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No More Council Houses

During the Margaret Thatcher era, legislation was introduced that gave secure tenants of council properties, the “right to buy” their homes, often at a significant discount to the market value of up to 50% and sometimes with assisted mortgages. Ironically, the Labour Party had proposed this policy in their Manifesto for the 1959 General Election which they went on to lose. Local councils had always been able to sell properties but after 1980, the right for a tenant to buy a rented home became legally enshrined.

The intention was clearly to remove a burden from local authorities, particularly of maintaining older properties and to allow capital to flow from the state to people who could spread wealth through the generations and through society. If the hope was that local authorities who received a half of all the proceeds could use these funds to invest in new housing, then this aspiration floundered immediately as they were initially required to apply these receipts to reducing their debt.

Not surprisingly, the take up of this offer was enormous and over 1.5 million homes have moved into private ownership. Shortly after this, a trend began to transfer housing that had not been bought under the “right to buy” scheme from local authority ownership to new housing associations or housing trusts. Whilst rural authorities owning relatively small numbers of homes originally adopted this policy, the trend soon expanded so “council housing” became a thing of the past in over half lour local authorities. This new ownership structure was supposed to enable organisations to borrow money at more competitive commercial rates to invest in new housing stock and major home improvement schemes. The new organisations also hoped to manage properties more efficiently, to deal more firmly with antisocial behaviour and rent arrears which in turn would generate greater community involvement and solidarity.

Fears were strongly expressed that private organisations who were allowed to borrow money more freely, especially in times of high interest rates or high inflation, would inevitably push rents up and give tenants less  security as their leases changed from “secure” to “assured” tenancies. As time went on, mergers and acquisitions within this group of Registered Social Landlords (and so far there have been over 100), has worried residents that their homes are being administered by ever growing larger organisations that are no longer necessarily locally based and do not have the interests of the residents at heart.

One Yorkshire local authority transferred its homes to a new not-for-profit company that is also a registered charity. The new legal owner wrote to tenants to assure them that this change would not affect them at all. One 96 year old resident who had happily lived in her bungalow for over 30 years, was initially worried and then alarmed when she was told that she would have to move out whilst necessary repairs and improvements were carried out to her home.

She was temporarily and rather unhappily housed in a retirement home for two months and eventually returned home to find that a window that brought light and air into her kitchen had been removed and a small extractor fan installed. The bright fluorescent light had gone and been replaced with a low energy, dull fitting that made it hard for her to see to cook and was generally depressing. Whilst the housing organisation may well have the responsibilities and legal commitments to carry these works out, the irony is that had she taken up the opportunity to buy her home, there would have been no compulsion for her to do so.

Of course a little more sensitivity could have been shown, perhaps a fuller explanation given in advance or maybe she could simply have been asked if she wanted the work doing at all!