Does right to buy have a future?

Margaret Thatcher and council house buying family
Image caption The King family in Milton Keynes were among the first to receive the deeds to their council house

Margaret Thatcher's right to buy for council tenants is being scrapped in Scotland, but that has now prompted a debate about the differing approaches to housing policy around the UK.

The right-to-buy scheme, introduced UK-wide in 1980, was one which helped to define an era.

In Scotland alone, it has been embraced by more than 450,000 families.

Its aim, to create a property-owning democracy, was largely successful but there was at least one painful side effect - a shortage of affordable homes to rent.

The Scottish government insists it is for that practical reason, rather than any ideological purpose, that this totemic Thatcherite policy is being scrapped in Scotland.

Elsewhere in the UK, it's a different story.

The right-to-buy still exists in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, albeit with considerable variations.

In Wales the maximum discount available for potential buyers is £16,000. Tenants can apply to buy their own home after five years occupancy.

In 2010, amid concerns about the availability of housing, the Welsh Assembly secured powers to suspend the right-to-buy in areas of chronic housing shortages.

But Welsh political commentators say that that power has not been exercised and the number of council houses being sold in Wales is extremely low.

In Northern Ireland the maximum discount available for buyers is £24,000 and tenants must also wait five years before they can apply.

In England, however, the scheme is being extended by an enthusiastic Conservative chancellor, George Osborne.

Housing crisis

Substantial discounts, of up to £75,000, are now available for council housing sales in England, rising to a whopping £100,000 in London.

Mr Osborne has also cut the length of time before tenants can apply to make their purchase from five years to three years, arguing that extending the right-to-buy, rather than scrapping it, is a better way to tackle a housing crisis.

Which approach, if any, will bear fruit? We shall have to wait and see.

In housing, as in health and education, a gigantic policy experiment is now under way across the UK with its citizens as guinea pigs - the latest example of differences driven by devolution.

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