Supporters of Margaret Thatcher and her legacy often point to her housing policies as her greatest achievement. By creating a “freedom of the market” and a “property owning democracy” through the sale of council housing and the removal of ” unnecessary red tape” in the private rented sector, she is claimed to have increased prosperity for all (except perhaps the “feckless”) and to have increased the number of “stakeholders” in a society which at other times she claimed did not exist!
As with the rest of the Thatcherite legacy the success of her housing policies is myth rather than reality. Indeed the consequences have been disastrous, particularly for most of those not even born when she began her destructive and disastrous rule.
The sale of council housing to sitting tenants was certainly an electorally popular policy. In truth it had very little to do with the principles of the market economy. Large discounts were offered to existing tenants who chose to exercise their “right to buy” and many, quite understandably took up the offer, particularly those who were tenants of the high quality homes built by local authorities in the decades before and after the Second World War.
While it may be hard to object to working class tenants being given a subsidy to buy a property, the problem was that the homes that were sold were not replaced. Indeed local councils, who had built and paid for the properties in the first place were not allowed to spend the money raised from the sales on building new homes.
There had never been “council homes for all” but within a decade or so there was a chronic shortage of “social housing” (including housing owned by housing associations and by companies set up to take over much of the remaining council housing) in many areas.
Today many areas has become most areas. In Nottingham there are 13,000 on the waiting list and only 2,500 properties become available per year. In Derbyshire Dales, where, like much of rural Britain, home ownership has become unaffordable for most of the local population, the council website warns against expectation of success for those needing social housing, pointing out that many properties receive over 100 bids in the new “choice based” letting system which they, like other councils, have introduced and which in reality offers no choice at all to most on the waiting list. Across the East Midlands as a whole 120,000 were on social housing waiting lists in 2012, a figure which is likely to have increased since then and which does not include the many more who have given up waiting or have been put off or barred from applying (its one chance only these days and if, for instance, you have ever been in rent arrears you can expect to be refused permission to even join the queue).
So what happens to all those who cannot get social housing and cannot afford to buy?
They have no alternative but to try and find somewhere to rent from a private landlord.
Which brings us on to the another, less publicised but equally influential Thatcherite housing reform: the reduced protection for tenants renting from private landlords. Alongside the reduction in the availability of council and other “social” housing, and offered as an alternative to it, the Thatcher government sought to increase the number of private landlords and private tenancies. To make becoming a private landlord more attractive, and more profitable, rent controls were abolished and the eviction of a tenant was made straightforward, with the tenant having no defence and not having had to have breached any tenancy condition.
The consequence of this? There has been a huge increase in the availability of private tenancies, presented as offering “more choice in the housing market” but in reality, for those unable to afford rents at the luxury end of the market, tenants have fewer rights and little security. Of course not all landlords behave unreasonably, but there is almost no comeback on those that do, whilst even “responsible” landlords are tempted to increase rents and minimise expenditure on repairs and maintenance when their primary aim is private profit, whilst always keeping open the option of evicting the tenant in order to sell the property with vacant possession. For many private tenants there is no opportunity to obtain a permanent home, with the threat of eviction always only two months away, or any expectation that profit driven landlords will carry out anything more than essential repairs.
Many private tenants no doubt continue to aspire to home ownership, which is likely to remain out of reach for many of them, with house prices rising again and wages continuing to stagnate. There is growing evidence that only those benefiting from inherited wealth and / or handouts from relatives can afford to become owner occupiers in large parts of the country, whilst many families face the prospect of moving from one short term private tenancy to another, their children often not in one place long enough to build lasting friendships, and not even being sure about which school they will be going to from one term to the next. With little or no hope of owner occupation or of obtaining the secure, affordable social housing that most of them would prefer.
What does the Green Party say ?
– that everyone is entitled to secure and affordable housing
– that better use should be made of the existing stock, with local councils being given strengthened powers against speculative landlords and owners deliberately keeping housing empty.
– that where and when new housing does need to be built it is done to the highest environmental standards and is affordable for most of those needing housing, whether to rent or to buy.
– that private tenants should have more rights and better protection. In particular Assured Shorthold Tenancies, giving landlords the right to end tenancies without good cause, should be abolished .
Our essential belief is that housing, like health, education and public services in general, is too important to be left to the market to provide and that secure and sustainable housing is a right and not a privilege.
Decent housing for all, for the common good.