Heartlanders or landlords? Can housing build communities or aspirations?
When Margaret Thatcher introduced the ‘Right to Buy’, it was intended to inculcate an aspirational and more socially responsible population. Today, there is little confidence in the idea of a class of home-owning go-getters. Home-owners stand accused of treating property as a commodity while those still in social housing are pitied as a feckless underclass. Some have said that the decline of the housing market in the past couple of years is an opportunity to create a more cohesive society. The Conservatives, for their part, retain a rhetorical commitment to encouraging social tenants to aspire to own their own home, but this is less about promoting the rugged individualism of the past and more about community engagement.
Whether arguing for a greater role for co-operative and the third sector in providing housing or for the right of tenants to part-own their council houses, the consensus is for a more managed form of housing provision. This will, in theory devolve power to individuals and communities promoting both autonomy and cohesion. But are these exercises in community building as liberating as they seem? While Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ is today criticised for encouraging selfishness, the assumption at the time was that people make the right decisions if given control over their own lives. Are more innovative forms of tenure, with people moving up and down the housing ladder, rather than being either owners or renters, fairer and more desirable than the old system? Is opposition to the ideal of home-ownership motivated by fairness, or the desire to sneer at the suburbs? Should housing policy be aimed at leaving people to get on with their lives, whether aspiring-owners or more permanent social tenants?
The Conservative Party Green Paper, ‘Strong Foundations: Building Homes and Communities’, Executive Summary and Chapters 4 and 5.