How did the council house sell-off change crime risks?

Stephen Farrall
Friday, 25 September 2015

One of the most well-known policies that the newly elected Conservative Government of 1979 embarked upon was the selling of the council homes to their tenants.

The ‘right to buy’, as it became known, was introduced by the Housing Act 1980. At the time the act was heralded as giving many aspiring council tenants the right to own their own homes – something which they might never otherwise have  been able to do – and, by its critics, for increasing homelessness and making affordable homes harder to achieve for many.

Certainly housing prices and homelessness have been policy concerns ever since.

One of the things that the right to buy was also associated with was a shift in the distribution of domestic property crimes from wealthier sections of society to poorer sections. This process took several years to unfold and represents a case study of how changes in the law and wider social changes interact with one another to create changes in who is at risk of victimisation.

The story starts not just with the Housing Act 1980, but the Homeless Persons Act 1977, which extended the definition of homelessness and mandated local authorities to home such people. This innovation made perfect sense in the context of a welfare state in which housing, income, schooling, health and so on were ensured by the state. Following the 1977 Act, far more people came forward to be housed.

What homes did people want to buy?

With the introduction of the right to buy in 1980, we saw the first signs of how the nascent housing market would operate.

What people wanted to buy was a house (rather than a flat), ideally a detached house, failing that a semi- and after that a terraced house. People wanted gardens, and did not want shared amenities (like roofs).

Accordingly, the ‘nicer’ properties were snapped up speedily, with some estates seeing most of their stock sold off. What did not get sold off, however, were the least desirable houses and flats. This left councils with an increasing proportion of their stock in high-rise, inner city developments and houses on estates with a ‘poor’ reputation. Coupled with the requirement to home homeless people, this left councils with little choice but to corral the poorest and least advantaged sections of society together into certain estates.

People, of course, are not randomly homeless; they are homeless because of other social and economic problems (such as unemployment, family dissolution or abuse). And so, over time, council estates became increasingly dominated by people living in real hardship – anyone who could get out generally chose to do so.

The redistribution of crime

Our research suggests that, over time, as local authority tenants became poorer (measured by the percentage unemployed, claiming benefits, and living near rundown houses), they were increasingly likely to be the victims of repeated domestic property crimes, such as theft from their home, break-ins and thefts from sheds, garages and the like. During the period we have examined – from 1972 until 2000 – we have found that the risks of people living in the socially rented sector (when compared to those buying or who had bought their own homes) increased dramatically.

For example, the General Household Survey asked respondents in 1972, 1973 and 1980 how many times someone had experienced theft from their home. The average number of victimisations for owners and those buying with mortgages was .02, whilst for those who rented it was .04 (so double). This picture was consistent for all three of those years.

When we turn to the British Crime Survey, which started in 1982, a different picture emerges. In 1982, the average number of household victimisations for owners/the mortgaged was .13; for social renters it was .22. These averages rose for both, but by 1996 the figure for the owners/mortgaged was .15, whilst for social renters it was .34. From there until 2000 the rates declined for both. By 2000 the owners/mortgaged were in a slightly better position than they had been in 1982 – their average was .12. However for the social renters the fall was less dramatic and fell back to .29, still considerably higher than it had been in 1982.

So, over time, as the above data suggests, domestic property crimes went from being consistently unevenly spread (so that wealthier households avoided the worst excesses of such victimisation) to a situation in which the risks of such victimisation were hugely increased at a rapid pace towards poorer household being more victimised. Even when the crime drop came, it appears to have dropped faster for wealthier households than for those relying on the socially rented sector.

Our thinking on the impact of the right to buy is supported by the evidence we have to hand, which in sum suggests that the Housing Act 1980 dramatically altered the social bases of owners compared with those living in the social rented sector.

The attendant widespread loss of jobs, the hope and social relationships that these had once provided and which helped to sustain many working class communities, and the clear political message that ‘there is no alternative’ all played their part in helping to turn once self-policing communities with little crime into extremely difficult places in which to live.

Stephen Farrall has published a more detailed version of this comment piece in a jointly-authored article (with Colin Hay, Will Jennings and Emily Gray) in the British Journal of Criminology (PDF, free to download).

An analysis by Will Jennings of the correlations between economic shocks and the crime rate is also available to download from this site.