Something is stirring in England: right to buy looks imperilled, and not a moment too soon | John Harris

More than a decade after her death and 34 years since she left Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher continues to haunt us. After Liz Truss’s cosplay as the Iron Lady, Rishi Sunak has drawn comparisons between “the grocer’s daughter and the pharmacist’s son”. In December last year, Keir Starmer admiringly said that Thatcher “set loose our natural entrepreneurialism”. All this suggests a very British mixture of muddle and masochism: her spirit, it seems, must be summoned so we can be magicked out of our current mess, even if so many of the UK’s crises began with what she did.

One of her most painful legacies is the policy that defined her political essence: right to buy, that totemic scheme whereby the tenants of council houses and flats can purchase such properties at a discount, and become members of what Conservatives call the property-owning democracy. Since it was introduced in 1980, more than 2m dwellings have moved from the public realm into private hands. Stringent restrictions preventing councils spending the receipts on new homes have had predictable effects: since 1991, there has been an average net loss of 24,000 social homes a year. All this feeds our ever-worsening housing crisis – and, as a result, the fragile condition of millions of ordinary lives.

Meanwhile, right to buy is increasingly resurfacing in our politics. Look, for example, at Angela Rayner, and the absurd controversy cooked up by the Conservatives and their allies in the press. The story of a former council house she bought in 2007 with a 25% discount and then sold eight years later is replete not just with a ridiculous antipathy to exactly what the policy was designed to achieve – working-class people making a bit of money – but a proprietorial sense of who right to buy belongs to. Clearly, Tories still see the policy as a shining symbol of Thatcher’s greatness, and any left-leaning beneficiaries of it open themselves to allegations of hypocrisy.

Right to buy also crops up in the backstory of Starmer’s seemingly omnipotent campaign director, Morgan McSweeney. According to a brilliant profile published on Saturday by the journalist Tom McTague, one of the key reasons he insists that Labour must doggedly maintain the support of its traditional working-class base lies in his early experiences overseeing community relations in Barking and Dagenham – the outer London borough that, between 2006 and 2010, saw Labour’s dominance threatened by the neo-fascist British National party. That change was partly traceable to right to buy’s awful local legacy, which I have seen close-up: huge numbers of former council houses first sold to tenants being snapped up by absentee landlords, and then left to fall into squalor. One of McSweeney’s object lessons in the importance of nitty-gritty politics was the success of an “eyesore gardens policy”: the Labour-run council removing the rubbish outside people’s houses, and then billing the landlords for the work.

Though it has pledged to reduce discounts, Labour still supports right to buy, seemingly because to do anything that fundamentally threatened it would invite unwelcome questions about the party’s support for “aspiration”. But increasing numbers of influential voices, in Labour and other parties, have long since decided that the policy needs to either be forced into retreat, or completely binned. In Scotland, having already scrapped it for new tenants, the SNP government legislated to get rid of right to buy in 2014. The Labour administration in Wales followed a similar path to abolition; at the 2019 election, the party’s UK manifesto promised to end it in England.

In 2023, Sadiq Khan said he wanted Whitehall to devolve the powers necessary to pause right to buy in London. And last week came another big demand for change: Labour’s Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, called on the government – and, by implication, his own party – to lift the right to buy requirement on new-build flats and houses, and give his plans to build 10,000 new social homes a firm foundation. As evidenced by his re-regulation of buses, Burnham seems set on belatedly avenging the worst political excesses of the 1980s.

Something is obviously in the air. The last month has also seen two big policy reports about right to buy, making very similar suggestions. The latest, from the New Economics Foundation, is brimming with shocking findings: 40% of homes sold under the policy are now being let on the private market – in Brighton, the proportion is 86%. Worse still, discounts – which, in 2014, were increased to a maximum of 70% – enshrine one of right to buy’s worst aspects: the fact that it often means councils losing money on houses they build. Unless this changes, Burnham says, trying to solve the housing crisis is like trying to fill a bath but with the plug out. He’s right, but his comrades in Westminster still seem to be putting their fingers in their ears: “It’s an incoming government that would determine the rules around right to buy,” says the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves. “We have no plans to reform that.”

Particularly in cities, selling council houses sooner or later eats away at places’ sense of stability and continuity: once buy-to-let landlords enter the picture, most tenants tend to become transient and disconnected from where they live. At the same time, housing that once ensured families could still live in urban centres passes into very different hands. Back in 2016, I reported on a former council development a stone’s throw from Old Street roundabout in London called Quaker Court. Some former family homes were now let to students; another had been bought by a lone American resident who had two computers in his shed used for high-end financial trading. “It’s like a little Wall Street, in a back garden on a council estate,” said my guide. “This is what is happening.” As changes like these deepen, a strange silence descends, schools close, and any meaningful sense of community evaporates.

But the effects of right to buy now afflict just about every corner of the country. Three weeks ago, that was the message conveyed by Julian Brazil, the Liberal Democrat leader of the district council that runs South Hams, in Devon. “Good luck to you if you’ve been lucky enough to take advantage of these schemes,” he wrote, “but the failure of government to replace these houses means future generations are paying the price. Once a council house has gone, it’s gone … We’ve lost millions of council houses due to right to buy and they need to be replaced.”

Many Conservatives, amazingly enough, cling to the dream of right to buy being extended to housing associations, a mad idea that was announced by Boris Johnson in 2022 after being piloted, but has so far been avoided. If we are going to build social housing, we need to stop selling it off. Westminster politicians should devolve decisions on right to buy to politicians who can adjust housing policy to fit local realities, and face the electoral consequences if any significant numbers of people object. I doubt they would: the Thatcher era is long over, her ghostly powers are dwindling, and the dire legacy of her most radical bit of social engineering needs to finally be brought to a close.

The Guardian