When I left university, my parents advised me to put my name on the council house waiting list. ‘You’ve got nothing to lose’ they said, and I might need it one day. I wouldn’t need council housing I thought. I’d got a degree. I was going to have a profession. My path was one which wouldn’t take me into but would lead me out of a council estate. I appreciated council houses (I’d been brought up in one after all) but I’d outgrown them. I never did put my name down.
I guess my response was somewhat like that Campbell Robb describes when he notes positive public responses to the concept of social housing but a concomitant sense that it’s ‘not something for them.’ That inability for many to identify with actually living in social housing might, Robb seems to suggest, be seen as a contributory factor in its demise. The general public might support the idea of social housing but not enough to be bothered to put up a fight for it. Where the Tories were forced to do a u-turn on a number of other policies, housing wasn’t one of them. They felt they could get away with it on housing.
Is it true though? Is it true that we are so conditioned to strive for homeownership and spurn social housing that we are willing to stand by while it disappears? Did Thatcher succeed so totally in changing our mind set, that a life lived in council housing is viewed as so much less satisfactory than one spent on the private estate? I think not. I think we have just got used to the fact that social housing is in short supply and so it can’t be for us even if we want it to be. We know the statistics, read the newspaper articles and watch the TV programmes. From every angle we are told there is not enough social housing to cope with all who should have it. For a 2 salary family like mine social housing clearly not an option – we know our need is not great enough. It doesn’t mean I don’t care whether social housing disappears and it doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t live in social housing if I had the chance.
So if it is true that we think social housing is not for us, it’s because we know it is literally ‘not for us’-others take priority so we have to think homeownership if we don’t want to be in the PRS. But build those houses and we will live in them. We will take that opportunity to build strong settled communities and revel in increased disposable income and less anxiety about our long-term security (assuming the terms are as they were previously not as they are now..) Build them and they will be lived in.
It’s not so much that the battle for social housing has been lost, more that the hope of enough of it really being built has. That is what governments over the last 25 years have managed to do. They’ve trained us to accept that social housing stocks will not be replenished even when they say they will be. They take a national asset and sell it off and then don’t replace it. They tell us they are making us better off by helping more to buy but they remove our right to the safe and secure home at an affordable price that was there before. They increase inequality as a result. They tell us those who need social housing are somehow lacking. Because the message is pretty relentless, many of us buy into it.
Not all of us do though. I don’t. I want a government who is committed to replenishing our supplies of council housing and I haven’t given up believing that we can have that again. Try as I might, I just can’t understand why we can’t have social housing for everybody who wants it. Not so long ago nearly 50% of us lived in council houses. We turned out OK. The country didn’t fall apart. On the contrary, many of us thrived financially, emotionally, educationally. Bring it back, I say, as does SHOUT, as do these guys Dispossession, who want to make a film to properly raise awareness of the way we’ve been ‘swindled’ out of our social housing, as does Corbyn and #AxeTheHousingAct to name a few. Social housing has had some bad press and has suffered a sustained attack from many sides but it’s concept is undeniably glorious. So many people can’t buy now, surely at some point they will realise that the answer lies not in desperately trying to make the PRS more acceptable but in building more houses belonging to the state with all the benefits that entails. For me, a resurgence in social housing seems much more likely than changes to the PRS being in place which really make a difference.
So, lost the battle, Campbell Robb? I don’t think so. We haven’t even got started yet.