THE SNP should be congratulated for calling a halt to the right to buy, writes Michael Kelly, but the next step is providing homes to fill the gap
The SNP’s announcement that it is to remove from council tenants the right to buy their rented accommodation at a discount is the correct move to help correct the current shortages and inequalities in the Scottish housing market. Apart from that, it is good to see yet another of the hated policies of Margaret Thatcher unravelling. Like so many of the innovations of Tory government, it produced short-term satisfaction for a minority of individuals while creating a long-term problem for society as a whole.
The policy of selling off council houses was not without merit but the right to a house with a rent subsidised well below market levels produced many of the ugly side effects of a dependency culture. Every council tenants’ meeting I attended as a young councillor produced a blazing arguments from individuals who complained that through their rent they had paid for their house many times over. This was always greeted by vigorous applause from an audience that simply didn’t understand housing finance. At one particularly bad-tempered gathering my MP, Bruce Millan, who was secretary of state for Scotland, attempted an education in reality. He was shouted down and everyone went home convinced of the crime that the council was perpetrating on them by asking them to pay a little bit towards the debt that the houses carried and the cost of repairs.
The even more depressing feature of the council house market was the refusal of many tenants to develop any sense of ownership of houses which, though rented, were in fact theirs for life. Due to overwhelming demand and the inefficiency of Glasgow Corporation’s housing management department even the simplest of repairs often took months. One woman appeared at my councillor’s surgery month after month complaining that her toilet seat had not been fixed. Now, toilet seats don’t generally break by themselves and it is a great inconvenience to have to suffer a broken one. So, I thought I was being reasonable when I suggested she should, perhaps, go and get it fixed herself. I received a torrent of abuse along the lines that it was the council’s house, she paid rent and she would sit there until the council fixed their seat. How long had she been in the house? About 15 years.
Exercising their right to buy, tenants did acquire a sense of responsibility and pride. These were the same people in the same economic circumstances, yet now their houses started being titivated up. Different coloured paintwork appeared. New front doors were fitted. Dull streets acquired a cleaned-up look.
At the same time, the move undoubtedly saved public sector money. The housing stock in many cities had become bloated – the costs of maintaining it out of control. In the 1970s, Glasgow boasted more council houses than Moscow. As a new culture embraced the concept of home ownership, the private sector began building in areas in and around peripheral estates, satisfying the desires of young couples to buy their own home and continue to live near their extended families. The work done by the private and public sectors linking with housing associations has transformed many of Glasgow’s housing estates, such as Castlemilk and Easterhouse, which now contain many pleasant areas. No private housebuilder would ever have thrown up the Red Road flats, the Sir Basil Spence horrors in the Gorbals, or those abominations that Dundee is enjoying blowing up.
When the SNP in 2009 announced its intention to phase out the right to buy – a commitment which was fulfilled yesterday – Nicola Sturgeon stated that the policy “had had its day”. That was the right way to put it. The right to buy had brought benefits and certainly it changed for the better the lifestyle of many families. But it had begun to cost society too much. The public housing stock has been depleted so badly that waiting lists for local authority housing are approaching the 200,000 mark. And, of course, it was the best housing that was sold off first leaving councils with an unletable and inflexible stock.
There is nothing wrong with the so-called “bedroom tax” in principle – people in accommodation subsidised by the taxpayer should not expect to have more rooms than they need. But to impose such a tax when there are not enough houses into which to downsize is inequitable. One of the reasons for the shortage of social housing which the SNP will not be so keen to accept responsibility for is its failure to build more houses. However, calls for greater rent control in the private sector and increased regulation of landlords are backed by little evidence of abuse and would only further stifle supply.
Abolishing the right to buy is a sensible step – certainly until the stock of public housing recovers. But as more houses are retained to be recycled to new tenants and as, hopefully, Holyrood commits to build more houses to add to that stock, we must ensure that there is no return to the old days.
Social housing should be a safety net for those who will never be able to join the private housing market. It can be used to ameliorate the problem of the physically disabled and of those families with special needs. It can also be used, as it was in the new towns, to attract and retain incoming key workers.
What must not happen is a reversion to the philosophy that everyone has a right to subsidised public housing. We must not slip back to an era when well-off professionals felt no embarrassment at being housed by the state so that the extra disposable income they thus released could be spent on foreign holidays and second cars.
The right to buy scheme has demonstrated that owning one’s own home does lead to a more responsible attitude to property. It has let more people appreciate the true cost of state provision. A large property-owning class does lead to a more contented, more integrated, more stable society. Such a society is best able to care for the less fortunate and the deprived. That’s what social housing should be for.