Right to Buy: Margaret Thatcher’s housing legacy

The fascinating history of 39 Amersham Road, chronicled by The Daily Telegraph this week, is a timely insight into the late Baroness Thatcher’s impact upon UK real estate. The country’s first female Prime Minister met the property’s original buyers, the Pattersons, after they competed the purchase.

The result? An iconic image of the keys to the property ladder literally being handed over to tenants.

Photo credit: Lydia_ShiningBrightly

James and Maureen Patterson started renting the council-owned property in 1962, but after almost two decades, the Housing Act in 1980 gave the couple the chance to own the property at 40 per cent discount – and with a deposit of just £5.

The situation is a familiar one to current house hunters. Struggling to meet deposit requirements and secure a mortgage, the UK is transforming into a generation of renters rather than homeowners. The coalition has turned, in part, to Right to Buy again, raising the discount for tenants in London who want to buy their council home from £75,000 to £100,000.

For Mrs Patterson, owning a property during a time of austerity measures left her unable to meet her new mortgage fees, a situation exacerbated by the breakdown of her marriage.

“If I’d foreseen the end of my marriage I’d never have bought. I got trapped there without enough cash to cover bills. The mortgage was about £250 a month and after my husband left I survived only because my sons gave me board-and-lodging. I was desperate in a house I couldn’t manage and wished I’d never bought,” she commented in 2002.

She eventually had to sell the property in 1996.

“It broke my heart when I had to sell. It went for £57,000 and when I’d paid off the mortgage I had only enough left to buy a mobile home so I’m back down the property ladder. But I don’t blame anyone. It was my decision to make that investment.”

Nonetheless, Mrs Patterson remained a loyal supporter of Right to Buy, describing the Baroness’ visit that day:

“She was a lovely guest. I gave her a guided tour and she said, ‘This is not just a house – it’s a home’. I was so proud.”

The property’s new owners lived in the house for five years until the strong housing market enabled them to sell it on at a £40,000 profit. That same benefit was handed down to its next owner, Angela Bacon, who sold the house two years later in 2003 for a £30,000 profit to 33 year old teacher Mr. Masters.

But not everyone has such fond recollections of Right to Buy’s impact on the UK.      

The Mirror’s front page, following Margare Thatcher’s death

One resident of the Whittington estate in London’s Highgate told the BBC that the economic decline under Thatcher left people who bought through the scheme in even worse financial difficulty. Another, Linda Treherne, noted that some people used the policy to buy two properties at a discount and then rented them out as landlords.

“It really rankles me that people made such a profit,” she commented.

Restrictions on the reinvestment of Right to Buy funds into new homes also left the UK without a supply of new build properties – a problem that continues today.

The National Housing Federation comments: “Right-to-buy had a huge impact on Britain’s housing market. The high discounts made the offer a fantastic bargain for those lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. It meant that there was some real growth in levels of owner occupation and helped to create more mixed communities. So it was great for individuals – but there has been an equally great sting in the tail.

“Put simply, the sales proceeds were not used to build the new affordable homes we needed then and even more desperately need now. Some homes have been sold on into the private rented sector, with much higher rents adding to the growing housing benefit bill. The short-term gain for individuals was huge. The long-term impact is a major contribution to our present housing crisis.”

Today, the UK is full of second-generation owners, who have purchased their homes from the initial wave of Right to Buy tenants. Like The Pattersons’ iconic property, homes once sold for tens of thousands are selling for hundreds of thousands.

Architect Alex Thomas paid £250,000 for a flat on the Whittington estate in 2009. It was sold just 13 years ago for £30,000.

“He bought a yacht, I expect,” Thomas told the BBC.

Some argue, though, that the lasting impact of Right to Buy is not the housing shortage or the price of UK property, but the communities it has created, allowing professionals and blue collar workers to live alongside each other in a diverse social mix.

But whether positive or negative, Thatcher’s housing legacy is impossible to deny.

As Mr. Masters sells 39 Amersham Road for almost 22 times its original value, he sums up: “I don’t know where we would be if Mrs Thatcher hadn’t given people the opportunity to buy council houses back then.”

What do you think? Did Right to Buy help or hinder the UK housing market?

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