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Housing policy transformedThe right to buy and the desire to own$

Peter King

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9781847422132

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781847422132.001.0001

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Introduction

Introduction

Chapter:
(p.1) One Introduction
Source:
Housing policy transformed
Author(s):

Peter King

Publisher:
Policy Press
DOI:10.1332/policypress/9781847422132.003.0001

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter introduces the concept of the Right to Buy (RTB) policy, which is considered the most successful housing policy in Britain since World War II. It looks on both the old criticisms of the RTB and the new challenges that are posed to this housing policy. The chapter introduces two cases of RTB households and discusses in detail the topics that will be covered in this book. The latter portion of the chapter provides a summary of the next six chapters.

Keywords:   Right to Buy, housing policy, RTB households

So many initiatives in housing are announced with a huge fanfare, as if they will solve the ‘housing problem’ and transform housing structures. New policies are described as the ones that create lasting and permanent change. Since the late 1980s we can point to any number of new initiatives such as Tenants' Choice, Housing Action Trusts, Housing Investment Trusts, private finance and stock transfer, all aimed at altering the structure of housing provision by introducing private initiative. More recently, the Labour government under Blair and Brown has given us choice-based policies but also the Respect Agenda and Anti-Social Behaviour Orders aimed at making individuals more responsible.

All of these policies were introduced with a wave of publicity and positive rhetoric. The housing profession bought into them and dutifully sought to implement the changes the government required. Yet so few of these policies actually achieved anything real: many of my students have not even heard of Tenants' Choice. But then there is no need to worry because each of these initiatives is quickly superseded by the next big idea which is accompanied by a new wave of enthusiasm. Everyone buys into the new policy and any negative response is seen as cynical and divisive. We have no option, we are told, but to take up this exciting new idea. The housing profession and commentators soon get wrapped up in the detail and the new jargon created and, because it is new and different, we see it as significant and transformative.

Yet one policy did actually have the influence that was expected of it; indeed, it might be said to have superseded expectations. One policy achieved all that the government intended and radically transformed the structures of housing provision and the perceptions that we have of the various tenures. This policy not only achieved its desired effect, but has also been long-lasting. The policy was introduced in 1980, before any of those discussed above, yet it still has an impact, it is still in use and, moreover, it is likely to remain in place. This policy, of course, is the Right to Buy (RTB).

The RTB is the most successful housing policy in Britain since the Second World War. This is a very big claim and needs some substantiating. First, we can suggest it unequivocally met its avowed aims. The RTB was aimed at extending owner occupation to working-class households and breaking the hold of municipal socialism over public housing, and it succeeded in doing so. It has transformed housing in Britain and completely changed the manner in which the main housing tenures are perceived. Second, if popularity equates with success, then again the RTB scores highly. It helped the Conservatives to win a General Election with a reasonable majority in 1979 and by a landslide in 1983. The policy was, and remains, popular with tenants and the general public alike, so again we can suggest (p.2) it is a success. Third, we might suggest that a policy that is so long-lasting must have had some success. After 30 years the RTB is still having an influence and, as far as these things are ever certain, it is impossible to repeal.

However, we also need to recognise the huge controversy that has surrounded the RTB ever since it was first mooted in the mid- to late 1970s. Even as it remains popular with many tenants and most politicians, we need to be aware why it has proved to be so unpopular in some quarters, particularly academics, housing commentators and, of course, certain elements of the housing profession. When the policy was announced and first implemented the Labour Party opposed it vociferously and made the RTB's repeal a focus of its 1983 election campaign. Many academics will point to the increase in homelessness in the 1980s and to the residualisation of council estates as directly caused by the RTB. The RTB, it is argued, reduced the ability of local authorities to help those in priority need, with the best properties being taken away by the most affluent tenants.

Of course, all of these comments can be countered with strong arguments: homelessness declined in the 1990s even though the RTB remained and stock numbers continued to fall; and RTB dwellings remained in exactly the same place with the same people living amidst the council tenants. Also by the 1987 General Election the Labour Party had become reconciled to the RTB and since then all the major parties have supported it and see it as a major part of their housing policies: all parties wish to claim they have increased owner occupation and particularly to working-class families (DOE, 1987; 1995; DETR, 2000; CLG, 2007). Yet, still for many the RTB is seen as an unalloyed disaster, and we will need to take seriously the criticisms that have been levelled against it.

But I want to concentrate not on the old criticisms of the RTB, but on what is a new challenge to it. This, of course, is the virtual collapse of housing markets in the UK since 2007. Indeed, the very source of the credit crunch is instructive to any discussion on extending owner occupation to working-class and lowincome households. The start of the world financial crisis was the unravelling in 2006–07 of the sub-prime housing market in the US (Ferguson, 2008; Shiller, 2008). This very market was part of an attempt by American politicians to extend owner occupation as widely as possible. Ever since the Carter administration in the 1970s, lenders have been encouraged to lend to poorer households as part of a drive to extend the property-owning democracy that has been a staple of US populist rhetoric since the 1930s (Ferguson, 2008). But this lending has proved to be catastrophic for the households themselves, who have been unable to cope with increasing interest rates and falling house values, and for world financial markets that have traded on derivatives based on these sub-prime mortgages (Shiller, 2008; Wolf, 2009).

This is not the place to discuss the causes of the 2008 financial meltdown, but it does suggest that encouraging low-income households into owner occupation might be problematic; and what is the RTB about if not encouraging low-income households to become home owners? Indeed, the problems with housing in the UK since 2007 have led certain groups, such as the National Housing Federation, (p.3) and politicians, mainly of the left, to question the continuation of the RTB (Beattie, 2008). What place, they argue, is there for a policy that allows households to purchase a dwelling owned by the state at a considerable discount whilst many of their fellow citizens are having their houses repossessed? The state should be providing more social housing, not allowing it to be reduced by the RTB. In this light the RTB can be seen to be privileging certain households – who might once have been in serious housing need, but now seem to have a reasonable income – at the expense of those suffering at the sharp end of the recession.

The government has been quick to defend the RTB as part of its long-term housing strategy, but this questioning in the face of an undoubted economic crisis does mean we have to be fully aware of what role the RTB has had, and continues to have, in the UK. Is it a policy whose time has gone? Over 2.5 million households have been assisted into owner occupation, but that was when the economy was functioning properly and houses could be bought and sold, rather than the stagnant markets of 2008–09. Can we still justify such a policy in the light of this crisis? Even if we might have supported it in the 1980s and 1990s, when many felt unable to access owner occupation in any other manner, can we afford to be so sanguine now when social housing waiting lists are growing and first-time buyers are excluded from the market?

Clearly this poses a challenge to those who see merit in the RTB, and it is one that needs to be faced head-on. In this book it is my intention to consider the RTB in the context of a financial crisis and a stagnant housing market. This will mean that my focus is not so much on the old controversies and criticisms of the RTB – those battles have been fought and won – but on what place there is for the RTB when housing markets appear to be failing badly and social housing is residualised and marginalised.

My main aim in this book is to explore why the RTB has been so successful despite the level of opposition to it. Just why was the RTB able to catch the imagination of both politicians and households? And why has it become so entrenched in British culture: is it because of the financial incentives, or because social housing was so bad, or is it because of something more positive and intrinsic in the relation between households and their dwelling? Does this mean that the RTB can ride out the current problems in the housing market and remain one of the means of encouraging working-class households into owner occupation?

We can, indeed, pose some more general questions, because the RTB was not an end in itself but a means to extend owner occupation. So, we might ask, why is owner occupation so appealing to households who for generations had rented their housing? In modern Britain, after nearly a century of public housing, why is it seen as so important to own your own home?

One way of opening up some of these issues is by looking at a couple of families who bought their council house in the 1980s. This will shed some light on what it meant to become an owner-occupier, and to see what changed and, equally important, what did not as a result of the RTB. These two families have been neighbours on a large council estate in Peterborough since the mid-1960s. The (p.4) estate, which was built in the early 1960s, consists largely of three-bedroomed semi-detached houses built in streets and culs-de-sac. Both couples are now retired and their children have grown up and long since left. They have seen the area change around them as their neighbours, like them, bought their dwellings in the 1980s. Both families could be called ‘respectable’ working class in that they had worked all their lives, saved and made no recourse to state benefits.

T and J, in 40 years of living in the one dwelling, only changed things when they had to. For many years the house remained as it was when the council owned it: the same windows and doors; they kept the kitchen as it was when the house was new until the units finally needed replacing. They still had the walk-in pantry rather than knocking it through to the kitchen, as well as the indoor shed which could also have been used to extend either the kitchen or the lounge. The house was configured in a particular way when it was built: it worked for them and so why should they change it? The house was comfortable and they could look after it and make full use of it. T and J had enough money, at least in later life, to live how they pleased. This, however, did not include doing anything to the house unless it needed it.

Their neighbours, M and I, had altered their house – originally a mirror image of T and J's three-bedroomed council house – beyond recognition. They had put in new windows, made internal structural changes, built a conservatory, landscaped the front and back gardens, as well as seemingly always decorating inside and out. The house seemed to be their project, one that remains ongoing. In terms of the two households the main difference was in age – T and J in their 80s and M and I in their 60s – yet both had acted as they had done for many years. It was not that T and J had slowed down with age – they were using their dwelling in the same way now as they had 40 years ago when the council owned it. Both couples had raised children and seen them leave; both could be described as respectable working-class families. Yet they treated their dwelling quite differently.

The reason for the difference between the two is not financial, as when T and J wished to replace windows, carpets, change the kitchen units, and so on, they did so. They could afford to spend money on their dwelling when they had to. Yet they only did so when it was sensible and manageable, when it had to be done rather than merely because it could be. M and I, however, had always been improving and altering their dwelling. It was not that they did it once, but they were always doing it. They always had a project to work on, even perhaps looking for new things to do.

However, what M and I did not do was move to a new house. Their concern was solely with this house, where they had lived for 40 years and raised their children and had got so thoroughly used to. So their ambition was limited to an extent: it was about working just on the one house, whilst other households might have moved on after doing one house up to their satisfaction. What M and I did not seem to be interested in was making money from their house. Rather they wanted to improve it and work on it as they saw fit.

(p.5) T and J saw their dwelling as just a place to live rather than a project to improve. Both households could use the dwelling in the same way – as a place in which to relax, to keep themselves fed, to sleep, and so on. But one household was content with this, whilst the other wanted to do more; one was content with things staying the same, the other wanted change and development, transformation even.

T and J would have perhaps done little different, even if they had had a ‘better’ starting position in terms of money to spend. They would have perhaps made some changes but not seen it as a continuing project. This is speculation, but in their later years, at least, they were not short of money, but still did not seek to transform their house. Perhaps they only had enough in later life because of years of saving, of forgoing spending until some future time. But this itself shows an attitude in line with their current frugality and indicates a similar mentality throughout their married life. They are able to moderate their needs, to refrain from excess, to say ‘no’ and to be content with enough.

This is not to suggest that what M and I have done is in any way excessive or grotesque. It is merely that they like to change their dwelling from time to time and they are able to manage this. This makes their house look bright and new, and if DIY is their hobby, then why not? There is no moral distinction to be made here between these two neighbours, both living comfortably within their means and how they like, in the way that best suits them, supporting each other like good neighbours do, but also keeping a respectful distance, not prying and keeping themselves to themselves.

So affordability is not at the root of this distinction, in that both households have chosen how they wish to live. Neither have unlimited choices, and as they grow older their remaining choices are perhaps diminishing. But this is not because of finance. Both still live pretty much as they have done all their adult lives. What differs is the attitude they have towards their dwelling.

These two examples are not meant to be typical of all RTB households. Rather what they show is that there is no typicality; that beyond being former tenants of the council, RTB households are different, they choose to live differently, to use their dwelling differently, and see their dwelling as a means to meet their specific aims and not as part of any general pattern determined by politicians, councillors, academics or the media. They are doing what they feel is best for themselves and their families, taking advantage of a situation that has arisen not by their choosing (I have no idea who they voted for in 1979 and subsequently). This is the same sort of decision that parents might take about their child's schooling: what comes first is what is best for the child and for the family as a whole. If opportunities present themselves then they are taken and without any guilt, just as middle-class households take advantage of their ability to buy a house near a good school.

But these examples also start to account for the success of the RTB. It let many working-class households use their dwelling as they saw fit for the first time. Instead of being constrained by their landlord, they could now paint their dwelling how they liked, change it, improve it or even leave it be, and it was their problem and not an issue for others to interfere in. The RTB allowed households to be (p.6) independent and act in the responsible manner that they were always capable of if only they had been allowed to.

What this shows is that the RTB operates in a different manner from all other housing policies enacted in the last 30 years. Like all other housing policies the RTB was imposed from the centre and did not arise out of any spontaneous uprising from tenants. It was undoubtedly popular and caught the mood of the country at the time, but it was introduced, like any other policy, through legislation in Parliament and implemented on the direction of ministers and by civil servants. It was imposed upon local authorities, but then so has been every other housing policy we might mention. But despite this, the effect of the RTB has been thoroughly different from any other policy. This is because it directly alters the level of control that households have over where they live. Other policies have sought to increase the level of choice households have and the amount of responsibility they have to show, but none of them have had anything like the success of the RTB. This is because the RTB has been the only policy where the control over housing is actually transferred permanently and unconditionally to the household.

My argument, which I shall seek to develop more fully in subsequent chapters, is that the RTB was so successful because it played on the fact that housing is essentially a private relation. We experience our dwelling as individuals living in small groups of people who we are very close to and who we have a responsibility towards. We share our dwelling with people who we love and care for and who reciprocate those feelings. Our dwelling is where we share our most intimate and private relations (King, 2004a). It is through owning our dwelling that we gain greater control over these private relations. It allows us to protect those things that are close to us: our loved ones, our treasured possessions, our memories and our privacy. It might be argued that we need not own a dwelling to feel secure and safe and to have stable relations with those we love and care for. This may be so, but ownership means that we are responsible and no one else, and that we can make the decisions ourselves without having to defer to others who have no personal stake in our household.

All other housing policies are based on social or collective notions of housing. Accordingly, most policies tend to be concerned with aggregates and standards (King, 1996). Housing is dealt with as an aggregate, as a stock of dwellings rather than a dwelling. Policies do not seek to differentiate between particular households or dwellings, but rather to see them as types to which standards, outcomes and costs can be attributed. Even policies that are intended to extend choice in housing are based on national standards and prescriptions that determine the scope and nature of choice households can experience (Brown and King, 2005). Choice is imposed, but control is still retained in that the choices are constrained because the central government and landlords set both the rules for expressing choice and the resources available (Brown and King, 2005; King, 2006b). Choice is therefore limited to what the government and landlords feel is appropriate. So households might be able to express a choice over what dwelling they wish to live in, but (p.7) the decision of whether they may live there is still in the hands of their landlord, and once they do live there they are still constrained by the landlord's policies and practices.

The RTB was the only housing policy that concerned itself with the manner in which individual households could use their dwelling. Once they exercised their right, households were then able to use their dwelling as they saw fit, being restrained only by their income, their ambition and the general law of the land. The landlord could no longer direct their use, and this was because the key resource – the dwelling itself – was now under the direct control of the household. The genius of the RTB – the basis of its success – was that it connected with the aspirations of individuals rather than projecting an abstract view of what individuals are deemed to want. It did not seek to tell households what they wanted and how they should live. Instead the policy was based on the notion that individuals favour those things close to them and that they wish to protect and nurture those things that they know and love. The virtue of the RTB, therefore, is that it is anti-collectivist. It is about meeting private interests and aspirations rather than any social aim. This is the manner in which we use our dwellings, almost without thinking and is an obvious way of looking at housing for the vast majority. We may live in houses that are similar to each other and do similar things in them, but we see them as distinctive, separate and unique. This is because we see the dwelling as ours.

But there was also a further reason for the RTB which had little to do with the virtues of owner occupation, and we need to be upfront about this. The RTB was an explicit attack on council housing and the whole legitimacy of local authorities as providers of welfare. For the Conservatives, local authorities and the housing they provided were not the solution to ‘the housing problem’, but the key cause of the problem in the first place. Partly this was because social renting was seen as a poor substitute for owner occupation, but more fundamentally social housing was seen as trapping people into dependency on the state and effectively disabling them (Conservative Party, 1976). Council housing was a key example of state provision and of dependency, of a culture of others taking decisions for people and so disabling them so they were dependent on bureaucracies. Local authorities, it was argued, did things for people that they could and should do for themselves.

The Conservatives wanted to break the inertia at the heart of social housing; the idea that it was the councils' responsibility to find people a house and to provide a subsidised rent. The Conservatives argued that households needed to do no more than put themselves on the council waiting list and then wait for their turn. What the Conservatives felt they needed to do was to deal with this passivity and encourage households to make decisions for themselves. We might see it as a means of encouraging households to show their competence and capability for decision making.

The RTB drastically reduced the influence of councils by taking away a third of their housing and putting the erstwhile tenant in control of it. In so doing the (p.8) Conservatives sought to reframe the relationship between landlord and tenant placing local authorities on the defensive. They were the ones forced to respond to the demands of tenants and the central government. The Conservatives saw themselves as representing ordinary households against the monolithic and faceless bureaucracies of local authorities. Of course, this was not merely achieved by the RTB, but involved other policies and spending cuts, although the RTB was the keystone in this attack on the role of local authorities.

But also council housing was the most manifest example of municipal socialism and this was a particular target of the Thatcher government. As Berlinski (2008) points out, a key element of Thatcherism was the destruction of socialism as an electorally significant force in British politics, and the large council estates and tower blocks in Britain's major cities were the most visible result of socialism in Britain. We might argue about how socialist any Labour government in the 20th century actually was, but council housing was a practical example of ‘really existing socialism’ and was perceived as such by the Conservatives who, under Thatcher, saw it as their role to defeat socialism once and for all. Council housing was therefore a target and accordingly its perceived failings could be readily placed alongside the apparent virtues of owner occupation and weighed in the political balance.

I mentioned earlier that the RTB was a means to an end, and that end was the promotion of owner occupation. In truth, owner occupation should itself be seen as a means rather than an end in itself, the real end being how we are able to use our dwellings (King, 2004a; 2008). However, being subsidiary – a means to a means – is not to deny the significance of the RTB. It was one of the key ways in which owner occupation could be advanced quickly and affordably. Accordingly, the years between 1980 and 1997 saw a rapid increase in owner occupation, with a significant amount of this increase being working-class households who had previously limited their aspirations to renting. This, we must admit, was a considerable achievement by the Conservatives.

What is particularly impressive is that this change is a permanent one. Even if the RTB was to be abolished forthwith, its effects could not be undone. Over 2.5 million households have become owner occupiers and their dwellings are now integrated into housing markets. This has changed the landscape of Britain in a physical sense but also, and more importantly, culturally. Owner occupation is now so ingrained as the ‘natural’ tenure that any other form of tenure is almost unthinkable to a majority of households. Most individuals in Britain do not consider social housing as an option even if eligible for it (most households not being seen as vulnerable or in priority need). The RTB is part of this transformation, which for most people is seen as both permanent and positive. To reverse the effects of the RTB would be the work of a generation if not longer and in any case could only be precipitated by some major cultural shift away from owner occupation, perhaps caused by some economic catastrophe. Now at the time of writing (March 2009) the possibility of a major catastrophe in housing markets cannot absolutely be ruled out, with the Brown government having (p.9) completely or partially nationalised several banks, and house prices dropping by their largest percentage in 30 years. Yet we only have to look at the government's response to this crisis to see how unlikely it is that there will be any cultural shift away from owner occupation. A condition of the Brown government's bank bailout in 2008 was that the banks offered lending to households on the same terms as in 2007, that is, before the market started to decline. In addition, the government announced a scheme whereby up to 30% of the purchase price of a dwelling could be provided by an interest-free loan by the government. The funding for this scheme was to come from the existing funding for social housing. What is clear, therefore, is that the government will go a long way to support owner occupation. The scale of the meltdown of financial and housing markets would therefore have to be of an almost unimaginable scale before there is any fundamental rethink in housing policy, and it would be despite the best efforts of the government to shore up owner occupation.

There has been a lot written about the RTB since the later 1970s, some of which is positive and some that is negative. What is interesting is that most of the positive discussion does not come from housing experts but from those writing more generally about changes to British society and government. However, the view from the apparent experts, from within the housing studies bubble, is almost entirely negative. We might suggest that this is because experts are more knowledgeable about the issues and can see them more clearly. But it might mean that they are too close and too attached to a particular way of seeing housing issues that they cannot perceive things in any other manner. If we are concerned with social provision, as most housing academics and commentators are, then we will tend to see the RTB as a threat and as destructive. But I would also point to a further reason: academics, in the social sciences and humanities in particular, tend to see the current set of social arrangements as contingent, rather than accept them as how the world is. They are more likely to see social change and even transformation as possible, necessary and desirable.

However, commentators from outside the world of housing research can take a more rounded view and see the changes to housing policy in a wider context. We might suppose they are more likely to see owner occupation and a concern for housing markets as normal, as they recognise that this is what dominates housing discourse from electoral/political and cultural perspectives. In this sense they will not necessarily see current social arrangements as contingent, but rather ‘just how things are’.

Moreover, the majority of households do not usually analyse housing markets and systems but merely seek to use their housing. They would then tend to see their housing in a self-interested manner, whereas those who earn a living from it will see it in more fundamental terms and be prepared to question, even if these questions are often ignored by the majority, and if no ready and practical answers are forthcoming.

The focus of this book is not on the structures of housing provision, or the particular interests of organisations, or indeed the notion of housing as a (p.10) standardised aggregate (King, 1996). The RTB, we need to remember, imposed a duty on certain landlords to sell their dwellings to eligible tenants, but it did not insist that any tenant exercise their right. The policy gave individuals a choice: to commit to buying, or to stay as they were. It did not impose a particular position on any tenant, but merely facilitated, and encouraged, a particular action. The encouragement, we might argue, was not negligible, but two thirds of tenants were able to resist. Households only exercised their right to buy because they chose to, because they felt they could and should. They did not reject their dwelling or their immediate environment, but rather they literally bought into them. We need to understand this rather than just focusing on the general or aggregated effects of the policy. Likewise, we need to guard against the tendency to caricature or even demonise those households who bought their dwelling, or to see them as the dupes of a cynical and manipulative government. To hold these views is to reduce individuals to mere ciphers, to simple elements that can be controlled by the right form of stimuli. It is a patronising view that somewhat perversely demonstrates a rather unpleasant view of social tenants as people incapable of making decisions for themselves or of seeing what is in their best interests.

What I take very seriously in this book is the link between ideas and policies. It is my belief that the RTB can be linked very closely to a body of ideas and an understanding of human aspirations which is commonly called conservatism. What I consider important about the RTB is not well covered in the existing literature, or even given that much credence: this is an understanding of the RTB from a conservative perspective. What I seek to do in this book is to wrest the initiative back and to discuss the policy on what might be termed ‘home’ ground, rather than within an agenda set by others, who are almost uniformly hostile to the RTB. I want to link the RTB to ownership and conservatism but in a way that is free from the ideological baggage of the social democratic consensus that dominates serious discussion on housing.

Therefore I spend a considerable amount of time in this book exploring these ideas and making the links to the policy. I find it surprising that there is so little interest in conservative ideas when these have dominated actual policy making in the UK since 1979. One need not be a conservative to write about these ideas, but not being a conservative should not give one licence to ignore them. It is my belief that we cannot understand housing policy without also appreciating the ideas that lie behind it (King, 2006a). Consequently I see one of my main roles as exploring the ideas that lie behind the RTB and how these link with broader political, ideological and cultural themes.

My approach here might be seen as a fundamental approach, in the sense of seeking to understand what the policy aimed to do, what it derived from and why, and only then looking at its impact and its critics. In essence, this involves deliberately ‘decontextualising’ the policy so it can be understood on its own terms before then plugging it back into its broader policy context. This, inevitably, can only be partially achieved – the RTB to an extent was a reaction against other policies and practices – and such an approach obviously needs to be (p.11) done rigorously and carefully so as not to slip into polemic and mere defensive justification. But this approach, done properly, does allow for a different and, I would argue, more satisfying and complete analysis of the RTB that does not automatically accept the baggage of the last 30 years of critique.

This point was for me the key: I wished to go beyond the critique that has built up, and to question the conventional view within housing studies and to connect up with a more fundamental debate on the role of individuals and the state. The RTB was a key element in the operationalisation of this dichotomy, and it can be seen as an experiment in relations between individuals and the state, as an attempt to extend individual capabilities and withdraw the influence of the state. It is this that makes the RTB so totemic, but which can so easily be lost in a debate that takes the efficacy of social housing for granted and which judges all policies in terms of the impact it has on the integrity of social housing.

This is not an attempt to divorce the RTB from Thatcherism, but rather the reverse. I want to separate the RTB from the rest of housing policy and to connect it to its ideological, political and cultural contexts. In this manner we can see the very genius of the policy: the idea of releasing an asset to individuals which they felt was already theirs, but which they were unable to control fully. The dwelling was the store of memory they call ‘home’ (King, 2004a), but which was not yet fully theirs to use and pass on, to complete those memories as they would wish. The RTB allowed them to ‘absorb’ the dwelling fully, to bring together the existential and the material, the human and the economic, the private and public.

As should now be clear, this book is also different from much of the existing literature in that it can be said to offer a rather more positive approach towards the RTB than is generally the case. This is not an uncritical discussion of the policy, but rather an attempt to be more rounded and to understand the RTB in a way that has been lacking in the housing literature. There are many who contest the legitimacy of the RTB and I wish to respond to this challenge and show the positives (as well as the negatives) and to explain just what appeal the RTB had, and continues to have. The RTB cannot simply be wished away or delegitimised through contempt. It has transformed housing policy in the UK and this, as I stated earlier, cannot be undone.

What I wish to do is to reach an understanding of just why the RTB was so successful in achieving its aims of widening owner occupation and reducing the scale and impact of social housing. One does not have to agree with a policy to seek to appreciate its effects. But this cannot be done by an overly critical and closed approach to the policy. We have to be open to what the RTB was for and what it achieved. So this book is an attempt to describe and assess the anatomy of the RTB as a piece of ideologically inspired and populist policy making. This means addressing the ideological underpinning in some detail to appreciate the ideas from which the policy derives and how it connects with a particular understanding of the human condition and our place in the world.

The second part of the subtitle of this book is therefore very important: we cannot appreciate the RTB without coming to terms with the desire to own that (p.12) many of us have. This may be cultural rather than anything intrinsic, and it may be reinforced by policy and rhetoric, but the RTB did not come from nowhere. The RTB was not just the idle whim of some policy geek seeking to tinker with the fabric of public policy. Rather the policy was intended to connect with the desires of millions of households, who wanted to own, but felt they could not, and who felt they were being prevented from doing so. We can say that the RTB succeeded in this attempt. This book, therefore, is not a straightforward descriptive account of the policy, but rather an in-depth analysis of why the policy worked, and in presenting this analysis the book seeks to redress the balance of coverage on the policy.

I have no doubt that the approach taken in this book will be seen as controversial and many will find its arguments difficult to accept. This, I would suggest, is because it does not accept the consensus of housing studies, but rather adopts the ‘consensus’ – the normal, non-contingent, accepted view – that exists outside in the world beyond housing research and comment. I take the policy seriously rather than adopting the standard position of denigrating the RTB because of its purported impact on social housing. The book takes the RTB on its own terms, looking seriously at what the policy was intended to achieve and why it worked as it did. Instead of concentrating on what effects the policy had on other areas of housing, I want to look at the RTB for itself, with a sympathetic attitude that appreciates the RTB's cultural and political significance. This will be controversial, but I believe it is necessary to redress the balance and to show what the RTB really was about. Once we have done this we can then attempt to draw out the more general lessons of the RTB to inform public policy in the future.

The book is structured so that it begins with a narrow focus and slowly broadens out to consider the impact of the RTB and what we can learn from it. Chapter 2 provides the conceptual underpinning for the RTB, and considers the nature of conservatism and how this links to property ownership. This shall show how the RTB fits into an established set of ideas about the role of property ownership and how this links to personal responsibility and self-reliance, but within an ordered social whole. This discussion on responsibility is extended into a discussion of the concept of really private finance. This concept is used to capture the manner in which we seek to control and use our own resources to meet our own needs, aspirations and expectations. This capability is facilitated and enhanced by property ownership.

Chapter 3 looks at what actually happened with the RTB. It does this by assuming that the Conservatives were sincere in their intentions. It then discusses the specific ideas used by the Conservatives to justify the RTB. Finally, the chapter considers what the policy actually consisted of. So this chapter deals not just with what the Conservatives did, but what they actually meant by it. Chapter 4 then looks at the impact of the policy in terms of the numbers and types of properties sold. It goes on to consider whether the RTB caused the residualisation of social housing or whether a more complex situation existed where several policies came (p.13) together to affect social housing. The chapter also looks at who the RTB was for and why it has declined in recent years.

Chapter 5 deals with the range of criticisms of the RTB and seeks to answer them. It considers what might be called the old criticisms of the RTB, those dating back to the 1980s, before moving on to look at perhaps the oldest of all, the notions of property ownership as false consciousness. However, we shall see how, in this post-Marxist age, this position has been modernised into a critique of ideology as hegemonic discourse. We will then move to consider some of the financial issues surrounding the RTB, although this will only be brief and there is no attempt to undertake a full financial analysis. The chapter then considers what might be termed ‘friendly fire’, those criticisms from the right that see the RTB as social engineering or that see any form of subsidy to owner occupation as a skewing of market mechanisms. Finally, the chapter looks at what might be seen as the new criticisms of the RTB brought on by the collapse of the housing market in 2008.

Chapter 6 considers what lessons we can learn from the RTB. In particular, was the RTB just a matter of lucky circumstance, or can we see it as an example of forward planning and clear thinking? Having done this I make some brief comments on what the history of the RTB tells us about social housing. Next the chapter considers why the policy worked and what we can learn from it in terms of general policy making and issues specific to housing. This leads to a consideration of what is the essence of the RTB: its direct link to the manner in which we use our housing. The chapter ends with a statement of some core principles fundamental to the RTB. The book ends with a brief conclusion that summarises some of the main points and tries to suggest what was so special about the RTB.

It might be said, therefore, that my aim is not to be balanced but to redress the balance. What I offer here is a full, considered and critical position, but one that does not start with the same preconceptions as the consensus view of the RTB. It assumes that the RTB is the most successful of housing policies, and thus provides a framework by which we can seek to understand the policy-making process and how it connects with the aspirations and desires of individuals. It is a study of how policy can seek to go with the grain of these desires rather than seeking to deny them. It is a study of what a former prime minister termed ‘what worked’.

Note