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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 April 2007, 22:56 GMT 23:56 UK
The right-to-buy house revolution
By John Moylan
Business reporter, BBC News

Council houses in 1990
Millions of people now live in former council properties

The right to buy your council house was a huge upheaval, boosting the British obsession with buying and owning your own property.

It all started back in 1980 when the Housing Act was passed.

The new Conservative Government fulfilled its pledge to give council house tenants the right to buy their homes.

In practice local authorities could always sell council houses. But few did.

The issue was politically explosive.


Many Labour councils opposed the idea altogether, as it reduced the available housing stock for those that needed it.

The act gave five million council house tenants in England and Wales the right to buy their house from their local authority.

Those who had lived in their homes for three years received a 33% discount on the market price.

If you had lived there for over 20 years the discount was 50%.

Those who took up the right, back in 1980, were taking their first step on the housing ladder.

Some would stay in their homes for decades.

Others would try to judge the ebb and flow of the market, allowing them to move to larger homes further up the housing ladder.

Soaring prices

Almost three decades later, the value of most of those properties has soared.

Back in 1980 the average UK house cost 23,000 according to the Nationwide building society.

By the start of this year it had reached 176,000 - a near-eightfold increase.

Many former council houses have now been bought and sold several times.

But how far have they risen in price? And are yesterday's council properties now beyond the reach of first-time buyers?

I decided to track the history of one of the first council houses to be sold.

It may look like an ordinary three-bedroom terraced house in the Essex town of Romford, but it has an extraordinary history.

Mrs Thatcher

On 11 August 1980, Margaret Thatcher - who had been prime minister for little more than a year - paid a visit to the Pattersons.

Margaret Thatcher speaking into a microphone at the  Conservative Party conference in Blackpool, 1980
Margaret Thatcher's policies changed council housing for ever

They lived on an estate called Harold Hill in Romford.

She came to celebrate the passing of the Housing Bill and handed the couple the deeds of their house.

For in 1980 the Pattersons had grabbed the right to buy their home.

In fact, they were the 12,000th household to do so.

Thanks to the discounts given to existing tenants, they paid just 8,315.

But the subsequent years proved to be turbulent times in the property market.


Interest rates soared in the late 1980s.

The economy plunged into recession and house prices plummeted.

Many people, who had bought at the wrong time, found their dream had turned into a nightmare, as their home's value dropped to below what they had paid for it.

But by the mid-1990s the market had stabilised, and in some parts of the UK prices began to edge upwards again.

It is thought that by 1995, 2.1 million council houses had been sold.

Sold again

Perhaps that is why, in 1996, the Pattersons' house was put on the market.

Land Registry figures reveal it was sold for 55,995 - almost seven times the sum initially paid for it.

Since then, much of the UK has seen steadily rising house prices.

There have been property hot-spots in areas as diverse as London, Edinburgh and Northern Ireland.

Elsewhere prices have been more restrained, but few areas have missed altogether.

Large cities, suburbs and rural areas experienced a ripple effect.

As prices peaked in sought-after locations, buyers looked further afield.


In London, where large bonuses for financial workers in the City tend to distort the market, it is some of the more outlying suburbs that have enjoyed the biggest rises.

So when our Romford house returned to the market in 2001, its value had shot up.

It sold for 101,500. In just five years it had almost doubled in value.

Despite the stock market declines at the time, the housing market kept its nerve.

When our house came up for sale once more, just three years later, its value had again increased by almost 50%.

Our 8,000 council house last sold for 145,000 in 2004, compared to the Romford average house price that year of 204,000.

Decline of social housing

Almost three decades on, the Right to Buy scheme has also changed.

The steep discounts to encourage buyers have gone.

To qualify, tenants need to have lived in their property for 5 years.

Once bought, the house cannot be immediately placed on the market.

And the political row over the rights and wrongs of the scheme continue.

Some claim it meant the stock of social housing declined faster than it could be replaced.

Others, that it created wealth, and gave many parents the chance to pass on something of real value to their children.

One man on the downside of the right-to-buy scheme

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