I was working at Shelter in 1980 when the Right to Buy was introduced by Mrs Thatcher’s new pioneering government. Shelter was, of course, implacably opposed, producing pamphlets outlining the potential disastrous consequences.
Looking back at this material now, much of the damage that was predicted has, indeed, come to pass. Shelter highlighted the fact that sales would have the most impact in rural and suburban areas with a low – but often attractive – council housing stock. Homeless applicants would, Shelter warned, take an ever higher proportion of allocations. Getting out of tower blocks into more attractive council property would also become much more difficult.
Shelter was pretty hardline. It could see no good coming of it and campaigned hard, but to no avail, to limit or restrict the right to buy in areas of most need. Now, five years into a Labour government, John Prescott has, at last, recognised that the right to buy needs to be restricted in certain areas where there is a shortage of housing for people doing a range of vital jobs which are the backbone of urban life – from firemen and bus drivers to teachers and social workers.
Prescott, however, seemed to be flying a kite and No 10 has quickly shot it down by saying that while abuses will be tackled, the right to buy is safe in our hands. That is a shame. The issue certainly needs to be on the agenda and, indeed, ultimately the continuance of the right to buy makes no sense in social policy terms.
The trouble is that we, in our brash anti-Thatcher fervour at Shelter in the early 1980s were not entirely right. Some good did come of the right to buy. For many individuals, it gave them a chance of a nest egg that has enabled them to have a much more comfortable retirement and to pass something onto their children. Many people have, as Mrs Thatcher, been liberated by what was the biggest privatisation of them all. I know some of them personally, who have gone on to buy other homes having resold their council house.
Even socially the right to buy did some good by creating estates of mixed tenure rather than the dreadful monoliths created by local authorities whose aim, at times, seemed to be to put us all in their boxes.
In restricting the right to buy, therefore, the frightened New Labour ministers know that they will damage some people’s life chances and consequently fear a backlash electorally. This is a mistake. Good governance is all about balancing different people’s needs and clearly, in the case of housing, the pendulum needs to be swung back in favour of social housing. Sure most people want to buy, but we have probably reached a sensible limit with 70 per cent owner occupation. A brave government with vaguely left wing credentials such as this one would, therefore, simply do as Prescott has suggested and end the right to buy in certain areas.
But even a cowardly one, like this administration which always seems more concerned with what the Daily Mail will think than acting on any of its traditional principles, could find ways of making life much more difficult for those seeking to buy their council homes. It is not the right to buy which is so much a problem, as the discounts that go with it. The rules on discounts would be much easier to change than the primary legislation and it would be quite possible to either limit them, or indeed scrap them entirely, either nationally or in specific parts of the country. Moreover, in order to prevent abuses such as people – and again I have personal experience of this – who have encouraged their aged parents to buy only in order to make a killing when the old timers pass on, there could be much tighter rules about resale.
What is so dispiriting on social policy issues like this is that most well-informed people – and that will include Labour politicians – know that there is a problem to be tackled, but fear of the electorate always seems to take precedence over rational debate and sensible policies. Nick Raynsford, Prescott’s number two, who ran the London Shelter Housing Aid Centre at the same time as I was at Shelter and campaigned against the Right to Buy knows all this and should be brave enough to put his head above the parapet. Or else, he should ask himself why he is there.