Bernard Thompson with a salutary tale about one under-reported impact of Thatcher’s right-to-buy and its impact on all of us
Allow me to tell you two true stories, one a short anecdote.
My grandfather was a baker who brought up three children in Glasgow during the 1930s. In the days before zero-hours contracts, he would rise every morning and take the tram to the bakery where the foreman would decide who would work that day.
The rest would walk home, rather than waste a tram fare when they had no work.
My grandfather often had to rely on dole money but with my grandmother’s occasional work as a seamstress, they somehow managed to provide for their children.
In their old age they had a pleasant publicly-provided flat in Wedderlea Drive, where they lived a modest but comfortable life. After my grandmother’s death, his children offered to buy the flat for my grandfather, meaning he could live rent-free for the rest of his life. But my grandfather demurred.
His life experience and socialist principles wouldn’t allow him to deny someone else the opportunity of a decent place to stay, when he no longer needed the flat.
And now, the true story of Colin, Angela and Kyle.
Kyle is the only son of Angela and Colin and currently ambling somewhere in Central Europe, living a Bohemian lifestyle. Having scraped a lower-second honours degree in philosophy he took himself off to experience some adventure.
For a while Kyle ran a not-for-profit cafe where like-minded new age travellers could kip down in exchange for washing some dishes and people could sip tea and puff on shishas.
Now 33, he occasionally does some “socially-driven” work, which involves sleeping approximately five nights per month in a drug rehabilitation centre, in case one of the residents requires some assistance or access to the building.
The rest of the time, he travels around Europe with his band, though he is not a particularly talented musician, much like most of the other members.
However, he and his girlfriend, from an affluent background, have enough to live on, with a little assistance from the state that Kyle has chosen to call home.
It’s an idyllic existence that would appeal to many, though some would have expected Kyle to have started focussing on the future by now.
But Kyle doesn’t need to – and here’s why. He knows that he will one day inherit some rather attractive properties in one of Glasgow’s most desirable areas. This will allow him to live mortgage-free in one flat, with similar properties in the same street currently on the market at offers-over £245,000.
He will also be able to enjoy a rental income from the other, in the same building – a larger, two-level flat. Another slightly smaller flat in the street is attracting a rental figure of £1,500 per calendar month.
Kyle is pretty lucky in that regard and you may well think, “good luck to him”. But you may find the source of this good fortune to be somewhat questionable.
The two properties in question belong to Kyle’s parents, whose relationship has now ended. They chose not to marry, meaning that Angela could claim benefits as a single mother, which was stretching the term as her partner for the first 18 years of Kyle’s life lived upstairs.
Colin was a reasonably-talented, but largely unsuccessful artist, barring a few commissions for public arts projects – painting pictures on the walls of schools and suchlike.
But being true to his art, Colin eschewed traditional norms such as working for a living and spent almost his entire “active” career, collecting benefits. Effectively, the state funded Colin’s lifestyle.
A local activist, Colin was also a member of his local housing association, one which, coincidentally, provided highly-desirable homes to himself and Angela. (He was once heard to describe Angela’s home as “the house I gave you”.)
As Angela was officially bringing up a child “single-handedly”, she was similarly able to claim benefits in order to meet her rent and living costs.
She did eventually choose to go to work at the age of around 40, based on a teaching certificate she had acquired after her own art school diploma before Kyle was born.
For around 20 years, Angela and Colin ambled around the fringes of the arts scene, with Colin using his flat as a studio producing works that were rarely sold, while he was able to pop down to Angela’s which had enough rooms to have one free as a developing studio, one to house his 12ft-snooker table and both still had rooms free to rent out, unofficially, to supplement their meagre incomes.
Not the sort of existence that you might expect to provide a fat inheritance for young Kyle.
But that would be to have reckoned without Right-to-Buy. After a few years of teaching, Angela was able to secure a mortgage in order to buy the flat for a paltry amount, with all those years of rental payments, provided for her by the state, taken into account as what she had already contributed.
Colin, finding himself in a financial bind, was able to persuade his elderly mother to advance him whatever he might have stood to gain as an inheritance so that he could do the same thing. She was not a wealthy lady but she had just enough.
After around ten years, Angela’s very low mortgage was paid off and she was able to spend the rest of her time saving money. In total, between them, Angela and Colin’s active careers amounted to less than 20 years.
Yet they now sit on properties with a combined worth of somewhere north of £750,000.
It is impossible to calculate the number of lies, deceptions and actual frauds that took place over the years in order to facilitate this transfer of social housing to private hands, with the beneficiaries having contributed a small fraction of the value of the assets they acquired.
You are unlikely to hear them described as “benefits cheats” – they are too well-spoken for that. They are the kind of people who can tell you where to source ethically-produced bulgur wheat.
Their tastes and values are middle-class and esoteric and they seem never to have questioned the ethics of any of their actions.
If they ever considered that, by cashing in on the social housing that had allowed them a life of dignity and comfort on low incomes, they had robbed other families of the same opportunity, they have never expressed it.
And, though fashionably anti-Thatcher, the irony that they should owe their current existence to the exploitation of one of Thatcher’s most destructive policies is apparently untroubling to them.
Angela and Colin’s is an extreme case and this article is neither intended as a criticism of those who genuinely need unemployment, child or housing benefits, nor, far less, to take a pop at single parents.
Just the opposite – their calculated abuse of the system is entirely different to those whose circumstances have left them genuinely in need of state support, but nevertheless face the ire of being labelled as “scroungers” while the Angelas and Colins of the world are afforded outward respectability.
But their story illustrates one part of the ugliness inherent in right-to-buy. For every Angela and Colin there is a family forced into the private rental sector in a way that limits their ability to build their own future, at best.
At its worst, it leads to homelessness, which is why Shelter have been one of the first organisations to welcome the SNP government’s ending of Right-to-Buy in Scotland.
Thatcher introduced Right-to-Buy to buy votes and to weaken the power of regional government. It has had a devastating effect on people on low incomes, taking homes of reasonable quality beyond their reach and leaving them at the mercy of largely-unregulated landlords who squeeze them for every penny available.
Yet few of even my most left-wing friends have mirrored my grandfather’s principled stand, preferring like Angela and Colin to accord a veil of respectability to what could justly be described as legalised property theft.
With the final end of Right-to-Buy, there can be a new incentive to provide social housing so that people can house their families without working themselves to death or accumulating debts in the process.
That’s bad news for the thousands of other would-be Angelas, Colins and Kyles but a lifeline to those who truly need it.