The announcement today by Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, that the new housing bill will contain proposals to bring to an end the right to buy, has made me feel quite old.
My first real job, as a trainee housing officer with Argyll and Bute District Council, started in November 1987. I thought I was joining a social landlord organisation but, at times, it felt more like an estate agent. Council tenants’ right to buy, which had been introduced in October 1980, was really starting to take off, following relaxation of rules and against the backdrop of the Nigel Lawson house price bubble.
Every day brought news of more sales. The magnificent cottages built by Argyll County Council, often in the most remote areas, were quickest to go, leaving some of the smallest villages with very little or no housing at affordable levels. In the towns like Oban, flats would be sold off for as little as £7,000 or £8,000 once the 70% discount was factored in.
In the period 1988-1990 right to buy hit its peak, with over 100,000 sales in Scotland in just three years, before the bubble burst (as it always does). For purchasers, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grab hold of the swinging rope-ladder of home-ownership before it was forever pulled up out of their reach. Newly-bought homes were improved, certainly, and diversity introduced where previously there had only been council tenancies.
But there was a flipside too, of course. It was always the best, most popular homes which sold, narrowing the choices for those left behind. In a rural area like Argyll, this effect was noticeably pronounced. Sale prices and staggering discounts made it uneconomic to build to replace the homes sold, so house waiting lists and use of temporary accommodation for homeless people went up. Long after I left Argyll, slower-burning problems came to light: inadequate arrangements for common repairs where flats had been sold; and the onward sale of former council homes to private landlords with little interest in the quality of the home or its management – to name only two.
Judging by sheer scale I cannot think of another policy in my lifetime that has had such a dramatic impact. There is no such thing as a council estate anymore. The landscape for housing has changed utterly from the 1970s when right to buy was conceived by Keith Joseph. The new homes which are being built – unfortunately, in far fewer numbers than in earlier decades – are all about mixed tenure: council or housing association rents, mid market rents, shared equity. The new priorities – of a flexible housing system, finely tuned to the differences in local market circumstances – has no place for such a monolithic policy.
And that is why Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is quite right to call time on the policy today. Once the proposed housing bill is passed, the clock will be ticking towards the day when there shall be no more right to buy – currently proposed as three years after the passage of the Bill. It is a policy that has long passed its sell-by date.
So thank you, Ms Sturgeon for taking the long overdue final step and for making me feel old.