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 York stone 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.
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.
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.
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.