“We don’t realise what we have until it’s gone…”

Fiona

Guest Blogger:  Fiona Elsted

Bio:  I’m a mum of 3.  A lecturer in HE.  A socialist.  Fairness in society is really important to me

“We don’t realise what we have until it’s gone…”

I lived in council houses in the 70s and 80s. The first house I properly remember was a neat little staggered terraced house with 2 bedrooms and French windows which led out into the garden. Roy next door could walk on stilts really well. Wayne on the other side was an only child. Neil and Christian lived at the end in their house with a Yorkstone fireplace. Joey round the corner was American and came to stay with his Nan sometimes. Beverley was the youngest of a family of girls. Her dad liked burnt toast and she had a shed that had been made into a playhouse. We’d spend endless hours hanging out there pretending to be married to Starsky and Hutch until my Mum called me in for dinner by standing at the end of our garden and hollering for me to come in. Other times we all played down the garages and fell into stinging nettles the pain of which we eased with dock leaves.

children playing

My second house was bigger and a bit older. We had a garden big enough to devote some space to growing curly kale and runner beans. There was a brick coal shed which was perfect for hitting a tennis ball against. We had a dining room, 3 bedrooms and 2 toilets. The landing and hallways were massive. We had a front garden with hedges to make dens in and a latch gate to swing on waiting for Dad to come home from work. We lived 2 minutes away from Nan and Grandad C who still lived in the prefab house in which my Dad spent his childhood and 5 minutes away from Nan and Grandad W. The grandparents lived in streets parallel to one another. I saw them almost every day.

House BIg

There is nothing extraordinary in these reminisces I know, but those council houses were special. To my shame, though I didn’t realise it then. At that time I had aspirations to leave the council estate behind me and transition to the heady heights of home ownership in the future. I had those ‘aspirations’ because of the very fact that I inherently trusted, indeed never ever questioned, that a council house would always be there for me if I needed it. I took for granted the fact that I had a safe and secure place in which to grow up. Failed to note that periods of unemployment or reduced wages didn’t seem to jeopardize that. Was blissfully unaware that what I had in my physical surroundings was so much better than what my parents and grandparents had experienced before me.

Money

It’s a part of the human condition perhaps that so often we don’t realise what we have until it’s gone. Now that I have a family of my own and know the insecurities and restrictions of private renting. Now that I know what not having a council house was and is like for many. Now that I watch with sadness as I see what I took to be a fundamental part of the society in which I grew up, being systematically dismantled. Now that I look on in disgust as those most in need of our protection and help are routinely portrayed and paraded as undeserving and feckless. I see very clearly now what is at risk here.

Years ago in my naivety I looked to leaving the council estate behind me but now I see that it was never really going to be possible to do that. Council housing and the ethos behind its provision is in me and I am unwilling to let either disappear without a fight. Maybe what they say could be true: you can take the girl out of the council house but you can’t take the council house out of the girl.

Tree

‘I love my job…’

Our first guest blog…. 🙂 imageFive years ago I took the decision to move from London to Wales, for family reasons. I’d been working in commodity trading for a multinational energy company since leaving school so with no jobs in that sector in Wales, a change of career was necessary and more by luck than judgement, I decided on social housing. The pay looked ok and there were a few jobs advertised that I thought I might have a shot at.

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My Mum is very politically engaged so I had grown up watching her fight against the Tory government, working hard to see Labour elected in 1997. I celebrated with her but I was only 18 at the time and to be honest, I was mostly just pleased for my Mum as her wish had come true. With her influence, I thought I knew about social justice and equality. My parents had lived in a council house when I was first born so I had some appreciation for the benefits of social housing and how important it is to society. My Dadis an immigrant to the UK who extolls the virtues of the opportunities that the UK has given him to anyone who’ll listen. He loves this country and is proud to live here. He has worked every day of his life since age 8, having grown up in poverty and he is proud to live in a country that enables him to give his children the childhood he couldn’t have.

What I didn’t realise, when I set about changing career, was just how life changing it was going to be. In my previous career, I worked hard, I bought a house and I enjoyed all the trappings that went with working in the City of London in the late 1990’s to early 2000’s. The “credit crunch” hit in 2007 when Lehman Brothers folded and although we all looked on at our peers across the road, leaving the building with their small boxes of desk belongings, really, if you had your own home and kept your job in London, the recession wasn’t feeling all that painful.

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And then I got a job answering the phones at a Housing Association. Every day I listened and learned. I listened to tenants tell me how they were having to decide between heating or eating. I learned how to advise callers facing homelessness on where they should go for advice.

I learned that social housing is a worryingly scarce resource today. I remembered back to the 1980’s, listening to my Mum talk about the Tory “Right to Buy” and how worried she was and I began to understand.

I learned that normal people go through tough times, benefit “scroungers” are not the norm and that living in a country which could provide a safety net for its inhabitants was something to be proud of, just like my Dad had told me. I remembered my Mum telling me about the Poll Tax riots and explaining to me that it wasn’t about people just not wanting to pay what they owed but that these people could barely get by on what they had and I began to understand.

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I now have children of my own. I hope I can continue the lessons my Mum and Dad taught me and that I’m now learning through my work as an Affordable Housing Enabler for a Local Authority. I want to help them understand that we shouldn’t demonise those worse off than us. I hope I can help them to understand that what you see on TV is not always the whole story and that “How to Get a Council House” and “Benefits Street”are not representative of the work I do. I want to teach them to open their eyes, don’t just read the hashtags and don’t take what the media tell you at face value.

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