Brighton and Hove is among seven councils – Milton Keynes, Bolsover, Brighton & Hove, Canterbury, Cheshire West and Chester, Stevenage, and Nuneaton & Bedworth – which have letting levels of more than 50% among former council-owned homes.
The theory behind Margaret Thatcher’s sell-off of publicly funded council housing under the “right to buy” scheme was that society’s poorest would buy their houses and then the structural factors keeping them poor would correct themselves and vanish in a puff of smoke. It was expected that, given a route into home-ownership, council-house tenants would gain a foothold on the “housing ladder” and be able to climb up into the middle classes. Coincidently, or not, owning a home is correlated with voting for Tories and renting is correlated with voting Labour, but again, that was totally not what old Maggie was thinking, honestly.
The right-to-buy programme helped fuel the housing bubble, in which hours of programming a week flooded screen nationwide, centred around the prosepct of investing in property (location, location, location, homes under the hammer, property ladder, escape the the country, a place in the sun, the list goes on…) urging people to apply for credit, “do up” flats, and flip them to other people who’d applied for credit and wanted to “do up” the flat, because that couldn’t possibly ever go wrong.
Today, 40% of that publicly built, publicly subsidised housing stock that was put up for sale by Mrs Thatcher’s government is in the hands of private landlords. Council housing schemes have been largely replaced by vouchers that those left behind can use to pay their rents, and rents — un-contained by public subsidy — have soared, representing a wealth-transfer to landlord from both poor people and the taxpayers who fund the vouchers.
Landlords continue to snap up ex-council housing. Poverty in the UK is at levels unseen since the time of Dickens. Housing poverty is a major co-contributor to food poverty and other forms of dire privation. Moreover, the 40% figure is low, because many private landlords don’t disclose that they’re letting out their flats.
Freedom of information (FoI) requests sent to 111 English local authorities by Inside Housing magazine reveal that 40.2% of housing stock sold by councils to then tenants are now rented out, rising to 70.9% in Milton Keynes, which it dubs the “right-to-buy-to-let capital” of England.
Mrs Thatcher promised that right to buy would result in a property-owning democracy, but with so many homes now sold on to landlords, critics say the government has been left paying huge amounts of housing benefit to buy-to-let landlords charging high rents.
This situation is not sustainable. But can those who benefitted from the home-ownership boom and schemes like Thatcher’s right-to-buy, those who see housing as a magic investment that keeps doubling in value, those who opted to invest in bricks-and-mortar rather than a pension, accept the effects of their, in most cases, well-intentioned activity. If we are to truly sort out the mess that is the UK housing market, we need house prices to come down, and that won’t happen without cost. Those who rely on their property as an investment could see their ‘pension’ decrease in value, joining the rest of us in uncertainty. What do you think we should do?