Social housing crisis has its roots in this key ceremony, 40 years ago

Margaret Thatcher hands over a copy of the deeds of 39 Amersham Road, Harold Hill, in Essex, to James Patterson, the GLC's 12,000 council house buyer.
Margaret Thatcher hands over a copy of the deeds of 39 Amersham Road, Harold Hill, in Essex, to James Patterson, the GLC's 12,000 council house buyer.
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A net curtain hung in the window and the numbers 3 and 9 were screwed to the old wooden front door of the terrace on Amersham Road, as Margaret Thatcher’s entourage rolled up.

The council house in the east London suburb of Harold Hill had been typical of millions, but the ceremony of the keys presided over by the Prime Minister was a watershed moment in the nation’s division of wealth.

Riots in Leeds and elsewhere punctuated the Thatcher years

Riots in Leeds and elsewhere punctuated the Thatcher years

James and Maureen Patterson had been renting the house from the Greater London Council for nearly 20 years, but under Mrs Thatcher’s Right to Buy initiative, it had become theirs for just over £8,000. They had qualified for a discount of 40 per cent on the market value, and claimed ownership for a down payment of just £5.

It was a story repeated countless times, as the nation’s council housing stock was eaten up by a generation of newly enfranchised homeowners. But on the 40th anniversary of the policy’s inception, its legacy is a matter of intense controversy.

Mrs Thatcher’s appearance in Harold Hill marked London’s 12,000th council house sale since her policy had taken effect a few months earlier, and was seen as the tipping point at which it began to gain traction.

There were nearly five million council house tenants in England and Wales at the time, and some of them had gathered outside number 39 to jeer.

“There was very little interest in the policy at first,” said Prof Brendan Evans of Huddersfield University, who interviewed many key figures of the time for his 1999 volume, Thatcherism and British Politics.

“It was very much a policy of its time. There didn’t seem to be a national housing crisis, social housing was not massively in demand, although there were some council waiting lists, and it was consistent with her general view of spreading wealth. It advanced the Conservative vision of a homeowner democracy.

“And it was hard for the Labour Party to argue, because they couldn’t tell tenants who wanted to buy that ownership should not extend to them.

“It was one of the reasons that more and more working class Labour voters switched to the Conservatives.”

Yet the sell-off took place against a backdrop of rising unemployment and fermenting social tensions in the inner cities, culminating in the summer riots of 1981 in Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and elsewhere.

Mrs Thatcher had already tried to head off dissent in 1980.

“The lady’s not for turning,” she famously told her party conference.

“It went down well with the party, but nationally it wasn’t terribly successful,” Prof Evans said. “Unemployment was rising and it looked as if there were negative consequences of the experiment in monetarism.”

Although the housing sell-off was to become synonymous with Mrs Thatcher’s Britain, it was not of her own invention.

“There had been council house sales since in the 1950s – but it was the decision of individual councils and done on a small scale. The 1980s saw a national initiative,” said Prof Evans.

The house on Amersham Road stands as a monument to the Right to Buy scheme. The wooden door has been replaced with a double-glazed one, and a smart porch surrounds it. Its value now is about £180,000 and it has passed through the hands of six families in the last four decades.

Mr and Mrs Patterson weathered the financial climate of the 1980s less well. As interest rates rose, they struggled to keep up the mortgage payments and their marriage suffered. Mrs Patterson was eventually forced to sell up. “If I’d foreseen the end of my marriage, I’d never have bought,” she said in 2002.

Today’s shortage of social housing is widely seen to have its roots in the mass sell-off of 40 years ago.

“The policy failed because as the housing crisis developed it became clear there was a shortage,” said Prof Evans.

“Even Michael Heseltine, the Minster in charge of implementing it, argued for a constrained policy that would see three-quarters of the revenue from sales going back to councils to invest in their housing stock.

“That didn’t happen, and the present Conservative Party is now having to talk about building more social housing.”