The right to buy has been the most significant housing programme for a generation. It has resulted in Scotland having the highest rate of owner occupation growth in western Europe and transformed the landscape from a nation of renters to a nation of owners. It’s not only been a housing revolution but a social and economic revolution too – forget BT, gas and electric privatisation – the right to buy outstrips them all.
Let’s start with dismissing some myths. Shelter Scotland is not opposed to owner occupation, of course, and right to buy has been good in some ways. Over half a million people have bought their social home, and most, but not all, have benefited personally and progressed up the housing ladder. Many have also invested in their properties from their own resources. The right to buy introduced diversity into Scotland’s big mono-tenure estates and avoided people having to move.
But all these positives aspects have been outnumbered by the negatives over the last 33 years. While the right to buy might have had some resonance with those intent on breaking up the huge public monopolies of the late 1970s, it is no longer relevant to the housing landscape of 21st century Scotland.
So what are the downsides? The impact of the right to buy on social housing in Scotland has often been compared to running a bath with the plug out. The last 30 or so years has seen rising homelessness creating more demand for temporary accommodation and permanent lets, we have longer waiting times for decent homes and shortages of homes of particular types in particular areas. Right to buy has channelled the people who cannot buy – usually the poorest and most vulnerable – into the areas that are left unsold, usually the worst and least desirable. And last but not least, the right to buy has been a growing problem for regeneration – right to buy owners are pepper-potted around estates or closes where major area improvement needs to take place and a battle ensues between the owners and the landlord they thought they’d left behind.
This last point is an important illustration of the fact that right to buy was never a housing policy in its origins – it was a political project. If it had been a housing policy, the conditions of sale would have made it clear what future responsibilities for repair and improvement would have been; proper maintenance agreements would have been put in place. This did not happen because it was not a housing policy at all.
And it is because it was a political project that it has no place in the landscape of twenty-first century housing policy. Right to buy is no longer about diversity. When it was introduced in the early 1980s it did introduce new options into areas where previously there was only social housing. But this transformation has now happened. There is no such thing as a solely council estate any more. The right to buy runs roughshod over local housing strategies. Local authorities are told that they must drive forward local housing strategies across all tenures. It’s like giving local authorities the keys to drive their local housing strategy car but not giving them any control over the steering wheel.
Scotland has won international acclaim for being at the vanguard of social justice with its homelessness legislation. But this is at odds with a policy that has resulted in three affordable rented homes being sold for every one that is built. Some estimates suggest that one in five ex-right to buy properties is now rented privately and the numbers may be even higher. That’s the same homes, in the same areas, now let out at rents twice as high as they used to be, by landlords who often have a very sketchy understanding of what their responsibilities are. Nothing makes the blood of longstanding tenants boil more than this unanticipated development
Shelter Scotland believes in personal rights: we believe that everyone has a right to a home. But the right to buy is not the way to achieve this objective. The social housing sector also needs investment to house people in need, not least when the market fails. Beyond that, we need to hold onto these public assets, good quality houses and provide a world class all round housing service.
That’s why the right to buy had had its day, and why Shelter Scotland is first in a long line of organisations in the housing sector in Scotland to applaud the Scottish Government for signalling its demise. On behalf of all those in Scotland waiting for a decent affordable home, thank you!