The Housing (Scotland) Bill 2010, passed in November by members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs), will effectively put an end to the Thatcher policy of right to buy in Scotland. Despite opposition, though largely predictable, from the Scottish Conservatives – and equally predictable inconsistency from Scottish Labour – the bill was successfully passed and ends the right to buy for new council tenants.
It is estimated that the bill could result in up to 18,000 fewer homes being lost to the private sector over the next decade, which could ease but not solve Scotland’s acute housing shortage. Since the right to buy policy’s inception in 1980, almost half a million homes in Scotland have been sold at unsustainably high discounted rates, which have not only served to decimate social housing stocks but to also disincentivise local authorities from providing replacement affordable homes.
This retreat from the right to buy is significant; not only for its important – but still limited – effect in tackling the housing crisis but also as a challenge to the prevailing ghost of Thatcherism in social policy.
The right to buy was undoubtedly popular, presenting itself as another ‘opportunity’ in the new British ‘meritocracy’. Yet its central purpose was to enrich property speculators – who often bribed tenants to sell their homes, while reducing the state’s expenditure in meeting the basic needs of its population and replacing it with a highly volatile private sector, incapable of ever satisfying the population’s demands, but generating huge profits for big landlords.
It has therefore became synonymous with Thatcherism, the hallmarks of which were brutal attacks on ordinary workers’ standard of living, concealed as positive, ‘aspirational’ individualism.
However, it is also important to consider that the devastating policy was continued, and often championed, by Labour. The past 13 years have only intensified the stigmatisation of social housing, the stratification of housing along class lines and underlined the chronic underinvestment in this country’s affordable housing stock and, by extension, in its people.
The Housing (Scotland) Bill cannot reverse the damage caused by the right to buy policy, which is a product of free-market capitalism. Nor can it end the presence of Thatcherism in social policy, which will be as far-reaching in the Con-Dem coalition government as it continued to be under Blair and Brown. For that, we require a comprehensive political, economic and social shift.
In fact, the bill is very much the exception that proves the rule. It is a timid measure, applying anyway only to new council tenants, and limited to Scotland, while the British government plans to undermine the very essence of social housing by increasing rents, reducing housing benefit and kicking people out of council housing if they are deemed able to afford market rents charged by private landlords. The prevailing rule is still to minimise the provision of homes to working-class people.
The Housing (Scotland) Bill cannot hide the fact that state reductionism in the provision of essential services and the promotion of free-market economics has utterly failed to satisfy the needs of our population.¬