Rural Housing – “the cheapest home available in the village nearest to the farm is £450k”..

Mared Elenid Williams was born and brought up in a village near Aberystwyth. She moved to Cardiff to complete an MSc in Strategic Marketing in 2006 and following a few years of working in the charity sector began working as  Marketing Coordinator for Newydd Housing Association in 2010, a position she thoroughly enjoys. Mared currently lives in Llantwit Major with her partner who is a farmer.

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At the moment my life revolves around Zoopla and Rightmove. Then back to Zoopla again. I change the price bracket, hoping that something may just pop up that needs a bit of work….we could negotiate the price down? Negative. Each morning I reach for my phone, click open the app, adjust the price bracket and….yes it’s become an obsession!

Back in February this obsession had not begun, instead my day consisted of filling in reams of paperwork, calculating our monthly spend, printing evidence of our savings accounts and most importantly proving our links to the local area. I was getting excited, we were applying for a low cost home ownership property in Cowbridge. However I soon found out that managing expectation was key, I knew many many people would be applying for this single property. So 6 weeks later we found out…negative.

My boyfriend works on the family farm but earns very little. On the other hand I earn a decent wage but despite working for a housing association; promoting affordable homes in the Vale of Glamorgan, we just can’t seem to purchase an affordable home ourselves anywhere near the farm.

We have been together for 2 years and privately rent a home…but its 5 miles away from the farm. Depending on the time of year, my boyfriend moves in with his parents during lambing, harvest or when the horses are foaling. Not a prospect that fills me with excitement. I would like to add that we also have a decent deposit, but we still can’t find an affordable home within 5 miles of the farm. The cheapest home available in the nearest village is £450,000. Totally out of our reach. This makes our house search the most frustrating activity of the day.

So what is the solution? There isn’t one at the moment….a farm can’t be moved.  I continue to hope that low cost affordable homes will be built near the farm. Likelihood? Negative. There was recent talk of a new housing development in the neighbouring village, but looks like these will be executive homes. The frustration continues.

 

We all have our stories to tell…

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Kelsey has been Communications and Tenant Engagement Officer for Caerphilly County Borough Council’s housing division since August 2013. Prior to this she spent three years as Community Investment and Involvement Officer at Tai Calon. Kelsey was also heavily involved in the transfer of housing stock from Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council to Tai Calon; as Communications Officer during the pre and post ballot processes. Her housing career began after graduating from university in 2003, when she became repairs clear in a busy local authority area housing office. Kelsey is passionate about addressing the stigma of social housing, tenant engagement and regeneration.

 

This is a photo of me at Christmas when I was 6 years old. Not long after this photo was taken my family became homeless….

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After my parents’ divorce and the sale of our house, my mother, brother and I lived in a house in the private rented sector. My mother was in full time employment, earning a reasonable wage and always paid the rent on time. But one day our landlord knocked on the door to tell us his daughter had decided she wanted to live in the house, so our notice was served.

As a household with just one income and limited time to find another home, we had very few options available to us. Unable to find another home in time we were forced to put our furniture into storage and declare ourselves homeless.

This isn’t a sob story about how awful it was being homeless though, as for the 6 year old me living in a hostel with around 7 other families was a great adventure! I was never short of friends to play with and school night sleepovers were always allowed, as it usually meant just staying in the room next door!

Of course there are some memories that aren’t quite as pleasant. My brother, who was a teenager at the time, was so concerned about what his friends would think about us being homeless that he refused to move into the hostel with us. He went to live with a relative and, as a result, our family was separated.

After a short time in the hostel we were moved on to temporary accommodation, before finally being allocated a council house.
I spent the rest of my childhood and teenage years growing up in that council house. My fondest memories are of my time spent living there and the friends I had on that estate: birthday parties in our house where 30 of my ‘closest friends’ would squeeze into our 3 bed semi; long summer nights playing games in our street; ‘snow days’ when school closed and we would all hurtle down the hill on makeshift sleds; my mother making toast on our coal fire when we’d had a power cut.

My memories of happy times like these are endless and I can honestly say that the concept of us as ‘council tenants’ never entered my head. I know my story isn’t unique and I suppose that’s the point I’m trying to make. Homelessness can happen to anyone and at any time; when it does, social housing provides a much needed safety net for those in need.

I get angry by the continual demonisation of social tenants, perpetuated by media portrayals and stereotypes. Social housing tenants are people, just like you and me. In the 10 years I’ve been working in social housing I’ve met some amazing tenants who are doing truly brilliant things in local communities. I’ve also met lots of tenants who’ve been dealt a bad hand in life and need some support to help them get back onto the right track. We all have our stories to tell and until we have walked in another’s shoes who are we to judge?

 

I admit it, I’ve never been a social tenant..

Catrin Lewis is a Tenant & Resident Involvement Support Officer; aspiring journalist & CIH Rising Stars Cymru finalist 2014

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When I first learned of the Council Homes Chat campaign, I knew that it was something I wanted to get on board with. When I gave my first presentation at CIH Cymru’s conference this year, I spoke of wanting to help change the image of social housing, its tenants, and the successes that we are all a part of. I told all those delegates about how I wanted to alter perspectives and show the country what we are all made of, and who we are.

However, when it came to writing this blog, it turned out that it was incredibly difficult to put into words how I feel. I admit, I have never been a social tenant, and probably never will be. Yet I feel incredibly strongly about the benefits it brings tenants, communities and the country as a whole. Despite three years studying it and a lifetime of a Neighbourhood Officer mother talking to me about the Right to Buy, I still have never understood why government deemed it an excellent idea to sell off one of Britain’s greatest assets. I despair at the prospect of having to choose between living with my mum for what feels like the rest of my life, or being at the mercy of a private landlord who won’t see me as a person, but as a series of numbers and figures that will be filling their bank balance each month. Mostly, I’m disappointed that I will probably never be a part of the communities that the South Wales valleys used to be filled with. Strong, vibrant communities which cared for each other, came together in time of hardship, and worked to make their neighbourhoods better places to be. These are now fractured, limping along, a shadow of their former selves.

Even when I applied and gained my job at a Housing Association, I think even my perception of council tenants was a little skewed by whatever popular scrounger story was in the newspaper. Quickly, I met tenants who worked hard to support their homes and household, wanted to make a difference in their community and most importantly, were sick of being told that they were akin to the scum of the earth because of their tenure. These tenants were from all walks of life, held different jobs, held different values. They were, I realised, wanting to smack myself in the face for being so daft, just like everyone else in the world.

As I’ve come to meet more of those involved with social housing in one way or another in the last year, I’ve realised one major problem. People see housing as a necessity and everyone would agree that each person deserves somewhere to call home. Yet, unlike roads, hospitals, and schools, previous political figures and those in authority have done a fantastic job in trying to downplay the amount of responsibility the government should have towards it. Everyone knows that a decent home with a secure tenancy provides the basis for improved educational attainment, employment opportunities and health, yet we are essentially told that we do not deserve homes unless we are at the very bottom of the rung. We have been told this until it has become a part of the British psyche, that social housing is for the scrounger, the teenage mother, the person with disabilities, the elderly.

So what does social housing mean to me? It’s security. It’s safety. It’s something that we’re in danger of losing; renamed and rebranded on the sly until it no longer means what it meant to. I may never live in a council house, but I will defend the right to it, and the reputation of those who live within it. I will fight for more to be built, helping to create jobs, restore communities, and solve this housing crisis that we are all a victim of.

 

These three walls..

Rob is a social housing tenant, former IT professional, full time carer for his wife and inspiring blogger

  ROB

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

SAFETY NET

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.

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“I often say I owe everything to social housing..”

Tom Murtha

Tom Murtha

Chair of HACT, Plus Dane Group board member and Emmaus Coventry Trustee

I often say that I owe everything to social housing. I discovered recently that this is truer than I had realised.

I have been reading my Mam’s diaries and in them discovered another date among the birthdays of my brother and sisters. It belonged to my older brother who I knew had died at birth in 1947. He had been born in a breeched position and those in attendance could not save him. He is buried in an unmarked grave in Leicester the location of which was only known to my Dad. I was born 5 years later in 1952 and even though I was breeched I survived. Maybe I was just lucky but I believe that it had something to do with the place of my birth and the medical attention my Mam received.

Tom at 5 months having survived the trauma of his birth

Tom at 5 months having survived the trauma of his birth

I was born in the bedroom of a new council house on New Parks Estate in Leicester unlike my brother who was born in a shared terrace slum. I also benefited from the support of a proper midwife and doctor provided free by the newly established NHS. My parents could not afford such help in 1947. Part of the reason for my survival were two of the great social initiatives created by Anuerin Bevan who had responsibility for health and housing in the post war Labour Government. These initiatives were continued by the Conservative Government in the 1950s. I am a product of an era where there was cross party support for investment in the welfare state. It provided my home, my health, my education, and if things went wrong a safety net. In those days politicians of all parties realised that there were many social and financial benefits from investing in these provisions.

Toms Mam and Dad on their 25th wedding anniversary just after they were housed as homeless by Leicester City Council

Toms Mam and Dad on their 25th wedding anniversary just after they were housed as homeless by Leicester City Council

Today’s politicians seem to have forgotten this and all of these areas are threatened in a new age of austerity. The immediate casualties of this are those in care, those in receipt of social security and those living in any form of social housing. And there is more to come. After 2015 there are more plans to continue to shrink the state. This will lead to further attacks upon the welfare state, the public sector, local authorities and the NHS.
The government call this a moral crusade. But I know of no “morals” that involves demonising those living on benefits, poor people, people with disabilities and those living in social housing. This so called crusade began by stigmatising these groups and then penalising them with cuts. Why is it that poor people are paying the highest price for the recession when those that caused it benefit? I often think that is only when the welfare state has gone completely will peoples realise why it was originally established.

Tom and his wife Vivsha on the day before they were married

Tom and his wife Vivsha on the day before they were married

I believe that social housing is under attack as part of this policy and that the people who live in social housing are at risk. When everything else that supports people and communities is taken away social housing is often the only thing left to provide an anchor. Our ability to do this is being eroded. Funding for real social housing is almost non-existent. The right to buy and sale of social housing assets is reducing the supply of social housing even further. Those homes that are left will slowly be converted to so called affordable rents which is political newspeak for rents that are too high for people to afford. Recent research has shown that those who used to be housed in social housing are being excluded for financial reasons. All of this shows that we are witnessing the slow death of social housing and until recently we were doing nothing about it.

I am pleased to say that this is no longer the case. People and organisations are coming together to champion social housing and to make the case for Government investment in it. People are arguing that it does not have to be like this and that there is another way. If we are to build the number of houses that are required in the UK we must bring back state investment in social housing. What we did it in the 1950s we can do it again.
There seems to be only one economic doctrine today that says state investment is wrong. This of course is not true and there are other doctrines which champion it. Even if you can’t change doctrines you can change priorities. The current approach is based upon political priorities not economic ones. If we change priorities then state investment in housing could begin again. To put it simply I would rather have investment in social housing that HS2. The case is simple. By providing homes you provide hope, you create jobs, and you save money in revenue costs by providing capital investment. We all know that you can’t build subsidised housing without a subsidy. What we forget is that subsidy is just another word for investment. This is an investment that makes huge returns for today and tomorrow.

My family benefitted from a political consensus in the 1940s and 1950s which understood the value of state investment in social housing. Having survived my traumatic birth I grew up in a number of council houses and once when we had been homeless for 9 months in 1964/65 the council rescued us. I was married from a council house and eventually my parents died in a council bungalow in Leicester. When I cleared their belongings with my one remaining brother, who still lives in social housing, I found a box that contained my Mam’s diaries. I could not bring myself to read them at the time as it was too painful. They were left in the box for 11 years until I was able to read them. It is through them that I now know of my older brother’s fate. I also know how my Mam and Dad felt when they moved into their first council house as a young couple full of hope in 1950 and how much they enjoyed their final years in the security of their last council bungalow. First and foremost it was their home and even though I have been married for 40 years and have lived in a number of places I still regard it as my home.

Toms Mum and Dad in their last council bungalow

Toms Mum and Dad in their last council bungalow

That is why I am willing to fight to defend social housing and to argue the case for investment in it. For me it was a matter of life and death and it still is for many more.

“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?