Anti-Social Housing: ‘Right to Buy’ and Thatcher’s Legacy

aylesbury-estate_62342aRadio 4’s ‘Analysis: Anti-Social housing’ broadcast on Thursday 26th February 2009 explored the role, function and challenges facing the provision of social housing in today’s Britain. Much of the focus was on the Aylesbury council estate in Walworth, south London where Tony Blair, when Labour came to power in 1997, pledged to defeat poverty and social exclusion (a slide show of images from the Aylesbury Estate can be viewed here).

Central to this was the research undertaken by Tamsie Thomson from the Royal Institute of British Architects who has made an in depth study of the estate:

This estate was built in the mid 1960s in response to acute housing need and it had some of the most dilapidated housing in London. It was the densest ward in the densest borough in the densest city in England.

Having grown up living on the Elim Estate in neighbouring Bermondsey, having gone to school with friends who lived on the estate meant that there was little in her study that came of a surprise.

Considering social – or council – housing over the last three decades, the programme argued that its residents have become more detached than ever. It added – quite rightly – that even the very term ‘council estate’ has become a short hand for disadvantage and with it, serious social stigmatisation. As Lynsey Hanley a council estate resident from Chelmsley Wood in Birmingham and author of ‘Estates: An Intimate History’ put it:

…there are psychological scars carried around by people who are perfectly aware of the fact that they are regarded by other people as inferior…

A point reinforced by her noting how:

…class is built into the landscape in the form of its housing in Britain. You know it reinforces the already very strong class differences in Britain.

Whilst the Aylesbury – like many other estates in south London and beyond – are likely to be replaced, there are still almost two million families on the waiting list for social housing, a figure that is likely to rise as repossessions soar in the current recession. So whilst the Government seems to be encouraging a new wave of house building by local authorities it is unclear whether the system as a whole is actually working and whether it is providing support to those that most need it.

Despite a number of reasons being put forward for the current system not working, it was only Hanley that seemed daring enough to highlight what has been the most significant factor in the demise of social housing in this country: the Thatcherite policy of ‘Right to Buy’:

What happened thirty years ago is that estates were deemed to be in an absolutely terrible condition and the best way or one of the best ways in order to sort that out in one way was to bring in the Right to Buy. So a lot of the better paid people on estates – and that obviously is people in secure full time work – bought their houses you know and started doing them up with their own money. That led to a really, really reduced number of council properties available for local authorities and so they started prioritising purely on the basis of need.

And how it eventually panned out is that council housing became a place where you overwhelmingly were unlikely to be in secure well paid work, you were overwhelmingly likely to qualify for some means tested benefit, you were overwhelmingly more likely to have difficulties with schooling and relationships and with just generally sort of getting a hold on all the sorts of things that make you feel as though you are sort of progressing with your life and doing well in your life.

And that last point is key: if you own your home post-Thatcher, then you are seen to be doing well but if you live or need council housing, you’re seen to be quite the opposite. ‘Right to Buy’ therefore stratified housing not only on the basis of class, but also on perceptions and attitudes relating to success and progress. Society subsequently deemed those who did not own property to be failures and to be little more than ‘scrounging’ off the State.

‘Right to Buy’ was the scheme under which council tenants were – and indeed still are – entitled to purchase their homes at a heavily discounted price of up to 44%. To qualify for the scheme, you have to have been a tenant for at least two years although you did not need to have spent this time in the same property or as a tenant of the same housing authority.

The scheme was introduced in the Housing Act 1980, as one of the first major reforms introduced by the Thatcher government. During the 70s, some local authorities had begun to voluntarily sell parts of its housing stock, but the introduction of ‘Right to Buy’ and its forcing of councils to sell their properties on request at a discount was highly politically controversial. So much so that it brought about a strike by NALGO members who refused to process scheme applications. Despite this, it was overwhelmingly popular and around 90,000 properties were sold in that year alone.

Aside from being massively popular, it also served a number of ideological purposes for the Conservatives. At the same time as increasing home ownership – regarded as a critical ideological aspect of Thatcher’s belief around the economic self-sufficiency of the individual – ‘Right to Buy’ also reduced the responsibilities and size of local authorities. And so whilst 55% of properties were inhabited by owner-occupiers in 1979, by 2003, this figure had risen to 70%.

In 1982, ‘Right to Buy’ sales hit an all-time high of more than 240,000, and in response, 1984 saw the available discounts being further increased. Having previously opposed the policy, in 1985 Labour duly abandoned its stance. 1989 saw sales exceed 200,000 for the second time resulting in more than 2.1 million properties being sold between 1979 and 1995.

When Labour came to power in 1997, ‘Right to Buy’ looked to be slowing down and so Labour reduced the maximum discounts available. At the same time, it reduced the proportion of Capital Receipts from sales of council housing that local authorities were required to retain, releasing £3 billion in the process. Whilst of some benefit to local authorities, because the Thatcher government’s scheme required so much of the profits to be retained, the result was local authorities had been unable to reinvest the money from sales into building more houses. Consequently, the sold housing stock was never replaced thus leaving a massive shortfall in the numbers of available  social properties.

This shortfall encouraged private builders with a myriad of opportunities – in line with free market principles – to exploit the situation and begin filling the void with newbuilds at over-inflated prices. Many warned that ‘Right to Buy’ was exacerbating the lack of affordable housing, making it much harder for many to get on to the property ladder and by default, being seen to be doing well. This problem can be seen by how in 2000-2001 for example, whilst 53,000 homes were transferred under ‘Right to Buy’ only 18,000 new affordable homes were built.

In 2001, it was shown that loopholes in the ‘Right to Buy’ arrangements were being abused by property developers who were bribing tenants to buy their homes and then let them out at market rates (a point highlighted in the BBC series ‘The Tower’ last year). Announcements in July 2002 that suggested that new restrictions might be required led to a mass of new applications, many believing that the Government were planning to end ‘Right to Buy’. In October that year, the Conservatives promised to retain the scheme if they came back into power, extending it to Housing Association tenants also.

As with so many of the Thatcher government’s controversial policies, so ‘Right to Buy’ was also one of its most popular. Quite irrespective of its populism however, it has undoubtedly had a profound social impact: dramatically increasing the rate of owner-occupancy but sounding the death toll for good quality social housing provision. Its impact on local government has also been significant. At the start of the 1980s, local authorities were one of the biggest direct providers of housing. ‘Right to Buy’ nullified this and so providing homes is nowadays far less significant for them. Consequently, through being forced to sell their housing stock at below market rates meant that revenue incomes were reduced which in turn hampered their ability to carry out the repairs and improvements required to maintain their dwindling housing stock.

The statistics are therefore pretty stark. In the last eight years twice as many affordable homes have been sold off than have been built. In this period, the National Housing Federation, which represents not for profit housing associations, produced the figures and says they show the stock of affordable homes has fallen by 300,000. At the same time, the number of families on waiting lists has grown by 61% – almost 600,000 people – over the same eight year period. Given that the current recession is predicted to lead to a wave of repossessions and rising unemployment, the situation can only worsen leaving the conundrum of longer waiting lists but with fewer homes.

Radio 4’s ‘Analysis’ therefore was a timely and relevant exploration of an issue that will have a real resonance in the coming months and years. Having said that, the programme failed to highlight the highly significant role of ‘Right to Buy’ as well as the impact of Thatcher’s legacy not only in relation to social housing but in the wider realm of British society. Instead, the programme – as with today’s politicians – mooted the idea of letting social houing for a fixed term in the hope that tenants will – in the words of Hanley – start “getting a hold on all the sorts of things…as though you are sort of progressing with your life and doing well in your life”. What though will happen to those deemed to no longer necessitate State support: where will they end up in the longer term?

Social housing nowadays is no longer a choice but instead a necessity for an increasingly stigmatised minority. Despite Blair announcing in 1997 at the Aylesbury Estate that ‘We’re all in this together’, it would seem that in terms of social housing at least, we’re clearly not all in this together. The sharp, demarcated lines that existed then between those that have and those that do not, those that can and those that cannot have today been drawn even deeper.

Anti ‘social housing’ or just ‘anti-social’ housing? That is the question…

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This work by Chris Allen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. Based on a work at


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