“Kids on the estate…”

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Kath Deakin

Community Services Manager & CIH Cymru Board Member (former “kid on the estate”)

I’d been thinking that it started with an irate Cheryl standing at the side of my desk one morning, spitting feathers about the commentary she’d witnessed on Twitter the night before following the airing of the first episode of How to Get a Council House on Channel 4. 

 

‘I have a plan,’ she’d said, ‘I’m going to email around a few people and next week when it’s on we’ll see if we can redress the balance.‘ I said some words of encouragement, looked up some contact emails I thought would be of use, agreed to sign up to Twitter and off she went and a campaign was born. 

 

My woeful lack of understanding of how powerful social media could be in terms of setting and dispersing opinion was about to be thrown into sharp relief, and a deep rooted sense of injustice I suppose I’d lived with for most of my life was about to be brought right back to the fore again; reinstated to the front of my mind by a questionably edited and motivated ‘documentary’ and the outpouring of vitriol that accompanied it in the name of ‘entertainment’.

 

The reality, you see, is that this didn’t start with How to Get a Council House and Cheryl’s outraged indignation, nor with the frighteningly exploitative ‘Benefit Street’ courtesy of the same enlightened channel, or even with the increasingly evident demonisation of the poor that has culminated in the devastating series of Welfare Reforms that seems to have been largely accepted by front bench politicians as a perfectly reasonable response to the wholesale destruction of our economic well being by a bunch of over-privileged, over-bonused yobbos. No.  This started with me when I left primary school and started attending high school with people who weren’t from the estate where I lived. 

 

Up to that point, I thought there was nothing different about me. I lived in a house with my mum and dad and sister.  Dad worked shifts, mum was a dinner lady so she was home with us when we weren’t in school.  We had a car, we had nice neighbours and friends, we went to church on Sundays and sometimes to the pub for pop in the beer garden on sunny days.  But I was a council estate kid and I was never really allowed to forget it.

 

There has been some comment about the limitations of a campaign to promote the positives of living in social housing based on the nostalgia of people who no longer live there and I think it is very important to make sure that the narrative of the Council Homes Chat campaign is about the reality of living there now. But it’s also equally important to note that the demonisation of council estates is not a new phenomenon.  How many TV dramas  when I was growing up made mention of problems with the kids from ‘the council estate’.  Can you remember the ubiquitous Jasmine Allen estate from the Bill?  On TV, if the character was from an estate they always had an issue.  They were never just someone who happened to live there, they were a protagonist in the drama because they lived there.

 

As a relatively successful student in school and university, I also experienced something else. Condescension.  Well done me for getting to University even though I was from the estate…  Oh well, at least it enabled me to spend 3 years at university making some very middle-class people feel very uncomfortable about some of the stupid things they would say.

 

I think there is a very big difference, however, to what I experienced then and what tenants are experiencing now. Even though I grew up under Thatcher, I could still identify politicians who spoke for me and my family, who seemed to understand our experiences and would champion our causes.  Apart from a few notable exceptions, particularly in Wales, which branch of politics is fighting for the people from the estate now?  Is the chase for the popular vote so important that every manifesto reads like the Daily Mail editorial policy.   Apparently us kids from the estate are at the root of all Britain’s social problems draining its resources and deserving of punishment.  No one talks of the net gain to the economy of our tenanted households, just like no one wants to talk about the net gain in immigration.

 

So thank God for a new generation of outraged kids from the estate, like Cheryl, who doesn’t understand why a whole bunch of people are written off or pilloried on the basis of their housing tenure; for tenants who are willing to risk vitriol to put their heads above the parapet to remind people that this is about individuals not ‘the great unwashed’; for those who work in the sector to throw off the cynicism for a bit and tell people what it’s actually about.

 

How profoundly sad that, in the 21st century, we are still having to do this.

Social housing – a lifeline for domestic abuse victims…

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Guest Blog:  Gudrun Burnet

                       Senior Business Partner (Domestic Abuse) and IDVA (Peabody)

 

I have worked with individuals experiencing domestic abuse for over 8 years and in working in this field have come to realise that social housing is a lifeline to individuals and children experiencing domestic abuse. Statistics show that on average 2 women a week are killed by a current or former partner and 90% of the time children are in the same or next room whilst the domestic abuse is occurring.

 One family I worked with will stay with me forever. She was oneof the bravest women I have ever had the pleasure of working with. She had 4 children, one with special needs and she was fleeing her husband of 27 years who had attempted to kill her and their eldest daughter. She was a joint owner occupier with her husband but had no idea of what her financial situation was. She was so controlled by her abusive husband she did not have access to information on their financial situation or a bank account and was refused the opportunity to learn to read and write English. Furthermore the extended family were making threats as they were unhappy the Police were now involved. Her only option was to flee. She literally left with her children, a few clothes, precious belongings and some identification.

When I first met her she had fled to the area and was trying to find somewhere for her and her children to stay. Fortunately the family could access social housing. It is no exaggeration to say that without this her family would have been destitute or would have had to remain with a man who had attempted to kill them. The local authority was able to place the family in accommodation where they could feel safe for the first time in 27 years.

Another family I supported were a mother and her 3 year old son. She had been physically assaultedby her ex-partner who was the father of her child whilst her son was in her arms. The process of obtaining alternative housing was lengthy and meant a one year stay in a Refuge in order to keep safe. However eventually a suitable property became available and we all went to view it. The look on her face when she was handed the keys was priceless. I have never seen anyone so grateful and overwhelmed with emotion. Her son who was four at the time grabbed her hand and promptly started telling her which room was his.

Anyone who questions the value of social housing and the fact that people scrounge or use their circumstances in order to obtain it should walk a day in the life of those that need it most before they pass judgement.

It is a fact that social housing is a lifeline for individual’s experiencing domestic abuse.

We need to talk about the Bedroom Tax…

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Guest Blog: Jack Wrighton

                     22 year old Exeter University student and budding writer.

Over a year ago the dreaded and little understood ‘Bedroom Tax’ came in and if you’re an owner-occupant (which accounts for the majority of the UK) it probably washed over you like water off a duck’s back. And why not? It seems like a good incentive for making sure people live in houses suited to their needs: big families get big houses, small families get small ones. Sadly that is just not the case – in fact the truth is there is just not enough social housing to go around especially for those seeking one-bedroom apartments. In fact The Guardian recently reported that the numbers of families living in under-occupied accommodation is 180,000 compared to that of 70,000 available one-bedroom apartments; so what happens when there isn’t enough social housing? Well many will be forced to move to expensive private rents which will sometimes mean living in unsatisfactory accommodation at the tax payer’s expense. Everyone loses out. Except of course the landlord.

 

            For those of you who don’t understand bedroom tax the idea is this: the occupant loses 14% of their housing benefit if they have one unoccupied room which subsequently goes-up to 25% for those with two spare rooms. But of course as I’ve mentioned before with the lack of one-bedroom apartments available many are risking staying in their current properties and so this effectively becomes a tax for those less fortunate in society.

 

            My mother is already losing out on housing benefit for the spare room in our house, a room many people would turn their noses up at if it was offered to them as a wardrobe. Things will get worse the day I plan to move out and make a life for myself as this will go-up to 25%. There’s probably some of you who think that doesn’t sound too bad or are probably wonder if my Mum has a job, or whether she’s spending her money on boozey weekends and holidays abroad. If you are thinking that then I’d suggest the cause of your judgment is a mind too easily influenced by the media.

 

            My Mum is a hardworking woman. She works full-time as a carer for the elderly doing jobs many would deem unsavory. However we sadly live in a world where hard work doesn’t always equal fair pay and she ends up bringing less than £10,000 home a year. Which means to live she needs help from the government. Before the bedroom tax she was earning an amount that would put her on or below the poverty line and as she is single there’s no second income coming into the house to top this up as I am in full time education. The money she is losing out on is stripping away any chance of a comfortable life, not a lavish one, a comfortable one and for the sixth richest country in the world that hardly seems fair.

 

           I could go into the difficulties we’ve encountered as a low-income family but I don’t wish for the reader to feel I am bitter or hold a chip on my shoulder I only wish to see the end of an economy where the victims of its unfair system are blamed for their circumstances. I’ve grown up in social housing and I wouldn’t change that for the world. I was fortunate to have been brought up in a nice area with lovely neighbors and attended a great state school nearby. But what I’ve seen over these past few years from government and media alike is a direct attack on those who are subsidized by the government. The vocabulary that often surrounds such debates can include words such as ‘scrounger’, ‘parasite’ all nicely packaged under the term ‘the underclass’. This image of the average benefits-user-council-house-dweller comes from a media whose workers the majority of which come from backgrounds far more comfortable than those they are out to demonize. It’s those at the bottom, mainly without a voice in the public sphere, which end up paying for the subsequent witch-hunts that make for such lucrative T.V.

 

            Social housing is for some the only option and if the government doesn’t start building more homes instead of blaming those that rely on the system for their circumstances then it’s only going to get worse. For both tax payer and council house dweller alike.

 

By Jack Wrighton, 22.

 

 

Council Housing: my foundation for life

Guest Blog:  Paul Diggory

                       Chief Executive, North Wales Housing Association

 

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July 1967 was the height of ‘the Summer of Love’. For some anyway. Not for an 11 year old who couldn’t yet afford the Beatles new album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released on 1st June. In fact, it was almost impossible to listen to it. If you’d looked up the word ‘dull’ in a thesaurus it would almost certainly have come up with the BBC Light Programme. Radio 1 was over two months away and a crackly Radio Caroline only available if you had a transistor radio to go under your pillow at bedtime, which I didn’t.

 

Early one morning I set up my favourite indoor game – two plastic goals from a cast-off soccer game selotaped to each end of a washing machine lid, with six-a-side teams of Lego bricks that enabled you to flick a counter around the pitch. Not having much cash made you resourceful and I used to make up league tables and all sorts. Sometimes I thrashed my younger brother but more often I’d play left hand against right. Liverpool never featured in my leagues as I couldn’t play unbiased. Just then there was the familiar rattle of the letter box and I abandoned play to see what the postman had brought. This morning, just one brown envelope, so I took it up to my Mum, who was having a lie-in.

 

For some reason I stayed at her bedside while she opened it. I could see from her face that it was something important but then she turned to me with her arms out. She gave me a vice-like hug and said “You’ve passed! You’ve passed the 11 plus!” Oh no, I’d had mixed feelings about this moment all summer but the reality brought out my real fear. We both cried. Mum cried tears of joy, the first person in our family to go to grammar school. I cried because they didn’t play football at Sir John Talbot’s. How was I going to become a professional footballer now?

 

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But before I started there was to be more excitement. The Council offered us a transfer from our two-bedroom house in Caldecott Crescent to a three bedroom house in Sharps Drive, the next street. There’s a photo of me on my first day at the new school sporting my uniform: purple blazer and cap, Middleton house tie and a grey jumper that finally fit me properly in the fourth year. It was a lighter grey than everyone else’s because it came from Grattan’s catalogue. The wallpaper in the background could really only have been from 1967…

 

Mum and Dad were married on New Years Eve 1955. I arrived the following May, the significance of which I only spotted as I prepared my speech for their silver wedding anniversary party. They began married life in what they always referred to as ‘rooms’. This seemed odd to me because when they described the arrangements there was actually only one. Moving into a council house when I was two was a big thing. My Nanna had a council house and we used to spend a lot of time there. It was solid with lots of space and a lovely garden. Our new home was on an estate next to the town’s park. Now we had our own garden and I remember my Dad winning the garden competition a couple of times.

 

By the time we transferred I had two brothers and a sister. Another sister arrived a few years later so I ended up sharing with my two brothers. It probably made homework and revising for exams a bit harder, but they were happy days. I’ve no doubts whatsoever that having a council house gave me a platform that I may otherwise not have had. It gave us certainty, consistency, a solid foundation from which our family could grow. And around us we had friends and neighbours, a dependable and self-sufficient community.

 

Looking back, I feel lucky to have had the conditions in which I was able to thrive. A successful outcome of an ambitious and progressive social policy. It didn’t work for everyone but it gave us the chance to improve our prospects. Life was full of ups and downs, but nobody demonised us because we weren’t well off. When my Dad went on strike for about 10 weeks it was really hard financially, having to stay quiet and away from the windows when the rent man called. During that time I hated having to take a letter out to the form teacher on a Monday morning for my free school meals. Although I imagined people making fun of me I don’t remember that they actually ever did. It was character-building.

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I was never promised anything in advance if I passed the 11 plus. But I was rewarded. Mum bought me ‘Rubber Soul’ and ‘Revolver’ by The Beatles. Out of the catalogue, of course, our lifeline. I eventually learned to love rugby but still got a shot at my dream. Sadly the trial for Liverpool at Melwood was unsuccessful and in September 1974 I started work with Wrekin Council leading to a career in housing. Every day has brought the chance to make a difference to someone. Like it did for me. There’ll always be people who don’t get it, who don’t like to see resources diverted to help level out the playing field. When their noise becomes excessive, we just have to believe in what we do and shout louder. And if we’re going to get across what we believe, we have to act smarter and find new ways to say it. Let’s not drop the baton now.

 

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“Cutting the Grass”

Guest Blog by Rob G.

I cut the grass last week.

Of course, it’s mundane, and we all have to do it, it’s not remarkable nor special… and anyway, what has cutting the grass got to do with council houses?

Well, these are my thoughts about community and social housing, which naturally contain a (mercifully short) moan about bedroom tax.

It was a gloriously sunny day when I went out for the first grass cut this year. There had been a few sunny days beforehand, and many neighbours in the street had already cut theirs, but I had to wait for somebody to buy me a lawnmower before I could start.

Not only that, I had to make sure that there was somebody in my home with my wife before I began, and I also needed to ensure I’d had something to eat and tested my blood sugar levels. Additionally I had to make sure at least two of my neighbours were in, so that I could plug the lawnmower into their power outlets. All eminently manageable.

Our little corner of the street we live in is made up of half a dozen bungalows, owned and maintained by our local authority as social housing. When they were built, sometime around the end of the 1970s, the interior doorways were made slightly wider, and the layout designed so that they’d be navigable by people in small wheelchairs, or easy get around for older or disabled residents whose mobility is an issue.

I’m pretty sure that all the other properties in the street that were once all social housing, are now privately owned, so this quite specialised corner of council housing is all that remains of immediate social housing provision.

As a result of sticking to this sensible allocations policy, predominantly all the tenants here have needs that are being met by living in truly affordable ‘council houses’. They have illnesses, disabilities or mobility needs. As a result, cutting the grass isn’t really practical for most of them. So I do it.

One of my neighbours, a man who has spent his entire life working, and even in retirement cares for his wife, bought the lawnmower because he feels that’s his contribution now that he can’t maintain his garden himself, and would otherwise have to pay a gardener.

Another neighbour sometimes splits the grass cutting and hedge-trimming duties with me, but with variable health conditions isn’t always able to do so. A third neighbour doesn’t have any legs, but in order for me to get around both sides of her property, I need to plug into the mains in her home to reach all the lawns. It’s a team effort, and it is just one of the things that binds us together in a loose community.

This isn’t a blog about me cutting the grass, even though I hurt my arm a bit and could feasibly pout for internet sympathy. This is just one example of how council houses are about more than cheap rents and taxpayer ‘subsidies’.

We have formed a little community here that goes a bit beyond waving and saying hello to our neighbours. The higher level of needs that these tenants have mean that collectively the whole community is dependent on help, but in many ways we look first to help each other.

So, the bedroom tax epilogue. Not all of our micro-community pays it, some still pay their rent. Not all are expected to – whether through adaptations, living arrangements or outright poverty, some members of our community shouldn’t, and don’t have to pay it.

Prior to the welfare reforms, none of my neighbours had to use foodbanks, but now some do. One of my neighbours receives care from the Independent Living Fund, and now faces uncertainty about how their care will be provided. I try and help out with keeping them up to date, as neither has the internet.

But it’s me, caring full time for my disabled wife, who is most likely to fall foul of the bedroom tax. All it would take for my household – me, my wife and the garden waste recycling bags – to be removed entirely from the community is a tiny decision about overnight carers.

Who would cut the grass then?