Thursday 21 November 2013

Perhaps they just haven't noticed...

I was a member of the housing committee of what was at the time the Vale of Glamorgan Borough Council when the Thatcher government introduced the so-called “right to buy” legislation.  It was a piece of legislation about which I have always been rather ambivalent.
On the one hand, it was clear from the outset that what was a popular and populist policy in the short term would lead to a shortage of affordable houses to rent in the longer term – an outcome exacerbated both by the generous discounts on offer and the rule that the capital receipts could not be used to build new houses.  And one of the motives behind the policy was always to take the state – even the local state in the form of local councils – out of housing completely.  It was a piece of dogma more than anything else.
On the other hand, as someone who was also at the time living in a council house with his parents I also understood why so many tenants wanted to be able to buy their homes.  Thatcher, for all her faults, seemed to understand the difference between houses and homes in a way that many others in her own party – to say nothing of those in other parties – did not.
It was never simply about becoming a property owner or getting a foot on the housing ladder; it was about enjoying the use of the home without the restrictions which council tenancies often included.  People tend to forget how paternalistic the attitude of many councils was at that time towards their tenants.
The suggestion recently by the Tories in Wales that they would enable councils once again to build significant numbers of council homes, and would also amend the right to buy legislation in such a way as to ensure that a new home was built for every one sold, is something of a welcome conversion.  There is no sign however that they have really thought through the implications.
It’s an eye-catching headline policy, but I haven’t seen the financial detail which explains how you bridge the gap between the reduced price at which an existing house is sold and the higher price at which a new one would be built.  Nor am I entirely convinced that there is not still an ideological aversion to council ownership of homes amongst the party’s leaders, even if the Welsh branch is saying something different (or perhaps Andrew RT Davies’ bosses simply haven’t noticed his statement yet).  But since, in practice, the probability that they will ever be in a position to implement this policy in Wales is so remote, I guess it’s not something we need particularly to worry about.

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