As the dust settles on the death and legacy of Mrs Thatcher the polarisation of opinion left me questioning whether attitudes towards her should be so binary – good or evil? I was a teenager at the time she came to power and like many have slightly changed my mind over the years.
During her first term of office when I was at university I spent perhaps too much time shaking Help the Miners buckets and pinning Coal Not Dole stickers on people. I was in a crowd that landed eggs on Heseltine’s blond locks and got up at 4am to get the bus to picket lines in darkest Lancashire. As a proud North Easterner I felt it was my duty.
But watching The Likely Lads on BBC4 last week reminded me what a miserable place UK was in the mid-70s. Our paltry tally of 3 gold medals at the 76 Olympics was a cause of embarrassment rather than pride. Somewhat different to London 2012, and economically we really were the sick man of Europe.
So with the benefit of middle-aged hindsight I think I can now accept that something significant had to change. As far as the North East is concerned the debate rages as to the pace and effect of that change. Despite the justified anger about pit and shipyard closures the wholesale give away of council housing remains, in my view, one of the most unattractive of Thatcherite policies.
At the time the policy seemed completely victim free. The government would actually sell you your council house at massive market subsidy. It helped address the aspiration for home ownership, it allowed lower income families to get a rung on the housing ladder and it helped create a house price boost which made everyone feel good and made more people want to buy. Everyone was a winner it seemed.
How wrong we were. No one seemed to make the connection between the sell offs and the cutbacks in Government spending which meant no more council houses would be built again. A source of new housing supply which had yielded around 4 million family houses between 1946 and 1978. So with new social housing supply being cut and the existing stock haemorrhaging into the owner occupied sector there was little left to satiate the demand for social housing from lower income households.
Add in population growth and the growth of nimbyism (making it far more difficult to build private homes) the effect was obvious – huge increases in prices and a crisis for those in social housing need. For those currently in nice homes who don’t believe there is a housing crisis it’s worth remembering that in the North East alone we now have 2,000 homeless people, 90,000 on a waiting list and the population is growing by 5,500 people per year.
The newly formed housing associations have done their best since the 70s to increase supply but what right-to-buy did was help to create a structural shift in the housing market which directly contributed the current housing crisis. Many did well out of it at the time but the younger households of today struggling to get a home of any sort have clearly not been so lucky.
So what needs to be done? Firstly we could think about a new wave of Council housebuilding to replace the losses. Such investment would create jobs, lift confidence and address the housing crisis. Importantly it would generate rents which would soon pay back the costs of construction.
From a North East perspective policy makers need to give a far higher priority to accelerating the amount of private housebuilding, exactly as the national Government wants.
Lord Adonis’ Economic Review of the North East was published last month. It is a hugely positive start. It makes clear the need to address years of housing under provision and sends a clear message to both local authorities and to the forthcoming Combined Authority which will become operational in 2014.
In Newcastle where housing output last year was minus 100 compared to a target of plus 800 the need for change is particularly acute. The new chief executive Pat Ritchie and changes in senior officers offer real hope in this regard, and there’s certainly no time to lose.