Main content

Lynsey Hanley tells the story of social housing in Britain. Lynsey explores how the right to buy changed council housing forever.

Lynsey Hanley explores how the right to buy changed council housing forever.

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became the Prime Minister defeating Labour in a resounding victory. Her early years were tough but she did enact one policy that helped transform how the state provided housing to the British people - the right to buy. Implemented by her young Minister for the Environment, Michael Heseltine, the policy gave council tenants the right to buy their own homes at prices that were much lower than the market rate.

In this episode, Lynsey investigates the history behind the policy. According to the writer and journalist Andy Beckett, the idea that tenants could buy their own council homes goes right back to the very earliest days of social housing. The Labour Party had been arguing among themselves for years about whether to implement some form of right to buy, but it was natural territory for the Tories and Mrs Thatcher with ideas about individualism at the forefront of their thinking. Just like the Victorian ideologues of old, Margaret Thatcher thought empowering a "respectable working class" would help end poor Britons' dependency on the state.

Lynsey also examines the effect of right to buy. Because the Conservative Party was so keen on this idea of the "property owning democracy", they prevented councils from building to replace the houses bought through the scheme. The ideal was that everyone would, eventually, own their own home. But this had unintended consequences and led to a massive reduction in social housing stock. Did that lay the foundations for the crisis in housing we see today?

Presenter: Lynsey Hanley
Producer: Sara Parker and Joe Sykes
Executive Producer: Samir Shah

A Juniper production for BBC Radio 4.

Available now

15 minutes