluntary right to buy will be a life-changing opportunity for many tenants, so I am really pleased to see that the first pilot sales have gone through smoothly.
"This is a really strong start to a scheme which will be positive for both tenants that want to become home owners and housing associations that want to boost the nation's housing supply."