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Peter King: The lessons to be learnt from the Right to Buy, thirty years on

Picture 4 Peter King works at De Montfort University. His book, Housing Policy Transformed: The Right to Buy and the Desire to Own was published in January 2010 by Policy Press.

It is now almost exactly thirty years since one of Mrs Thatcher’s iconic social policies was launched. In 1980 the Conservative Government pushed through a Housing Act which included the Right to Buy. This allowed council tenants to purchase their dwelling at a discount of up to 70 percent.

I would suggest that this has been the most successful piece of social policy since the Second World War. No other social policy since the war could claim to have had anything like such an effect as the Right to Buy. Over 2.5 million council dwellings - over 35% of the total - have been sold, giving these households the opportunity to own their own home and be free of local government interference. No longer were households told when and what colour their house would be painted. Once they has had bought their home they were able to use their own home as they pleased, to change it, improve it and to sell it when they pleased.

There are several useful lessons that can be learnt about the Right to Buy. The first, is the need to go with the grain of human nature and not to try and force people to behave in ways that are not natural to them. The Right to Buy played on our natural self-interest, to do the best for ourselves and our families. The policy encouraged households to be independent and take responsibility for themselves. These households now had an asset they could use to better themselves or to pass onto their children.

Picture 5 The second important point about the Right to Buy was the form of government intervention involved. Unlike much of New Labour policy since 1997, which involved continual interference in the lives of people, the Right to Buy was an example of government offering something and then withdrawing. The support from government came at one point - the offering of the right and the discount - but after that households were left to thrive or fail. It that sense the Right to Buy genuinely liberated people and made them independent.

This form of intervention should be seen as a model for a new Conservative government. When government intervenes it should do so in a manner that liberates individuals and allows them to lead the types of life they wish free from the dictat of the state. Too much government action has the opposite effect, of institutionalising economic dependency. If we look at the current state if social housing, far too many households are long term benefit recipients who have no expectation of getting a job and looking after their own.

But perhaps of most significant element of the Right to Buy is that it demonstrates just how difficult it is to develop successful policies. The Right to Buy worked because the basic resources already existed in the form of 6 million council houses, there were enough households willing and able to take up the offer, it was affordable for both households and government, and, most importantly, the policy could be readily explained and its appeal was obvious: in other words, the incentives and benefits were clear to all.

This combination of circumstances is very rare, and so perhaps the key lesson we can learn from the Right to Buy is that really transformative actions by government are very rare. Transformation is always difficult and it needs the right conditions to be in place and we should not presume that they will always be. So we should celebrate the Right to Buy - these sorts of successes do not come along very often.


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