It wasn’t until I was 10 that I understood what a “bought” house was. I’d been away on a school trip and had made a new friend from a neighbouring town. On our return, I was invited over for my tea. Not only was this house big and old, it was detached. But the thing that really got me was the fact that there were two living rooms. Two! One for everyday, and one for “good”. The latter had high ceilings and French windows leading out to extensive gardens. To me the size and scale of this house was mind-boggling.

All the friends I’d had up until then lived in identical houses to mine, in streets comprised of brutalist new town terraces. There was concrete, flat roofs and right angles everywhere. Underpasses and swing parks that big boys hung about in. I liked the big house my pal lived in but instinctively knew it was different to ours, and “posh”. I wasn't posh, I was normal. I lived in a normal house. A council house.

It turns out I wasn’t too far off the mark. In 1980 more than 60% of Scots lived in local authority housing, twice the proportion of England, the highest outside the eastern bloc. There was no stigma to living in a council house then.

In the post-war period Scotland fell in love with what we now call social housing as a means to offer warm, secure, reasonably priced accommodation to all. It marked a rejection of private-sector slums, an investment in equality. At the time both Labour and the Tories agreed on this, and built, built, built.

The people in the Glenrothes street we moved to in 1979 were a mixed bunch: joiners and engineers, a few teachers, dinner ladies and shop assistants, nurses and factory workers such as my mother and father. Like us, many had moved from overcrowded city tenements in search of better jobs and houses. Both were in abundance; everybody worked. Looking back it represented traditional working class values lived out in the modern setting of the day. It was, in its own way, aspirational. This new town we’d all moved to signified a brighter future.

I don’t remember ever being told that living in a council house was a bad thing, or would hold me back in life. It didn’t. And clearly it didn’t affect the life chances of the likes of Nicola Sturgeon, Ian Rankin, Liz Lochhead, Alex Salmond or Alasdair Gray, all of whom grew up in housing schemes.

Over the last 35 years, however, this has changed. The dominance and reputation of social housing has collapsed. In barely more than a generation we have transformed into a nation of homeowners, more akin to our English neighbours, with 62% of us owning property. Only 23% of Scots live in social housing, with the remaining 15% living in privately rented accommodation. 

These days it is housing associations rather than councils that build social houses and those who live in them tend to have the highest rates of unemployment and the lowest incomes. Already society's most challenging and vulnerable citizens, they often find themselves stigmatised in the media - and by those with higher incomes - as scroungers and ne’er do wells in TV shows such as the Scheme and Benefits Street. In many people's eyes they are failures; lacking your own bricks and mortar somehow equates with a lack of aspiration. 

Such radical change has altered the fabric of our towns and cities, and us as a nation. For many this change has provided equity, a better lifestyle, a good retirement, something to pass on to the children and grandchildren. For some communities, however, the Conservative housing policy of the 1980s, which saw the introduction of Right to Buy legislation and the deregulation of the mortgage market, has been less positive. And for many young people, especially young working class people, it has been socially and financially disastrous. 

To examine some of these issues, I’ve come back to Glenrothes, which is now, like me, all grown up. Sadly, the town is no longer brimming with the hope and egalitarianism it seemed to represent in the 1960s and 70s. 

“I would love a council house but I have to be realistic. I’ve got no chance,” mum-of-one Ainslie Thomson tells me. Thomson is the most stoic 22-year-old I’ve met in a long time. We’re sitting in her rented three-bedroom house in the Rimbleton area, a mile or so away from where I grew up. It was always one of the nicer schemes, and the majority of the houses are now privately owned. 

For young people like Thomson and her partner Daniel that is a major issue. Like the vast majority of councils, Fife has few houses to offer young families. People don’t move on quickly from tenancies and government rules around homelessness mean local authorities must prioritise those in most need. Thomson and her family are not seen as vulnerable, which means she’s been languishing on the housing list for years. 

“I felt I had no choice but to get a private let,” she explains. “It’s more expensive than a council house, and now I’m viewed as ‘adequately housed’ so I’ve gone to the bottom of the housing list. It doesn’t seem fair, but that’s the way it is.
“You might not see many people living on the streets, but there is plenty of homelessness around here,” adds Thomson, a clerical assistant. “Lots of people live with their parents in overcrowded conditions or sofa surf for months. There just aren’t any council houses left.”

After two “unlivable” private lets, the couple and their six-year-old daughter, Jannessa, are settled in the ex-council house she rents from a private landlord who bought at a discount under Right To Buy legislation, and rents it to her at a rate more than a third higher than the local authority would charge for a similar property. Thomason smiles sardonically: “That’s the market for you, eh?” 

The house could be sold under the family’s feet at any time, and the rent can be put up whenever the landlord wishes. She doesn’t feel secure in the tenancy, but the prospect of owning a house is as remote as getting a council house. Thomson and her partner both work, but not in permanent or well-paid jobs. Saving up the sort of deposit needed these days would be impossible, she says. Regardless, she’d rather have a council property - a secure tenancy without the expensive responsibility of maintaining a house. 

Thomson’s monthly £530 rent payment takes up a considerable proportion of their income, but the couple think it’s worth sacrificing luxuries because they like the area and the schools. Like most parents, Thomson wants to give her daughter stability. And like many young people, she feels caught up in a housing crisis of the previous generation’s making. 

“It’s so annoying when I hear about how easy it used to be to get a council house,” she says. “It’s really frustrating when people living on their own hang on to tenancies on three-bedroom houses. I know all about how Margaret Thatcher sold off the council houses in the 80s. What a mistake. It’s created a nightmare situation for people like me.”

The nightmare Thomson refers to is backed by the figures. According to evidence recently submitted to MPs by the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, there are more than 170,000 active applications for local authority housing. Homelessness is on the rise; in 1995 around 4,000 households in Scotland were living in temporary accommodation, last year it was 10,500.

The problem for councils is that they no longer have houses to give to people. Since 1979 half a million council and housing association properties have been sold under Right To Buy legislation. Between 1980 and 2015, only 163,000 of these homes were replaced, with authorities legally prevented from reinvesting the profits back into council housing. 

The private sector grew exponentially and built many houses, of course, but these homes were always going to be out of reach of many, particularly since the booming market of the early 2000s sent prices rocketing.

Meanwhile, almost 40% of the council houses sold under Right To Buy are now in the private rented sector, with the number of people renting privately almost trebling from 120,000 to 330,000 between 1999 and 2014, resulting in a lack of properties and a hike in rents. The average monthly rent for a two-bedroom property in Scotland is £595 a month – in the social sector it is £300.

As the number of available council houses fell and private rentals rose, so did the housing benefit bill. It now stands at £1.8bn a year, almost double what it was in 2000.

The Conservative government that introduced Right To Buy believed the need for social housing would diminish as people bought their own homes and moved up the ladder. Workers would be more eager to take responsibility for themselves, the economy would become more buoyant. To some extent, this happened, of course. Many thousands of people did move up the ladder. But many others weren’t and aren’t able to get on it in the first place. Following the sell-off, the perception of council housing changed too. But the situation is coming full circle.

“If we go back to the Thatcher era we can see disinvestment in council housing made it less attractive and harder to access, whilst at the same time the introduction of the Right to Buy policy made it more affordable for people to buy their homes,” explains Dr Kim McKee, a senior lecturer in housing policy at St Andrews University and director of the institution’s Centre for Housing research. 

“Thatcher’s dream of creating a ‘home owning democracy’ was further supported by the deregulation of the banking sector in the 1980s, which made obtaining a mortgage easier for ordinary working people. We also see a shift in consumer preferences over time with research highlighting that in cultural terms home ownership has become the dominant ‘norm’. 

"Unlike in the 1970s/80s when living in social housing was a much more common experience for Scottish households, the sector now tends to house lower-income and more vulnerable groups. This has resulted in it becoming more stigmatized and less attractive to working households who have the ability to buy their own home.

“This is, however, beginning to change for younger households for whom renting is the new normal, due to a number of barriers that undermines their ability to access home ownership.”

According to Dr McKee, who authored a report on housing aspiration for the Scottish Government, Right To Buy has had complex, often stark consequences. Crucially, she says, the Tory prediction that social housing would no longer be required has not come to pass. In fact, she says, the need is greater than ever.

“Home ownership remains out of reach for many households who, at the same time, find it difficult to access social housing,” she says. “Unlike the UK Government, the Scottish Government has shown a positive commitment to social housing, and has made resources available to support new supply, which is to be welcomed. 

“But I would like to see them go further. Research last year highlighted that Scotland needs a minimum of 12,000 new affordable homes per year for the next five years. Current targets fall short of this, so there is more to be done, and a need for the importance of housing to be recognised. Housing impacts on so many other areas of people’s lives that it’s important to get it right.”

Right To Buy was ditched by the Scottish Government in 2014, and will formally end in August this year. But its impact will last for generations.

Successive governments have struggled to keep up with demand for affordable housing, though there has been some progress recently. The Scottish Government’s target of building 30,000 affordable homes over this parliament – including 20,000 homes for social rent and 5,000 council homes – was exceeded in October 2015.

And with Scottish elections coming up, housing is a talking point once again. The SNP is pledging 50,000 affordable homes in the next parliament, Scottish Labour 60,000 with at least 45,000 for social rent.

Housing associations are hoping to build many of these homes. Mary Taylor, chief executive of the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, is optimistic that the politicians will deliver, but wants to see wider discussion of the role housing plays in society.

Taylor points out that housing associations have been building warm, secure, affordable homes and creating sustainable communities in Scotland for more than 40 years, and build more new social housing than councils.

“We’re just about to host a reception in the Scottish Parliament that will hear directly from people who have benefited from the housing association movement,” she adds. “They’ve had access to a warm, dry, affordable home with space that allows their children to thrive at school, or stopped them having to pay £100 a week fuel bills.

“We need future Scottish Governments to commit to invest in housing at a rate that allows us to invest in new supply. Long term that will benefit not only the people who go to live in those houses, but also in the short term those who will get jobs and training in construction. 

“Unless we as a society invest in housing, it is not only we who will suffer, but future generations.” 

Back in the Glenrothes, Jean Lindsay and I are discussing the pros and cons of Right To Buy. The 74-year-old retired nurse moved from Lanarkshire in 1981. In 1991, she bought her council house in the Macedonia district for a discounted price of £15,000. She is still in the property 25 years later, though health problems mean she’s on the council list again, waiting for a "pensioner's" house.

Though she has benefited from Right to Buy, Lindsay, a director of the Glenrothes Area Residents Federation who is acutely aware of the housing needs of this town, agrees with Thomson that the policy was a mistake. 

“It changed the make-up of the area I live in beyond recognition,” says the divorced mother and grandmother. “Families bought their homes then sold up and the private landlords moved in. They didn’t care who they put in to the houses – all they cared about was getting the housing benefit.

“It has become very run down. At the time, Right To Buy seemed like a great idea. But in the long run I regret buying the house. The maintenance costs have been very high. 

“And now there’s no council stock left and the younger generation is suffering. I feel very bad about that, actually.”

After leaving Lindsay, I walk the 10 minutes to my old house a few streets away. I share her concerns. My parents also benefitted from Right To Buy, purchasing our house for £7,000, with a massive discount. Like Lindsay’s street, ours became run down when the private landlords moved in. The box-like brutalist architecture that once looked so futuristic simply looks brutal now. 

I look at our old garden, which my father spent so many hours tending. Like many others in the area, it is now a mess. Following my father’s death and a series of problems with anti-social behaviour, my mother reluctantly sold up and moved away to a proper “bought” house in 2000. 

As I look up at my old bedroom window, I have mixed feelings. The happy memories come flooding back, but the place seems changed utterly. It strikes me that I am part of the last generation for whom growing up in a council house was seen as acceptable, decent and normal. Whether Scotland has the political and social will to return to a golden era of social housing remains to be seen.