Right to Buy: has its moment passed?

Was the Right to Buy the most politically savvy housing policy in recent decades? It tapped into the public mood – shifting towards aspiration – and allowed a substantial number of low and middle income households to realise that aspiration very quickly by offering substantial discounts when they bought their home.

In just five years, more than a million people bought their council houses, my grandparents among them.

Whether or not you agree with the policy of selling off council houses without replacing them, or think the long term benefits have been positive or negative, you cannot deny the popularity of the policy.

Despite some valid criticisms, it’s hard to think of a housing policy that’s quite captured the public imagination in the same way since then.

Have shared ownership or NewBuy been the talk of everyday life like the Right to Buy was? Have they helped to define party values and leadership in the way that Right to Buy did for the Conservatives in the 80s? Not by my reckoning.

And despite heaps of money and political capital being invested in recent schemes, they have had a meagre impact by comparison.

Politicians realise that housing can and does offer vote winning potential – that’s why they reach for first time buyer schemes when they want to demonstrate their support for the ‘strivers’. I imagine that the relaunch of Right to Buy earlier this year, with an even bigger maximum discount, hoped to recapture the aspirational spirit of its first launch in the 1980s.

But as the sales figures come in, it’s hard not to feel that the moment for this policy has passed. There have been fewer than 1,500 Right to Buy sales in the six months since the policy launched, despite a high profile PR and marketing campaign.

Considering that more than 1.8 million households live in council homes, it’s barely a dent. This is hardly surprising – many existing social tenants are feeling the pinch and even with the large discounts are unlikely to get a mortgage that they can afford over the long term.

When Right to Buy launched in the 1980s, the demographics of housing were so different. Social housing was home to all ages and walks of life, while it is now dominated by older households.

Now younger working families tend to rent from a private landlord, under 35s are more than twice as likely to live in private rented homes than they are in social housing, and private renters are more likely than people in other tenures to be in work. The fabled ‘strivers’ are more likely to rent from a private landlord than a social landlord these days.

I’ve heard policy thinkers of all hues saying they need a ‘Right to Buy for our age’, action that the government can take to help people realise their aspirations – and be thanked for it.

When the 2011 Census figures come out tomorrow it will show just how those strivers live. It will hopefully be clear to politicians that times have indeed changed, and that fresh thinking will be needed when politicians develop aspirational housing policies that work for today’s strivers.