In 2014, 13th November was to be #HousingDay. 24 hours on Twitter of stories from the world of Social Housing. I thought it couldn’t do any harm and might even do some good. It had been Twitter that morning, after all, that had led me to two savagely upsetting articles about life in the housing world.
First Aditya Chackrabortty’s story of the millionaire Tory MP forcing tenants on the New Era estate on the edge of the City of London to ‘seek alternative accommodation’ so that their £600 a month rents can be jacked up to four times that. The ‘alternative accommodation’ being most likely several years in a homeless shelter followed, if they’re lucky, by a move to somewhere well out of London. All to add to the personal wealth of someone whose existing riches are well and lavishly documented in Aditya’s brilliant but heart wrenching article.
Followed shortly after in that morning’s Twitter feed by something just as distressing. Polly Toynbee’s article from within such a homeless shelter, in the prosaically but factually named ‘England’s Lane’. It reads like a dystopian and Dickensian tale from a land we might have imagined was long gone, but is right here right now. It reads like Ken Loach and Jeremy Sandford’s classic sixties tale of ‘Cathy Come Home’. Except it’s happening now and it once again sounds as if Cathy never will come home.
Please read both of these. And if they don’t break your heart? Then there’s something wrong with your heart. And think anything goes in a ‘free market’?
Yes, the ‘free market’ is marauding across the land now, buying up public housing, jacking up rents and relentlessly driving down standards, like the sixties and beyond never happened.
‘The sixties and beyond?’
Yes just to get personal for a minute. If one thing could be said to have changed my life back there in the 1960’s it was somehow being allowed to stay up late and watch ‘Cathy Come Home’ on BBC’s ‘Wednesday Play.’ Liverpool then was filling up with brand spanking new tower blocks and we’d moved out to an estate on the edge of the city. So I was truly horror struck to find that the world I’d so recently been reading about in ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘David Copperfield’ was still happening in parts of the city and the country I’d so far been kept from.
Directly influenced then by that play, me and thousands of others (after we’d grown up a bit more in my 12 year old case) set about seriously expanding what would come in time to be called social housing. We set up and grew little housing associations into serious forces for good. Laws were changed, funding invented and large scale private landlords fled, leaving portfolios of badly maintained houses behind them for us to fix up.
You might have heard me talking about these glory days before, so I won’t go on. But what upset me as much as anything else from Polly Toynbee’s article this morning is its title. See, I’ve referred to it as ‘England’s Lane’ because that’s where it really takes place, and it sounds like the Dickens novel you’ve somehow never read. But its actual title is ‘No exit: Britain’s social housing trap’.
“The shortage of housing and the impact of Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme have created a bureaucratic nightmare in which people are stranded for years, waiting to move into a place they can call home…
Every Wednesday night at midnight – actually at one minute past on Thursday morning – Camden council puts online the few flats available. For the residents of England’s Lane, a frantic bidding process begins. Any of a possible 25,000 people on Camden’s waiting list can log on at the same time, desperately seeking one of the 10 to 20 flats that come up in a typical week. The more bedrooms a flat has, the more points it costs. Most weeks about 250 families get online to declare their points and are told what number they are on the list for that flat. “As I have so few points, I am usually well over number 100,” Janice says. “One wonderful Thursday I was number 30!” (That might have been because of luck or an undesirable flat, she didn’t know why.) “But that still meant 29 other people had to look at the flat and turn it down before I had a chance. Of course I didn’t get it.”
It was never supposed to end up like this. Yes, what we’re seeing here is the confluence of years of public policy shifts and initiatives. Of moving councils and housing associations into the same sector, with shared waiting lists. That people bid for.
It reminds me of soon after those Cathy Come Home days when I started working for the Liverpool Corporation Housing Department on Scotland Road. I’d regularly speak to disconsolate people who’d been on the waiting list for years. Straggling in now and then to see if they were any nearer the top of it. Simply not good enough. Which is why I ended up working for 20 years after that in a housing association.
Now the tools have changed, we could never have envisaged what ‘bidding online’ might have meant, but the situation is, if anything, getting even more desperate that it was then. At least then there was the beginnings of an alternative for people stuck for years on council waiting lists. There was us, the housing associations.
So what I’d like to hear about tomorrow on #HousingDay is what are you doing about this, you housing associations? What are you actually and practically doing to help the people in Aditya’s and Polly’s articles? Yes, I know both articles are about London and I get that the ‘housing market’ is more inflated and inflamed there than anywhere else – yet. But as you well know, if the beyond control housing market can carry on like this successfully in London, then its immoral behaviour will soon enough spread to Birmingham and Bristol and Sheffield and Leeds and Manchester and Liverpool and Glasgow and everywhere else.
So tell me, tell everyone, what you’re doing. Or is Cathy never coming home?
Rant over then. But let me leave you with one more memory and a bit of encouragement.
While I was still in my housing job, around six months before every General Election, would begin the traditional campaign to get housing raised up or even put on to the political agenda of the main 3 parties. This would involve ‘joint working parties’ – sometimes even meeting at the Nat Fed in London. Much earnest discussing and ‘having to leave early’ when the perennial problem of ‘Who’s going to get in touch with the Tories’ came up.
It never amounted to much and in truth we were generally well funded and well thought of by all sides. So we were generally best off standing slightly to the side of politics.
Not so now. With 6 months to go before a General Election and in this harsher world where the social and economic situations described in the two articles I’ve highlighted can only be addressed through politics, where are you ‘social housing?’
Well actually you’re well up the political agenda, I know for a fact many of you have a lot to say and I’m looking forward to you saying it on #HousingDay. But I’ll be listening out for the passion and the practical ideas. I’ll be listening to your heart beat.
Because if your social housing heart is not wrenched and troubled by what’s happening, then there is something wrong with your heart.
In December 2014, after a high profile protest campaign it seemed like a reasonable social housing solution had been found for the New Era Estate featured in Aditya Chackrabortty’s article. Here’s hoping.