Steve Burgess: Thatcher’s council housing legacy has been disastrous

Margaret Thatcher at Scottish Conservative Party Conference, Perth in 1986.
Margaret Thatcher at Scottish Conservative Party Conference, Perth in 1986.
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Earlier this month, Right to Buy of public sector homes, in Scotland, passed into history.

The defining policy of the Thatcher 1980s, its significance cannot be understated. Over half a million homes in Scotland were sold to sitting tenants under Right to Buy, with discounts on sale price of up to 70 per cent.

Steve Burgess - City of Edinburgh Council. Picture; Phil Wilkinson

Steve Burgess - City of Edinburgh Council. Picture; Phil Wilkinson

Here in Edinburgh 27,000 council homes have been sold off, the single biggest factor in the dramatic reduction in council housing from almost 60,000 in 1980 to 20,000 today.

The peak years for Right to Buy were the late 1980s. More recently, sales have slowed to a trickle as the best homes were long gone and the households with the means to buy had already bought.

Tighter rules for sales also made it less attractive. So, when the Right to Buy formally came to an end on 31 July, it was simply to blow out an already flickering candle. By other measures, however, the legacy of Right to Buy in Edinburgh remains and marks it out as the most significant single housing policy of the last 40 years.

On the plus side, for many of those who bought, it provided access to home-ownership for the first time and led to a flurry of home improvements.

In Scotland (in contrast to England) all the proceeds of sales were earmarked for re-investment in the remaining housing stock, although, of course, with such massive discounts the money coming in was far less than what was needed to replace homes sold. However, it is clear, the balance sheet is significantly weighted toward negative.

Too many council homes were sold without robust arrangements for repair and improvement of common parts like drains and roofs. In a city of 19th century tenements this has added to the strain on, and virtual collapse of, the common repairs service over the last ten years.

This weakness has been compounded by the sheer number of former public sector homes now rented out privately by individuals at rents twice as high or more than what was charged while in the public sector.

There is scarcely a stair of former council housing in Edinburgh where a private landlord is not holding up effective management or maintenance of that stair.

I doubt very much if that was even considered when Right to Buy was being dreamt up in the 1970s.

And, finally, there is the impact on those not able to buy. Since Right to Buy was launched in 1980, Edinburgh has become a much more forbidding city for people seeking a home of their own, especially for those aged under 35.

Last year 3400 families or single people were judged homeless by the city council and the overall council house waiting list stood at over 27,000.

Now, Right to Buy is only part of the picture here.More fundamental changes have been occurring in the housing market which have made access to a decent home so much harder. But, damningly, Right to Buy has amplified rather than countered those trends.

So there is a lot of work still to do in our former council estates to deal with the reality of mixed ownership, common repairs and especially private landlords in those areas.

For the future, Right to Buy’s lesson is surely to be a lot more targeted about the long-term benefits of policy and a lot less fixated on dogma which is long past its sell-by date.

Steve Burgess is convenor of the Green Group of Councillors on City of Edinburgh Council