How do you judge whether a policy has worked or not? Obviously, this is an important question, but the answer is by no mean clear cut. The reason I say this is because in my new book, Housing Policy Transformed: the Right to Buy and the Desire to Own, I argue that the most successful piece of public policy since the Second World War is the Right to Buy (RTB), which allowed social tenants to buy their dwelling at a considerable discount. Yet the RTB must be one of the most hated policies ever enacted. It is accused of causing a massive increase in homelessness, the residualisation of social housing and helped to create the apparently fatal fetishisation of owner occupation that led to the crash in the housing market in 2007.
So how can we claim that the RTB was so successful? The complaints about the RTB are all concerned with the effects of the policy on other issues rather than the policy itself. But if you look at the explicit aims of policy as set out in 1978 it is clear that the RTB achieved exactly what it was set up do. The Conservatives had two purposes: first, to extend owner occupation more widely amongst working class households, and second, to diminish the influence of local authorities over rented housing.
So when we consider that 2.5 million households bought their dwelling and local authorities now own less than 2 million dwellings instead of the 6 million in 1979 we must conclude that the RTB worked spectacularly well. The policy achieved precisely what the government intended it to.
So why is this not recognised in the literature? The reason is that virtually all the discussion on the RTB is conducted on the basis of the integrity of social housing. Quite simply, most academics and commentators see that social housing is a more legitimate tenure than owner occupation. Social housing is taken as the normal tenure around which the others ought to be judged. Therefore, what happens to social housing is all that matters.
Yet clearly this view is absurd when we consider the manner in which governments have to operate within the real world, where a majority of households are owner occupiers and a significant part of the minority aspire to it. Political parties, if they wish to get elected, have to respond to the aspirations of their populations, and this means that owner occupier will always be seen as more important than social housing.
Centre for Comparative Housing Policy, Department of Public Policy, De Montfort University
Housing policy transformed: The right to buy and the desire to own is now available with 25% discount.
Peter King was interviewed for the article ’30 years on, the right to buy revolution that still divides Britain’s housing estates’ in The Observer, click here to read more.