Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Living in social housing

Taken from Big Issue in the North magazine. 

Like my parents I have lived most of my life in social housing. But whereas they took the opportunity to buy their council house in the mid-1970s I was more interested in moving to London in the following decade, where I once again became a council tenant.
Then with my dad suffering from Alzheimer’s disease I took advantage of the Right to Move transfer scheme to Sunderland in 2000 and took possession with my girlfriend of a housing association flat. We did consider buying a house but, uncertain of what might happen with my dad, we held off until house prices had rocketed everywhere and that was no longer an option.
When my dad died in 2004 we used the same transfer scheme to move south to Halifax and after our son was born our current housing association landlord agreed we could swap our flat for a two-bedroom house with a decent-sized garden. What follows are some of my observations of what it is like to be a social housing tenant in a northern town. No doubt other places will be different but I’d guess there are also a lot of similarities.
The first thing to say is that where we live is generally OK. The estate was built in the 1960s and although the houses could not be described as luxurious, posh or even decorative they are decent-sized, well insulated and in good condition both inside and out. Most gardens are well kept – anyone who lets them become overgrown can expect a letter from the housing association. In the last 18 months we have like many others been the recipients of a new fitted kitchen, front windows and doors. It costs us just over £350 a month to rent.
Many tenants where we live have other relatives nearby and this made it initially quite difficult to get to know people. In the North East it is common for total strangers to say hello but that has rarely happened during my time in Halifax. I long ago gave up greeting anyone I don’t recognise. The arrival of our son six years ago and also a dog in 2012 has broken down many barriers.
But although many people are friendly they could not be described as friends as the conversations are often brief and in many cases about football. On an estate where some people are clearly working cash in hand there is inevitably also some degree of secrecy.
The longstanding residents of the estate have in recent times found themselves living alongside a small but not insignificant number of Eastern European migrant workers. The estate frequently has houses on it to rent and these workers apply, like anyone else, and are allocated a property. Most have stayed a very short time.
I have not heard anyone express animosity towards migrants but before the 2010 general election a couple of residents had BNP posters in their windows and a resident did stick up an EDL poster in his window two years ago. It will be interesting to see if there are any UKIP posters on display before next year’s general election. Not that I anticipate anything else than a Labour victory as the current MP, the left-leaning Linda Riordan, is well respected and has a strong local following.
We are represented on the local council by two Labour councillors and one Liberal Democrat. Last year the latter caused considerable anger when he helped the local golf club (constructed in 1913 after a vigorous anti-gambling campaign forced the small horse racing track on which it now stands to be closed) draw up plans to extend its grounds on to the council-owned open fields at the top of the estate.
These are well used by dog walkers, who were unwilling to see the council give them up for free in return for a less than whole-hearted commitment that local youngsters would get free golf lessons and the promise of cheaper membership fees. Protests were made to councillors and there was even a semi-public meeting organised by house owners on the other side of the golf course – which no one on our estate was made aware of until after it had happened. The golf club appears to have shelved its plans for now.
I haven’t yet met anyone locally who plays golf. It is almost certainly too expensive for most people who even when working are not especially well paid. A number are employed in small manufacturing workshops, in distribution warehouses or at a number of local supermarkets. A glance at the uniforms hanging on washing lines shows that there are many people employed at the supermarket just over half a mile away. There are also care workers who earn slightly above the national minimum wage. Some workers are on zero-hours contracts.
One of the biggest employers in Halifax is Nestlé and many people covet jobs there because the pay and conditions negotiated between the company and the union Unite are much better than other workplaces. Lloyds Banking Group is an important part of the local economy but I have yet to meet anyone on my estate who works in the sector.
There are also a good number of working-age people who are not working. They tell stories of being forced by the Department for Work and Pensions to apply for hundreds of jobs that generally they are not qualified to undertake. Not surprisingly they rarely get an acknowledgement. People complain of the constant pressure exerted on them by the DWP and one friend prefers to work for nearly 30 hours a week for just £6 more than he could claim in benefits in order to “stop the hassle and prove I am not a skiver”.
There are though some who are clearly not looking for work. They were doing so previously but after losing their jobs they have moved on to become heavy drug users. From their appearances it is clear the drugs are killing them. People though are not sympathetic and are more concerned about being forced to witness daily a fresh delivery of drugs being made. It is all so open and obvious, and the suppliers appear supremely confident. Apparently similar behaviour is taking place in other parts of our council ward.
Our estate has visiting police community support officers and they, the police and housing association are all aware of the problems. But they don’t appear to have done anything significant to resolve them. Locally, crime levels are low, with 125 crimes recorded within a mile of our home in August, of which a third were for anti-social behaviour.
Another concern is that there are few facilities for young people, who make up a quarter of residents. There are no parks. Sadly, few parents are willing to allow their children to go up on to the open fields at the top, which cannot be seen from the estate, due to concerns about child abuse and paedophiles. The result is that most youngsters don’t get much exercise.
The local schools naturally play a big part in people’s lives. There are two junior schools within a short walking distance. Whereas many Halifax schools, especially those of secondary age, are racially divided, that is not the case at the school my son attends. This has received very positive Ofsted reviews and a number of children who attend come from outside Halifax. Some of the children’s parents are clearly well off but others are clearly not. Some of the children are from migrant families.
The standard of education appears good, although it was a bit of a shock to discover how quicklythe children are streamed in terms of abilities.
Although the school organises a number of after-school sports activities there is a distinct lack of space for children to exercise and run around. The school playground is tiny and the large sports fields that surround the school are out of bounds. It is perhaps no surprise that too many of the children are already overweight and this may lead to health and weight problems in adult life. Meanwhile, in a country where property prices dominate the political landscape these same children may also face future problems accessing a declining social housing market.

Some facts 

Social housing comprises council housing and homes provided by housing associations or registered social landlords.
The 1919 Housing Act gave local authorities responsibility to develop new housing where it was needed by working people.
Clement Attlee’s 1945-51 Labour government constructed over a million homes, 80 per cent of which were council houses. They largely replaced those destroyed by Hitler.
When the Conservatives were returned to government in 1951 the emphasis shifted towards slum clearance as terraces were torn down and replaced with high-rise tower blocks and new towns. Inside toilets and bathrooms became the norm.
In the early 1970s, Edward Heath’s Conservative government began backing the “right to buy” policy that was first adopted in 1936 and later expanded under Margaret Thatcher’s government. This was continued under the subsequent Labour government and the result was a huge drop in council housing stock.
Nevertheless 18 per cent – just over half of which is council housing – of Britain’s stock is social housing. This is slightly higher than in most other European countries.

With many young people finding it almost impossible on their earnings to afford to buy a home there has been demand for more social housing to be built. However, all major parties appear wedded to the idea
of building affordable homes under which rents are set much closer to the local market rent and are therefore unaffordable to many. The long-term future for social housing remains doubtful.

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