The Politics and Practicalities of Housing Policy

As of Friday I am officially a graduate of the University of Bristol, which I have mixed emotions about. While I’m proud of what I’ve achieved and excited about the next adventure, I’m also incredibly sad to be leaving Bristol and closing the door on that chapter of my life – it was a pretty good one.

But in the last few weeks, a lot of people have asked me about my dissertation; what was it about? how did you do? did you enjoy writing it?

The first two questions are, of course, simple to answer. Thinking about the third has made me realise that it is too; I surprised myself and really loved the process of putting together a big piece of original research, and became a bit obsessed by the topic.

My dissertation was entitled ‘The Politics and Practicalities of UK Housing Policy: An analysis of Right to Buy.’ In it, I analysed the impact Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy has had on housing today, with a specific focus on how the policy has shaped Norwich – a city which has never before been extensively researched in reference to the scheme. I approached this from a social and economic angle in the first two chapters, before looking at the political implications in the final section.

For anyone who’s interested, you can read my entire dissertation here. Or, if you’d like a condensed version, I’ve copied my conclusion below.

Conclusion

Right to Buy (RTB) has clearly impacted Britain, and Norwich, socially, economically and politically. This dissertation aimed not only to understand these consequences, but how they related to the policy’s initial aims, and the extent they were intended or foreseen. What has emerged is a mixed and complicated picture.

RTB’s primary aim was to increase home ownership and create a ‘property owning democracy.’ At first this appears remarkably successful, both in Norwich and Britain. However, owner occupation levels have recently fallen as high house prices and a prevalent buy-to-let market have excluded many from the market. RTB had a significant role in this; the focus on home ownership meant other housing issues were sidelined. Furthermore, the absence of reinvestment, especially in building new properties, has left a lack of affordable homes to rent and buy in Britain. The narrow intentions behind RTB therefore reduced its success. Furthermore, the Conservative’s did not expect RTB resales to enter the buy-to-let market, the subsequent dramatic increase in the housing benefit bill, nor the residualisation of communities. Norwich largely reflects this national picture; owner occupation and the private rented market have grown at the expense of social housing, which increasingly houses the more vulnerable in less attractive areas. However, these estates do not appear to be stuck in ‘cycles of decline’. Fundamentally, home ownership, as expected, has increased, but many of the associated consequences were not predicted by the government.

Through RTB, Thatcher also sought to gain votes. Identifying the scheme’s specific impact on Conservative electoral success is difficult, and other factors were probably more significant, but there is a link between voter preference and tenure. RTB did, therefore, partially contribute to Conservative victories – especially in 1992 – but its significance varied according to location. In Norwich, Conservative victories in 1983 probably were not due to the policy; the City Council remained under Labour control despite publicised opposition to RTB. Nonetheless, the policy contributed to changing parameters in national political debate, and Labour judged it to be of electoral importance so adopted RTB after their 1987 Policy Review. Like the creation of a ‘property owning democracy’, RTB’s electoral success is mixed – and perhaps not as influential as hoped.

RTB’s final aim was to reduce the role of Local Authorities (LAs) within service provision, which was undoubtedly achieved. LAs have become enablers, rather than providers, of housing: their ability to pursue their own housing agendas is limited by reduced funding, and provisions within the 1980 Housing Act allowing central government intervention. Norwich City Council’s attempts to challenge the legality of this intervention were overruled, ending the general consensus which perceived LAs to be in the best position to dictate local priorities. This had national consequences, but also changed Norwich’s experience of RTB: Norwich was forced to sell properties at a faster rate, and the refusal to give capital receipts back to the Council caused a rapid reduction in new homes. Thatcher was successful in her aim – yet reducing the role of LAs in housing has contributed to many of the unforeseen impacts of RTB, as local knowledge has been sidelined in decisionmaking processes.

Ultimately, RTB was more politically successful than socially or economically – both in terms of the overall consequences and its initial aims. It was, largely, ‘amazing’ politics, but ‘awful’ policy.118 George Santayana once wrote that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,’ which is especially relevant here as RTB is a live topic.119 If the government are to avoid further unexpected ramifications on communities, the housing benefit bill and the private rental market, reinvestment of capital receipts needs to be a priority. Indeed, had the Conservatives originally done this, the residualisation of council housing would probably have been less pronounced, and their desire to create a ‘property owning democracy’ more successful in the long term. Reduced funding has contributed to a lack of both affordable housing options, and housing overall. It was an ideological, rather than pragmatic, policy – political, not practical.

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