Blog: Right-to-Buy – a welcome obituary

Graeme Brown
Graeme Brown

A welcome obituary for Right to Buy in Scotland, from Shelter Scotland director Graeme Brown.

Right to Buy has been one of the highest profile housing policies of the last four decades in Scotland. It has driven a transformation in our housing system and has directly led to a major rise in the number of home owners in Scotland. Before Right to Buy home ownership in Scotland was less than 40 per cent, it now stands around 60 per cent.

Right to Buy was introduced in Scotland in 1980 and operated largely unchanged for 20 years. Sitting tenants of public authorities had a right to buy their homes for a discount of up to 70 per cent for flats or 50 per cent for houses. The discount depended on how long you had lived there. While modernisation of the policy slowed its impact, overall, Right to Buy was hugely popular.

The numbers are staggering – more than half a million social homes were sold in a nation of less than 2.5 million households. For some households, particularly those on modest or below average incomes, it gave access to home ownership and to the accumulation of housing wealth that otherwise may never have happened.

So why, at a time when the UK government is extending Right to Buy in England, has Scotland consigned it to the history books? Part of the answer is that, as the decades passed, it became clear that the impact of Right to Buy was to create more losers than winners in our housing system, significantly undermining wider efforts to improve social justice in Scotland.

For every new home-owner through Right to Buy, others were left waiting longer for any home at all. The initiative saw three social homes being sold for every new one built, representing poor value for increasingly limited public money. For councils in Scotland, keeping social housing supply levels high enough to meet demand under Right to Buy was like trying to fill a bath while the plug was left out.

During the Right to Buy era, homelessness numbers soared and today still remain at levels far beyond those in 1980. Today across Scotland, there are over 150,000 families and individuals stuck on council waiting lists for a home and last year more than 35,000 people applied as homeless to their local authority.

The lack of social homes has also driven a rapid increase in the use of private renting, where rent is often much higher than in social housing. The high cost of private renting has left younger generations with lives on hold unable to afford or access their housing of choice.

The effects on neighbourhoods have also been double-edged. Under Right to Buy the best homes in the most popular areas sold first, leaving those who couldn’t afford to buy increasingly housed in the worst properties and least popular areas. And many properties bought under Right to Buy are now rented out via the private rental market at a much higher rate than social rent.

Social tenants in these areas can find themselves having lived next to a property that was a social tenancy, then being owner-occupied and then privately rented. Some of these private rented properties can become run-down and dilapidated due to a landlord’s unwillingness to refurbish and keep the property to a reasonable standard in a thrust to maximise income, causing tension in the community.

In more rural communities such as villages, it is not uncommon for all the social housing to have been sold to sitting tenants. With the huge increases in the cost of houses and rents, and no homes for social rent available, the impact has been to drive local people on lower incomes away from their roots as they cannot afford to live in their former community.

So Shelter Scotland is glad that Right to Buy has had its day. It was monolithic, not strategic and rode roughshod over local housing strategies in Scotland.

What Scotland needs now is a step change in the delivery of affordable housing. We need to build at least 12,000 new affordable homes a year to meaningfully tackle Scotland’s housing crisis. In addition, we want to see a new National Homelessness Strategy that works across sectors to tackle the root causes of homelessness and ensure support is there for those who need it.

Only then will we start to address the profound damage caused to our housing system by the Right to Buy policy and the decades of underinvestment in affordable housing.

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