The Right to Buy: thirty years on

It is now almost exactly 30 years since one of Mrs Thatcher’s iconic social policies was launched. On 20 December 1979 the Conservative government published a Housing Bill which included the Right to Buy. This allowed council tenants to purchase their dwelling at a discount of up to 50 per cent. Since then over 2.5 million council dwellings have been sold, making the Right to Buy one of the most transformative pieces of social policy of the last century.

There are several useful lessons that can be learnt from the Right to Buy. The first is the need to go with the grain of human nature and not to try and force people to behave in ways that are not natural to them. The Right to Buy played on our natural self-interest, to do the best for ourselves and our families. The policy encouraged households to be independent and to take responsibility for themselves.

This brings us to the second lesson: the Right to Buy involved a one-off intervention – the offering of a right – but then left households alone. Unlike much of New Labour policy, which involves continual interference in the lives of people, it was an example of government offering something and then withdrawing. In that sense it can be genuinely said that it liberated people.

But perhaps of most significance, the Right to Buy demonstrates just how difficult it is to develop successful policy. It worked because the basic resources existed in the form of 6 million council houses, there were enough households willing and able to take up the offer, it was affordable for both households and government, and, most importantly, the policy could be readily explained and its appeal was obvious: in other words, the incentives and benefits were clear to all.

This combination of circumstances is very rare – so perhaps the key lesson we can learn from the Right to Buy is that really transformative actions by government are also very rare, and this might just be for the best.

From the tax payer’s perspective, can the economic benefit of this policy to the British economy be quantified to any degree?

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