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.