40th anniversary of landmark council house sales in Fife

October 1979 - the first ever council house in Kirkcaldyt was bought by Mrs Ann Smith. The presentation was made by Malcom Rifkind, Under-Secretary of State at the Scottish Office, anbd Councillor Douglas Mason, chairman of the council's housing committee
October 1979 - the first ever council house in Kirkcaldyt was bought by Mrs Ann Smith. The presentation was made by Malcom Rifkind, Under-Secretary of State at the Scottish Office, anbd Councillor Douglas Mason, chairman of the council's housing committee

A significant landmark slipped past almost unnoticed this month.

October marked the 40th anniversary of the first ever sale of a council house in Kirkcaldy.

Pic: Fife Free Press

Pic: Fife Free Press

The ground-breaking policy launched by Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, turned us into a nation of home owners rather than tenants.

In Kirkcaldy the debate was often fierce.

The notion of selling off council houses was unthinkable to many Labour politicians when there were waiting lists of folk waiting to move into one – but to ordinary folk, it was a chance to get on the property ladder, and they responded in big numbers.

By the time the first keys were handed over, more than 700 applications to buy had been lodged with Kirkcaldy District Council, and a further 300 inquiries were sitting in the pending tray.

Pic:  Fife Free Press

Pic: Fife Free Press

The historic moment was marked with the traditional arrival of the great and the good to the home of the very first buyer, Mrs Ann Smith.

She found herself at the centre of attention as Malcolm Rifkind, Under-Secretary of State at the Scottish Office turned up with an inscribed scroll, and Councillor Douglas Mason, chairman of the council’s housing committee, brought flowers with him.

They also brought with them a one-man demonstration in the shape of Councillor George Carlin from Buckhaven who had placards which stated “Stop! Assets Stripping in progress.”

His Labour colleagues simply boycotted the event, sparking another row in the corridors of power.

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Little wonder Mrs Smith, a teaching auxiliary at Balwearie High School, admitted she felt embarrassed by all the fuss.

After living in the flat for 20 years, she qualified for the maximum 50 per cent discount under the Government’s new scheme.

The Fife Free Press reported she applied immediately, and looked on it as an investment for her daughter studying at drama college.

That sentiment was shared by many who quickly moved on to the property ladder regardless of the political debate.

It’s remarkable to note that, back then, Scotland had one of the lowest levels of home ownership in Europe, and that took in eastern European countries such as Yugoslavia, Poland and Czechoslovakia, as they then were.

It was also behind Wales and England, and, for Mr Rifkind, launching the scheme was simply the right thing to do.

“ I understand Kirkcaldy District Council has already received over 700 firm applications from tenants wishing to become home owners, and over 300 further inquiries have come in.

“This indicates a magnificent level of interest, and a further continuation interest. People are not making an initial inquiry and then backing away.”

For Labour, it was a red line.

The issue had been debated across many meetings, and opposition was strong. Just getting to the stage of agreeing council houses could be sold had been a tough road.

In June, a bid to thrash out the terms ended in disarray with accusations that deliberate attempts were being made to delay the scheme as long as possible.

The council also tried to launch its own plan which would have capped the discount at 33 per cent –well below the 50 per cent the Government planned – with a further one per cent for every additional year.

It also wanted house sales to be based on the District Valuer’s assessment – the Government wanted market value to prevail.

Labour councillors wanted the sale scrapped, pointing to a waiting list of 461 people, and the potential loss of a significant number of popular homes.

They also wrestled with what to do with disabled housing. And flats in multi-storey blocks.

While the politicians argued, tenants, many of whom had been in their homes long enough to qualify for the maximum discounts, simply registered their intent to buy – and waited.

That summer, the council agreed to the Government plan, and the wheels were set in motion.

The day many councillors thought they’d never see – a council house being bought and removed from their stock – came on October 5, 1979 , as Mr Rifkind arrived in King Street.

The houses in that street were built in 1937 at a cost of £3500 each, and Mrs Smith had earned the maximum discount of £10,000.

She was the first of many to buy their homes as one piece of legislation from the Thatcher era changed people’s lives forever.