Today's Sunday Post column
Cheerio the right to buy. Margaret Thatcher introduced the controversial housing policy in 1980 and since then almost half a million homes have been bought by hopeful Scots. Did they get a good deal? Well, some clearly did. Magnificent cottages built by rural councils were first to go, leaving small villages with little or no affordable housing. In holiday towns like Oban, flats were sold for as little as £7,000 after the 70% discount was applied. Quite a bargain.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for ordinary Scots to get on the housing ladder and escape the monotony and central control that often went with being a council tenant. Many newly-bought homes were improved, some neighbourhoods became more diverse and more folk were able to trade their way up to bigger, better homes. But there was a flipside. It was always the best, most popular homes which sold, narrowing the choices for those unwilling to buy or unable to get a mortgage. As we are now finding – that's still a lot of Scots. Since new social housing was also be subject to sale with staggering discounts, it became uneconomic to build more council houses to replace the ones sold. So housing waiting lists went up and homeless families wound up in expensive B&B accommodation. Other problems took longer to emerge: many new home owners for example, couldn't afford "extras" like their share of factors bills causing problems with common repairs.
Shelter Scotland say the right to buy was like running a bath with the plug out. Any new social housing financed by the state just disappeared straight down the plug. It was estimated that for every three affordable rented homes sold just one new home has been built. Of course that's not the fault of those who bought. But lost jobs, shorter hours and lower pay have made mortgage payments hard to maintain and -- thanks to the recession -- ex-right to buy homes have been hard to sell. It's thought one in five (perhaps sold at auction) is now being rented privately at twice the rate charged when social landlords were in charge. What a waste.
The Scottish Government has already scrapped "right to buy" for new tenants and now Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed Scotland will scrap the scheme completely by 2017. So will tears be shed for the end of right to buy in Scotland? Well, the best homes are already gone. And the long-term legacy has been a loss of affordable, quality homes to rent in popular areas for the next generation. In England though the policy has just been extended, with right to buy discounts of £75,000 outside London and a whopping £100,000 in the capital. The qualifying period has also been cut from five to just three years tenancy. Scotland has decided to put affordability and social control back into housing. England wants to create more home owners. In short, the two nations are heading in opposite directions on a vital social policy. Perhaps because the two neighbours also have different ideas about who to thank for decent housing. Maggie believed the right to buy would transform "dependency culture" Scotland into a conservative-voting, property-owning democracy. Well, it worked in England, didn't it? But the Tories got no thanks at the polls in Scotland. Quite the reverse. Scots realised the right-to-buy was part bribe and part distraction as she tried to dismantle the fundamentals of society – trade unions, public utilities and powerful local councils. As a result even council-house buying Scots voted Labour in protest. So will hankies appear when the Scottish Parliament finally consigns the right to buy to history? Not on your nelly.