Brian Monteith: Property dream becomes nightmare

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There has been no larger transfer of wealth in Britain. Period. And it went from the state to those on usually modest household incomes. Suddenly in the 1980s, after much bitter opposition from socialist politicians, tenants of council houses could purchase their homes, with the years that they had been paying rent being taken into account in calculating a discount.

Some councils had allowed council house sales, but most had not and there was no national discount policy. The introduction of the Right to Buy legislation of Margaret Thatcher changed all that for it made it the law that all councils must grant the right to buy and apply nationally-set rates of discount.

Suddenly, people on low incomes could achieve a feat that their forebears could only dream of – owning a property – something previously available only to the wealthy and middle classes.

It meant people had an asset to borrow against, helping them to get loans or set up a business. It meant they could more easily move to where work was – and it removed any social stigma from occupants of council schemes, for now they were classless, becoming a mixture of privately owned, privately rented and council or housing association rented. Who could tell which by looking at the housing?

In 1979 only a third of Scottish homes were owned, with nearly two- thirds rented from public landlords, mostly the councils. By the end of eighteen years of Conservative government the position had essential reversed with nearly two-thirds of homes now owned, less than a third publicly rented and the appearance of a small but growing privately rented sector. Relaxation of rent controls and the greater availability of private properties now meant there were more landlords who could afford and be willing to rent.

It’s success brought private housing levels up to the same as those in England – previously there had been more owner-occupiers in communist East Germany than in Scotland. Not any more. Without the Right to Buy, Scotland would be truly living in the past - some 534,000 tenants took the opportunity to be helped on to the property ladder, very few of them would now own their home without that liberating legislation.

One criticism was how all the good properties were bought up, leaving only “poor” properties that no-one wanted to buy. This was never strictly true: there were always some desirable properties that would, over time, become available when tenants that had not wanted to buy vacated them. If the new tenants wanted to buy them they could. All that was happening was the uptake was reducing because the pool of available properties was shrinking.

More importantly, though, it was a comment on the state of the remaining housing stock due to council ideology that would not allow private developers in to establish mixed tenure estates and let them help refurbish them. As a result so many were no longer fit for purpose, neglected, damp – that’s why people did not want to buy them, but that was not the fault of Right to Buy.

Councils pleaded poverty when faced with housing repairs, but year after year had held back rent rises as a way to bribe to tenants – even though rent increases for those on low incomes would have been matched by an increase in benefits from central government.

Another criticism was that it created homelessness, but this was a logical inconsistency. There are ten houses, three privately owned, seven council rented – then four of the council tenants buy their homes from the council. Now there are still ten houses, seven privately owned, three rented from the council. No one is homeless– all that has happened is a change in the tenure.

The reason we have a homelessness problem is essentially two reasons. Firstly there is a dire need for more homes – we simply do not build enough and continue to make it difficult to build new ones. Money is not the problem – planning permission and the availability of land is the difficulty. Both of these logjams could be broken if we had a more liberal government at Holyrood willing to deregulate the market. That won’t happen while the SNP is in power.

The second reason is the change in societal behaviour and how families are now more fractured, with young people more keen to leave home early and look to obtain a house of their own. More people live alone than ever before, there are more single parents (mostly due to divorce rather than falling pregnant without the partner staying). These pressures may ease – but again the only solution is to make more housing available.

The SNP’s policy – supported by everyone but the Conservatives in Wednesday’s vote at Holyrood – will not build one more house, it will simply make it harder for council and social landlord tenants to change their tenure – to achieve their dreams. Denying people rights is hardly creating greater independence or delivering freedom.

And all of this at a time when it is especially hard for first-time buyers to buy a home – that dream of owning a property is becoming more and more of a challenge. Welcome to the new Scotland.