Rob is a social housing tenant, former IT professional, full time carer for his wife and inspiring blogger
The fairly recent rescue of my wife and I by social housing in 2007 isn’t the first time I’ve been caught by the ‘safety net’ that council housing represents. I think it can be difficult to understand the value of a home. It’s something we all take for granted, and I’ve been struck by how the call by CouncilHomesChat for people to tell their positive stories has brought forward such touching and personal tales – as if one of the four walls of the contributors’ homes have been peeled away, so we can see what having a home really means.
This is part of my story about the first time my family needed a safe, decent home and couldn’t afford one. It starts when I was 14 and living with my parents and my brother. It touches on a time when things were difficult for us, and I imagine that as homes are currently becoming unattainable for many, this is an increasingly common theme for people who find themselves subject to the ever-changing eligibility criteria for social housing waiting lists. That’s before we get to the added stigma of being assumed to be some sort of disruptive influence.
The picture Paul Diggory posted of his ID card reminded me of one of my Dad’s first ID badges. For my Dad, it was a badge which said “Draughtsman” on it, and although I can’t remember who his employer was, it was the job that set him on the road to his own business, running both the office and working on the tools as a partitions and ceilings outfit, employing people who became fixtures in my childhood. Much of the time I spent growing up with my Dad was spent in, on or around building sites. I think it was a time before Health and Safety had properly taken hold.
It was Dad’s success at his business that funded my Grammar School education – Like Paul I have a clear memory of the day I’d passed my entrance exams – probably the most animated I remember my Dad, who was a quiet, thoughtful man. I remember him bursting into my bedroom, envelope in hand, so excited about what he knew, that he struggled to slow down enough to explain what it was he was holding. I don’t know where my picture of me wearing my cap and grammar school uniform is now, but it was another interesting parallel to Paul’s story.
Both these things – my Dad’s business, and my attendance at Grammar School, came to a halt when the building industry buckled in places during the recession of the 1980s. Having sworn he’d never do a job he couldn’t afford to cover, or work for main contractors he didn’t really trust, he ended up doing both. When the bottom fell out of the development he was subcontracted to and he didn’t get paid, his company folded and with it, the foundations of my parents marriage, which had already been under a lot of strain.
After those foundations gave way, he moved out, leaving Mum, my brother and I in the family home my parents owned. The school fees didn’t get paid and I was hastily found a place at a local comprehensive school. As I struggled to adjust to these changes, suddenly in the uncomfortable position of being the oldest male in the house, the house was repossessed when the mortgage wasn’t paid. I found my Dad’s first ID badge in the loft, as we were filling boxes to clear it out. I was 14 years old and putting a brave face on everything. I don’t remember the order everything happened in, and I was probably close to 15 by the time we moved into our first council house, a top-floor Maisonette, considerably smaller, colder and emptier than the home we left.
I have a lot of stories about that home. I built my first ever set of flat-pack kitchen units there. I think I did a pretty good job for a 15 year old. I came to understand that community isn’t about the people in the adjoining and nearby gardens of a comfortable middle-class life. I adjusted badly to having to find new friends and study for GCSEs. I was an angry young male. Crucially though, I had somewhere to live. It wasn’t idyllic. Some of our neighbours were probably not strictly declaring all their incomes. A lot of the food we ate was fresh but bought cheaply from a charismatic guy in a beaten up transit van, who also did a good line in knock-off VHS tapes and an ever-changing inventory of tat. Then there was the washing powder he sold – big boxes of the stuff (presumably damaged in the fall from a lorry) a recollection that had drifted deep into my memories until I saw ‘Benefits Street’.
We were safe there. It was a mix of people of different ages and outlooks and aspirations, and we survived. I had somewhere to eventually settle into school work, though I think my brother struggled more with this. We stayed in the maisonette long enough for me to pass my GCSEs and get my first part-time job in a supermarket, which was handy for helping to pay the rent and bills, and long enough for me to start A-Levels and take my first driving lessons, and long enough to pass my driving test.
We simply couldn’t afford to live anywhere else.
Perhaps towards the end of the 1980s, after early flushes of the ‘right to buy’, the provision of social housing was already beginning to be about rescuing people, and not about communities and homes. We knew our neighbours, and they knew us. The people who lived around us, then as now, didn’t fit the negative stereotypes we’re bombarded with now.
There are principles that underpin social housing. As well as being a safety net for people in need, it’s a decent, essential model for building homes for people that can’t otherwise afford them. The public debate about housing and benefits increasingly turns this kind of tenancy into a discussion about units. Units of housing, and the numbers of people who require them. These descriptions work against the original principles of providing safe, decent homes for families.
There must be some florid comparison I could make about being given the safety and security to stop, breathe, and have a chance to change the direction I was going in from an angry, self-destructive one to something a bit more positive. There were still a lot of imperfect things about living in our first council ‘house’, but it became a home of sorts.
Perhaps I’ll get a chance to tell other parts of these stories – about babysitting for the other people who lived there, perhaps in my naiveté not realising where my neighbours went at night. About having a parking space for my first car, bought for £20 from one of the history teachers at my school. Maybe stories about having somewhere sheltered to live, even when it became apparent that on top of my Dad leaving, my Mum had decided not to live with us either. There’s probably a story or two to be told about moving from that first maisonette to a street of brand new council homes, though today that seems more like the kind of thing that happens in fairy tales.
Without the safety net of social housing, we wouldn’t have had the support we got, even if sometimes it felt like a threadbare weave that held us up. I’m sure I’d never have had the breathing space I needed to get to University and have a chance to choose bits of my own destiny. While politicians and public debate confuse aspiration with the desire to own a house, I wonder if there’s enough space to address the more fundamental need to give people a home – whatever their economic circumstances.
In quieter moments I sometimes draw comparisons between my first council house and our current one. It seems like a different world in many respects. One of the things that underscores both tenancies is the sense that, as social housing tenants we’re just like everyone else. We probably rely more on the social fabric than people who have more generous financial means, but we’re striving for the same things – a sense of self, a sense of worth and a way to be part of a settled society. That television is continuously painting us as some sort of other, as it revels in the selective details of the lives of a minority of people is a real problem. That this media is aided and abetted by a political narrative of blame and envy is even more of a problem.
I’m not ashamed of the communities I’ve lived in, and I wonder what it is that drives politicians and television production companies to try and pour shame upon us. As I try and fathom out why the positive force of social housing has become embroiled in a debate that has lost sight of the value of homes, I can only hope that a glimpse inside these three walls will help people see that homes are important for everybody, especially families who need a little extra support, like mine did.