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Suppose we had simply given council homes away to tenants?

Paul Finch

Council housing has long been subject to radical proposals. What if they had been put into practice? asks Paul Finch

The current interest in counter-factual history has not honed in on the world of architecture and the built environment, but I have been thinking about some of the might-have-beens which could have influenced our current condition, especially in relation to housing.

My favourite example concerns the idea that council tenants should have the right to buy their own homes. This is, these days, an idea generally attributed to Margaret Thatcher, and is frequently described as a key reason for her electoral victory in 1979.

In reality, a far more radical idea preceded this electoral ploy: that council tenants, having paid rent for 25 years, should be given their home as though they had purchased it on a mortgage. This near-revolutionary proposition, which would have involved a massive transfer of wealth to working-class tenants, had nothing to do with the Labour Party, nor the various Left factions which infest British political debate like dumb waiters, noisily interfering but with nothing to deliver.

No, the person who proposed this wealth transfer, in the early 1970s, was a Tory Cabinet minister called Peter Walker, the first secretary of state of the newly created Department of the Environment. A profound believer in free-market economics, he thought the more people who owned their own property, the better off they, and the country, would be.

I think it is fair to say that the only people who objected to this idea more than Conservative Party stalwarts, with their dislike and distrust of council tenants, were the dimwits in the Labour Party. They assumed that any property owner would automatically vote Tory, whoever had been responsible for them being able to purchase their own home. The idea tanked.

This was not the death of the proposition, however. A few years later, the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson (the man who refused to genuflect to the USA by entering the Vietnam war) asked his press secretary, Joe Haines, to come up with some bright ideas which could help Labour win the next election, and which would be cheap to implement.

Guess what? Joe came back with a version of the Peter Walker proposition: sell council homes at a discount, but on 99-year leases. This notion found favour with the brighter elements of the Labour Party, but ran into a brick wall when it reached the highest echelons of the organisation: the National Executive Committee. To describe the members of this august group as dinosaurs would be unduly flattering. The idea tanked again.

Geograph 3842692 by bill boaden

Geograph 3842692 by bill boaden

Fast forward a few years and Mrs Thatcher saw the point, made the policy an electoral pledge, and swept to power, partly on the promise of giving some of the poorest people in society more control over their own lives. Unfortunately, she never acknowledged that selling at a discount was just about redistributing wealth; she seemed to imagine that it was a construction policy. This blinkered and frankly moronic attitude goes a long way to explaining the tragic shortage of housing in London and the South East today.

From a speculative historical viewpoint, the questions that arise are as follows: what would have happened if we had simply given council homes away to long-term tenants? If Labour had adopted a discount sale policy, could it have pre-empted the Thatcherite appeal to working-class voters in 1979? Or could the Conservatives have injected their one-nation political philosophy into the bloodstream of traditional Labour communities, using the revenue from council house sales to build more homes for locals?

As with all counter-factual speculations, we will never know. But it is always instructive to be reminded that history includes currents as well as tides.


Readers' comments (2)

  • Not sure of the point you are making Paul. You raise the matter of giving away an asset without demonstrating any validity to the proposition other than suggesting those opposed to it is days past were dim-wits, blinkered and moronic. The RTB has indeed been a massive, if not the most massive redistribution of wealth in a generation or two but it has been extremely costly for the public purse - i.e. subsidise building the properties then subsidise the purchase. It was also massively beneficial to those who occupied the housing they were able to purchase. I actually have no argument with the ability of people to buy their home, but to be fair with a public asset the ability to access (and buy) social housing should therefore involve a formal lottery of anyone. If your proposition holds good that giving away social housing is a good idea( and that's how your article reads to me anyway) I'd welcome your fiscal analysis to prove this to be the case. The losers will be those not able to access social housing, as you will have given them away. They will have less choice / options for their housing. Moronic, dim-witted and blinkered seems more aptly to apply to your article.

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  • This is a rather peculiar comment. My proposition is that it was moronic to imagine that the sale of housing was the equivalent of a construction policy, the trap Mrs Thatcher fell into. She would not even let her favourite council, Wandsworth, use receipts from home sales to build replacements. The reference to dim-witted is in relation to the Labour NEC which refused to adopt a proposal developed by Labour, then stolen by Mrs T to great electoral effect. Of course I agree that wealth redistribution and an effective house-building programme are two separate matters. Unfortunately the political class has ignored the latter for 30 years, with predictable results.

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