No doubt readers aren’t interested in my general views about Margaret Thatcher. You can assume that they aren’t as rose-coloured and sycophantic as everything that’s been on TV this evening (thank goodness for Kevin Maguire providing a smidgen of balance). So what did her 11 years as Prime Minister mean to housing?
The only housing reference made so far in the media’s extraordinary obituary-fest has been to the right to buy, as if it was the only housing policy at the time. The policy was wrong on so many levels and has been a long-term disaster, but it is hard to think of a political phenomenon like it (possibly until Boris Johnson came along). It steamrollered over Labour and touched an aspirational nerve in working class Britain that no-one at the time was prepared for or could explain. It became the iconic Thatcherite domestic policy (alongside destroying the trades unions) despite the fact that it was barely mentioned in the 1979 Tory Manifesto, where it was hedged around with caveats about sheltered housing and re-sale restrictions.
It always feels as if the Tories stumbled across this rich seam of political gold quite by accident, without realising what they’d done until they’d done it.
Thatcher’s impact on housing came in other ways as well. Her support for rapid deregulation and unfettered financial markets – notably the ‘Big Bang’ in 1986 – led inexorable to the banking boom, the easy money culture, and the crisis 20 years later. It is hard to remember the days when banks did not provide mortgages and building societies provided mortgages but not other financial products, and everyone operated under strict rules. Deregulation has bedevilled the housing market since.
For those of us at the sharp end of housing in the 1980s, we watched as housing investment by councils plummeted as councils were effectively prohibited from building and buying property on anything like the scale of the 1970s. We were told that council housebuilding would be replaced by the new ‘third arm’ of housing associations, but it was a lie: despite their success, they never filled the vacuum left by the councils. And attempts to revive the free market in housing led to the introduction of shorthold tenancies and a new generation of insecure tenants.
Rising housing demand, boom conditions in home ownership, and the ending of council housebuilding had an inevitable outcome: the galloping homelessness crisis of the 1980s. Areas like Bayswater in London changed in a few years from a residential district with quite a few budget hotels into the homelessness capital of Britain. Sticking homeless families into B&B for years became the new scandal.
It wasn’t all bad. Nearly, but not quite all. The 1980 Act gave us the right to buy, but it was added into a Bill inherited from Labour that also gave council tenants security of tenure, and a whole ‘tenants charter’ of rights, for the first time after years of campaigning. These are the same rights that Cameron is now busy removing. And I suppose the first steps on the shared ownership road were taken during her decade.
There is a straight line from Thatcher’s legacy – right to buy, end of council housebuilding, letting housing benefit take the strain of rising rents, rising homelessness, encouraging sub-prime lending for property purchase – to the housing crisis we are experiencing today.
And, before our very eyes, we see Cameron making the same mistakes all over again.