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Society? No chance under Thatcher's reign

Thatcher saw you and me as elements to experiment with, says Rory Olcayto

Since the news broke that Maggie Thatcher had died, I’ve been struck by the literal meaning of her name: it describes the craft of putting a roof over your head. Yet it wasn’t a notion she had much time for when she came to power. Rather, her policies led to a massive increase in homelessness.

The big idea at the centre of Thatcher’s housing policy was the right of council tenants to buy their property, alongside a freeze on state-funded new build housing. Local authorities were not permitted to use revenues from council house sales to renew their housing stock.

This policy, coupled with higher rents in both the public and private sectors and benefit cuts that hit the young and unemployed led to a huge increase in the number of British citizens left without a home. One source cites that after 10 years of Thatcher, the number of homeless households had increased from 57,000 to 127,000 and, when interests rates leapt after 1988, many of those who had bought council homes were unable to keep up the payments. In the 1980s, rough sleepers in our cities became a common sight. ‘The homeless are what you step over when you come out of the opera,’ as one of Thatcher’s colleagues, George Young, a party whip, observed.

Maggie Thatcher

No wonder so many people hated – and still hate – Thatcher and her like-minded ministers: that sheer lack of compassion. Take Nicholas Ridley, the housing minster, who said in 1987: ‘The cause of the rise in homelessness is the result of the change in the ways people are behaving.’ Thatcher herself wrote in her memoirs: ‘Unfortunately there was a persistent tendency in polite circles to consider all the “roofless” as victims of middle class society rather than middle class society as a victim of the “roofless”.’

No wonder so many people hated – and still hate – Thatcher and her like-minded ministers

This odious comment contradicts, in part, that even more sickening brush-off, Thatcher’s belief that ‘there’s no such thing as society’, reported in Women’s Own in 1987. Yet the changing nature of housing during her decade-long premiership accurately reflected that belief. Collective housing in the form of terraces, towers and tenements, was either bulldozed or left to rot, and energies were spent instead on fostering the private sector to build ‘Barratt’-style detached homes, to house the ‘individual men and women’ Thatcher said existed in place of society.

Another comment attributed to Thatcher that seems equally dismissive of society – ‘A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure’ – appears not to have been said by her after all. (It was Loelia Ponsonby, peeress and once feature editor of House & Garden, who in turn confessed to lifting it from poet and New Statesman journalist Brian Howard.) But it does play into the townscape policies furthered by her government, such as those introduced by Nicholas Ridley, which saw out-of-town shopping centres, business parks and supermarkets developed on greenfield sites hard to reach by public transport.

Soon after Ridley’s plans were enacted Thatcher was deposed. I was in my second year of architectural studies when that news broke. In terms of her own education, Thatcher was a chemist, with a second class degree in chemistry from Oxford. It’s maybe why she saw our country as atomised, dehumanised, a sealed-off lab to experiment within.

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