Labour must look ahead to tackle the legacy of Right to Buy

tumblr_inline_mr4r9yH5sc1qhgztoShaun Fraser is a Labour activist in Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, and works for an Inverness-based charity as a Housing Support Officer. He says we must prioritise the rebuilding of our social housing portfolio.


Last week it was revealed that almost 40 per cent of former council homes sold at discounted rates under the Right to Buy scheme are now being let out on the hugely expensive private rental market. This is great news for landlords, but for tenants and those currently on housing waiting lists it feeds further towards an already pernicious environment.

In some cases landlords of properties originally purchased through Right to Buy are now charging up to seven times average social rent.

Right to Buy has been a definitive disaster which has left us with a legacy of hollowed-out housing provision, extended council waiting lists and, consequentially, homelessness.

It was one of the most popular and defining Conservative government policies of the 20th century. It was a masterclass in political shrewdness from Margaret Thatcher which gifted aspiration to 1980s Britain, but it did this at the expense of future generations.

I would be a hypocrite to dismiss Right to Buy outright. Indeed my grandmother, who worked as a cleaner at Inverness College, seized the opportunity to own her council house. She, along with thousands of other working class folk, benefited greatly from the scheme. However, in 2015, it is now far more destructive than constructive.

We have escalating rents in a growing private rented sector, which means the welfare bill, through housing benefit, continues to grow. As well as this we have a huge rise in evictions for rent arrears. The government spends more money supporting low income families to sustain private lets or to find emergency accommodation than it ever would on maintaining a council house portfolio.

To describe social housing as subsidised – as those critical of council and housing association investment often do – is a fallacy. The one-off development cost of building a social home is supported by government, but the rental value of that home repays the investment. Funds spent on social housing quickly become a public asset.

The principal inheritance of Right to Buy has been a diminished stock of affordable homes nationally. This is something which would have been avoided if successive governments had, at least, replaced each property sold with a new council house – this didn’t happen, and we live with the consequences now.

To their credit, the SNP in government, also supported by Labour, ceased the Right to Buy in Scotland. The entitlement is due to end for eligible tenants in August 2016. This moratorium is a crucial opportunity for government to expand social housing stock and stimulate investment in partnership with local authorities, housing associations and private firms. An integrated approach would benefit both public and private sector.

The priority must be to rebuild our affordable housing portfolio for the betterment of our communities.

We in Labour believe in the empowering state; we should be looking ahead to how we would use the influence of the state to breathe new life into the social housing sector.

There’s an old labour poster from the 1945 general election campaign which reads ‘Let’s Build the Houses – Quick!’. It’s as relevant today as it was then, and it’s a message which should be key to the future of our party.

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11 thoughts on “Labour must look ahead to tackle the legacy of Right to Buy

  1. Excellent article and one which Scottish Labour and SNP supporters on this site can agree on.

    1. Thanks Stewart. I honestly believe that the housing crisis will soon become the defining issue of this decade. No one party can address this problem alone, it will require concerted support from across party divide. Hopefully those in a position to change things can put aside other disagreements and unite on this crucial subject.

  2. The right to buy was the beginning of the divide and rule by Thatcher, it caused a change in workforce people with mortgages would no longer support industrial action and were all for theselves.

    In the UK people look upon property as an investment, were as people in in other european countries look at property as a place to live in and there is more of a rental culture as opposed to a buying culture.

    People in Europe who do buy property usualy buy a house to live and stay in it along time and usualy only move when they need more space they don’t look upon it solely as an investment.

    You were right to credit the SNP for ceasing the right to buy well done.

  3. Housing or more specifically social housing, now your talking.
    Let’s get this straight right away, no high flats, no ghettos and no dumping grounds.
    If you ain’t prepared to live in it yourself then why expect others to do so.
    Would you like to live next door to a drug addict.
    Btw, how many elected politicians of any party live in social housing?
    Last time i looked, my local ex labour MP lived in a house the size of my tenement block.

  4. I agree with most of your article regarding the dire need for council housing, but don’t forget labour’s record on building council houses in Scotland the last eight years they were in power with a vastly greater access to finance than the present scottish government.

    A total of SIX council houses in eight years, does’nt raise many hopes does it.

    1. Far from forgetting labour’s record on social housing at Holyrood, one of my main motives for writing the article was to rouse the party towards a much more purposeful stance.
      This should go beyond party politics – whether it be SNP or labour, I couldn’t care less as long as the 150,000 people on local authority waiting lists get a warm, dry and safe home.

      1. You are right it should go beyond party politics, the right to decent housing, clothing , food, medical/health and education should be the priority of any political party first and foremost.

        But ask yersel this, who’s party voted for tory austrity last parliment, who abstained from voting against the tory welfare bill last month, who did not vote against the tory budget, with this record who is going to believe labour would ever deliver on social housing.

        I firmly believe council house building should be a maximum priority to our country and it should be real house’s not the maximum of people jammed into the minimum of space houses, and built to last.

        It needs big plans, big ideas and the comittment to put your country and its needs, before your political party for years inadvance. Do you think can do labour can do that ??? or will it always be SNPBAD.

        1. Davy, not once in my article did I allude towards ‘SNPBAD’ – the only point in the piece where I mention them I praise them.
          In answer to your point, yes, I do think labour can deliver on this issue. They did this in the past and I hope that they will do so again.

          Currently both the SNP and labour are failing on housing – The SNP record to date is much better than labour’s when they were the Executive, and I’m happy to praise them for this. This doesn’t mean that I can’t try and press my own party to do more also.
          There are several reasons why I support labour and not the SNP – a discussion for another time I think.
          I’ll just leave it with saying, as I did before, that I hope whichever party is in a position to do so can improve Scotland’s housing situation.

  5. I totally understand the follies of the right to buy system while simultaneously admitting that my mother benefited greatly from it herself.
    After over 50 years as a council tenant she finally managed to buy her own home with the help of the family by using the right to buy to obtain a massive discount on the actual worth of the property.
    The right to buy actually did right by some people but as the article notes it has caused a massive shortage in available rental homes.
    Its one of those issues where legitimate arguments can be made from both sides.

    Mind you I’m pretty certain Thatcher wasn’t motivated by my Mothers plight or anybody elses when she introduced the policy.

    1. I totally agree, Mike. I take an ambivalent view of Right to Buy – it benefited many but investment wasn’t sustained to replace the houses sold.

  6. How about this for a housing idea a new flexible purchase scheme it goes like this

    A house costs £200,000 instead of buying it you lease it from the local authority for say £60,000 and the lease lasts for a longer period of time for example 200 years and any relatives of the lessee family can use it and stay in it during the 200 years period. If you want to move before you shuffle of this mortal coil you can only swap it with other people on the scheme and there is no passing on of the property at the end of the 200 years, the local authority then lease it to the new lessee. The good thing about this for the lessee is there won’t be any need death duties.

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