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The Right to Buy: A tale of two cities

The Right to Buy scheme was one of the flagship policies of Margaret Thatcher’s government, and one of its most controversial legacies. Introduced in 1980, it gave former council tenants the right to buy their council houses, often at large discounts. The goal was to create a ‘property-owning democracy’ and supporters credit the scheme with having given 77,500 working class families a foot on the property ladder, breaking down class barriers and creating less dependency on the state.

Detractors note that the Right to Buy scheme has significantly depleted reserves of social housing. Local authorities under both Labour and Conservative governments have not replenished their social housing stock, either through direct policy (telling local authorities to pay off debt rather than build new houses) or through local government cuts. Between 1980 and 2013 1,869,898 council homes were sold under the Right to Buy and the number of council houses in Britain has fallen by 69% since 1980.

Now the scheme has come under fresh criticism after it transpires that statistics show that 4 out of 10 right to buy homes are now owned by private landlords. This comes at a time when social housing is desperately needed by vulnerable people who cannot afford to buy or rent privately. Waiting lists for council houses now number in the tens of thousands in many London local authorities. Homes that were once owned by councils are now being used to generate income for private landlords. In some cases councils are having to rent back homes they had sold at a discount in order to place homeless families in them.

The criticism has led some to ask whether the right to buy policy should be a thing of the past. In Wales the policy has resulted in a 45% reduction in the social housing stock, according to figures published by the Welsh Government. The response in Cardiff has been strong, on the 6th of December 2017 they passed legislation which will abolish the right to buy. In Scotland the right to buy has already been abolished.

The government in Cardiff has taken the lead on dealing with homelessness, passing the Housing Act (Wales) 2014 Act which introduced major changes to the way homelessness was approached in Wales, giving every eligible homeless person an immediate right to assistance. The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, passed as a private member’s bill, has gone a small way towards the radical approach taken in Wales but has a much more restricted scope.

Presently the Westminster’s government approach to right to buy is to strengthen the scheme, not abolish it. The Conservative Party’s 2015 Manifesto committed to extend the right to buy to tenants in Housing Associations. Previously only council tenants had the right to buy, extending the right to Housing Association tenants as well would give the right to another 1.3 million families. The Chartered Institute of housing believes that a further 370,000 council and housing association homes could be lost by 2020. At the moment the extension is rolling out very slowly, with a pilot to take place in the Midlands in 2018.

The housing crisis is reaching acute levels, with 79,190 households in temporary accommodation, an increase of 6% from last year. Social housing is needed now more than ever, yet the responses of governments in Wales and Westminster have been very different, with one electing to preserve social housing stock and the other intending to reduce it still further. With London taking Cardiff’s lead on Homelessness, perhaps now is the time to consider following Cardiff on the question of Right to Buy.