Anyone who’s been semi-aware of anything that’s happened in the last 35 years or so will know that Tories don’t like Council Housing. They are the party of the “striver”, and so hate the idea that anyone’s getting anything they haven’t grafted for. The great oracle in the sky to aim for is the blessed state of Home Ownership. Thatcher in the 80’s made this available to your average bod on the street by letting them buy their council property at a fraction of their value, and from then on the holy grail has been to Own Your Own Home.
This week the government announced that lifetime tenancies for council properties would be stopped, and five year tenancies brought in. On first look, this is a difficult policy to manage. There are many people living in council properties who are earning a decent wage and could live in the private sector but who are taking advantage of the reduced rent of a local authority property. And there are plenty of people needing housing who could take up that now-vacated property. But in actual fact I don’t think the thinking behind this policy is as nuanced as that. I think it comes down to a hard and fast line the Tory party are pushing: you don’t want to live in a council property.
When council properties were starting to be built en-masse after the war, they were seen as replacement communities for the slums that had been either bombed or torn down. Everyone knew each other, neighbours were neighbourly and took care of one another. Tory policy has been the reason council estates have turned into places people don’t want to be (I’ll put some books at the end that I think are excellent reading on the specifics of this as I want to mainly focus on the stuff from this week). By creating what is in effect a five year rolling tenancy, Tories have made sure people will never feel totally settled in their homes. Why redecorate if you’re going to be told to move in a few years? Why get attached to a place if you might be told you have to leave it?
And the problem with not becoming attached to a place is that you lose a sense of community. After Right to Buy, there were a lot of council properties that were taken up by buy-to-let landlords once the original buyers sold up. Those in less salubrious areas often ended up being rented back to the council (who would have to pay an exorbitant rent to the private landlord) and used as temporary accommodation – those coming out of rehab, homeless people, people on probation. You end up with a transient population and where there’s a high turnover of tenancies there’s a low feeling of community (for a more in-depth look at this issue I highly recommend the chapter “Damage” from Nick Davies’ book Dark Heart – see end of post). A transient population is fractured. And the introduction of five year tenancies will make it even more so. This will cause a huge amount of damage to areas of social housing which more often than not are also areas of high deprivation and child poverty.
The Tories are pushing even further their housing hierarchy. At the top, home ownership. Underneath, expensive private renting. And at the lower level? Council housing, where only the poorest live. If you live in council housing, then, you must be poor. and we all know the messages the Tories like to push out about the feckless poor. Council housing is now a “last resort”. Which is going to further effect estates and communities. It’s another attack from the government to tell the poorest people “you do not matter”.
Recommended books on the history of council housing:
Estates: An Intimate History – Lynsey Hanley
The People: The rise and fall of the working class – Selina Todd
Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain – Lisa McKenzie
Dark Heart: The shocking truth about hidden Britain – Nick Davies
So, as those of you who follow me on Twitter might be aware, it’s been a bit of a drama-filled couple of weeks. And it doesn’t look to get any less drama-filled any time soon.
A week last Sunday (so, April 28th), J (my husband) and I came back to our flat to find water pouring through all the ceilings. A major water leak had happened in the flat upstairs. The fire brigade were called, the people who lived upstairs came back, we rescued the cats and the more important pieces of electronic equipment and then looked at the damage.
Our carpets had standing water on them. Paint was coming off the walls, the ceilings were getting lovely damp patches and ominous bulges. The flat was, basically, in tatters. Luckily, none of our furniture had any damage. While the water had completely eviscerated the hallway and most of the walls and ceilings, the water had only got about halfway across the bedrooms and the living room, meaning most major pieces of furniture (beds, tables, chairs etc.) had escaped damage.
Later that night, someone from the Housing Association came to look at the leak upstairs. Clearly by this point, there wasn’t much he could do for our flat. The cats went to my parent’s, and we stayed with J’s mum for the night.
I spent all of Monday and Tuesday at the flat. Absolutely nothing happened on Monday. No-one came out, nothing happened. Even our booking at the Holiday Inn that the Housing Association had arranged hadn’t been done properly, so we spent another night at J’s mum’s (by that point, I was too exhausted to care). Tuesday, vans and men arrived to empty our flat and put all our stuff in storage. This was also the arrival of someone from the Housing Association (the first person who hadn’t been a plumber to come and look at my flat). She was completely shocked by what she saw, and realised pretty quickly that the Housing Association really didn’t have a clue of the scale of the damage that had happened. That night we managed to get into the Holiday Inn.
The situation now is that our Housing Association will pay for us to stay in the Holiday Inn until next Monday, 13th May. After that they won’t pay. The work on our flat is expected to last 6 – 8 weeks. Now, our flat had a lot of adaptations done, as J uses a wheelchair. We have a fully adapted kitchen, automatic opening doors and other bits and pieces done so J can get around. While we know there’s no way any temporary accommodation we get offered is going to have that level of adaptation, we need at the very least a property that’s wheelchair accessible. That means a ground floor, or a building with a lift. No steps. The Housing Association have said there is nowhere available owned by either them or other local HAs that would be suitable and is available on such short notice. The long and short of it is, I can genuinely see us leaving the Holiday Inn at 12 noon on Monday, and going straight to the Council to declare ourselves homeless.
J is a wheelchair user, but he also has Asperger’s syndrome. This makes any and all change very stressful for him. I’m supposed to be working. I work freelance, and I haven’t been able to work for the last week because I’ve spent all my time trying to work out where we’re going to live. On Monday I’m supposed to be having a very important meeting involving the young people I work with. I can’t do that if I don’t know where I’m going to be going home to afterwards. I’m also losing a huge amount of money – I don’t work, I don’t earn.
So that’s the situation. As well as the HA and the Council, I’ve also been talking to Social Care, the Law Centre and Shelter. Shelter tells me that landlords have no legal obligation to find alternative accommodation for their tenants while work is carried out. While a lot of private landlords will have to have written into their insurance that they will pay for alternative accommodation for their tenants, that’s a requirement of their mortgage and social landlords do not have to have that. I genuinely do not know where we’re going to live for the next month, at least.
It sucks. A lot.