I didn’t realise I was a ‘social housing’ child

from C1.4, ‘Council Estate Life’, in ‘Learning Matters’

I am so appalled at the Conservative’s announcement of a further extension of the destruction of publicly provided affordable rent housing in their Election Manifesto release that I have posted this extract from my book, which contains more ‘parallel commentaries’ like the following.

In 1958, after being on the council housing list since the end of the war, my parents were offered a two bedroom flat in a new tower block on a huge council estate at Warstock, an outer Birmingham suburb of many square miles consisting entirely of council housing. This council-enabled progression to modern housing was not automatic, but required an inspection of my grandmother’s Kings Heath house, where we lived, by a council officer to ensure that my mother’s domestic standards were sufficiently high to qualify for such a move. Only the ‘respectable’ working class got the best new council housing.

My parents were as delighted with our modern centrally heated luxury flat, with its view to the Lickey Hills, as thousands of others were with their surrounding council houses with neat front and rear gardens. Our estate was uniformly and entirely ‘respectable’, with virtually all families having a father in work and crime appearing to be non-existent. Like most of my many new friends, I gained access to our flat by means of a key tied to a piece of string hanging inside the door and accessible through the letter box. There was absolutely no suggestion or awareness that we lived in ‘social housing’. The flats and surrounding council houses provided large numbers of other children to play with and those passing the 11 plus selection exam were well represented. The number of such children was not far off the high overall Birmingham pass rate of about 25 per cent.

A similarly heterogeneous social distribution applied to the adults. Birmingham still being ‘the workshop of the world’ at that time, the majority of fathers had skilled working class jobs. My father, a toolmaker, was typical. There were, however, also a significant number of fathers with white-collar jobs and a number of tenants had their own businesses. Most mothers did not work in 1958 but this changed quite rapidly. My mother progressed from a local factory job to working in an office at Birmingham City Council. She was quite typical.

However, by the late 1980s, after a decade of Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy, the estate was fast transforming into the social housing, high unemployment, drug abusing, high crime and deprivation ghetto now associated with large council estates of that era. This change brought about a decline in the average cognitive ability of the tenant population as the ‘respectable’ working class was gradually displaced by those in need of ‘social housing’ as a result of unemployment and growing drug abuse. This decline was accelerated by the policy of selling the best council houses to their tenants. This resulted in the savviest and most aspirational tenants buying their council houses at knock-down prices only to sell for a huge profit a few years later to fund escape to higher status private estates. By this means the most cognitively able parents steadily departed the council estates leaving them to the less cognitively adequate and their children. This process does not require intelligence to be inherited through genes. The result would be the same if cognitive ability depended entirely on environmental factors such as quality of parenting and the physical environment.

Far from being housing of last resort, having a secure life-long tenancy of  a well-built council house in a pleasant suburb was a perfectly reasonable lifestyle choice before the massive house price inflation caused by Margaret Thatcher’s housing policies, later enthusiastically taken up by New Labour, made it an economic necessity for aspiring families to ‘get onto the housing ladder’.

This estate no longer exists. All five tower blocks have been demolished and replaced with a private housing development. Where once the towers dominated the local urban landscape, the new small and cheaply built private houses appear dwarfed by the large modern cars parked outside

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8 Responses to I didn’t realise I was a ‘social housing’ child

  1. Patrick Turner says:

    I grew up in very different social housing circumstances to Roger’s: a one bed housing association flat in a scruffy terrace of stucco Victorian houses in a well-to-do Centralish London street poorly converted into a warren of dwellings for ne’er-do-well ‘one-parent families’. We very much were stigmatized, subtly and overtly, by a good number of surrounding residents and officialdom figures. Presumably, we were also in cognitive deficit in the manner described by Roger. I left school at fifteen having bunked much of the previous couple of years etc. But for all that, I was and remain a staunch defender of public housing; it enabled an indigent family such as ours to live in a cosmopolitan, very well resourced part of London and derive whatever cultural capital was going. This is probably why I later became an academic and also why I stayed in my manor, happily living in a housing cooperative​ not half a mile from where I grew up, and where with my partner I have brought up my two now grown up-ish kids. No assets and stake in Thatcher/Blair/Cameron et al’s property owning democracy to re-mortgage and pass on for a soon to be very attractive rate of inheritance tax; just a lot of priceless experiences of being a (central) Londoner and contributing to a milieu that has spawned untold friendships, children and projects. What temerity to live in and benefit from a cooperatively owned asset that could be cashed in for upwards of a million and the equity used to build more ‘affordable’ housing in the exurbs and beyond. How dare people like us believe we are entitled to continue living where our lifeworlds and identities have been formed.

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    • James Kemp says:

      Hi the problem here are many including how we now treat the parents who bought the home in the 1980-1990’s as soon as they get old the home you thought to pass onto your family isn’t it’s sold to pay for expensive nursing homes that money goes fast at 20-30 grand a year for nursing home. So your family ends up with nothing no home and no councils home there all sold so you try renting oh sorry no life time home moving every 2-5 years on the whims of uncaring landlords who barely fix anything.

      When you make money your god nothing else matters humans are cattle to be abuse at bankers and their politicians cronies. We used to care and have wonderful communities now we just have fear and endless messages of buy buy buy!

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  2. Jessie Campbell says:

    IT would have broken my house proud mother’heart to have known that she could not treat her council house as “hers”
    Insecure jobs, insecure tenancies who would have believed this could happen again

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  3. Bebe says:

    “having a secure life-long tenancy of a well-built council house in a pleasant suburb was a perfectly reasonable lifestyle choice”

    No, it wasn’t. You point out that your parents had waited 13 years to get your flat. When my mother was widowed unexpectedly in 1960, with 2 small children, one disabled, and left in very poor circumstances she was told that, as she had only moved to the area 6 years earlier, she had no entitlement to any housing help. Those who were indeed given such houses valued them, but it was a lottery, not a choice – and in some places corruption was rife. Plus, of course, at that time, having a job for life in an office or factory was the norm – not now. Those days are gone, we have to live in the present.

    House price inflation existed long before Mrs Thatcher’s day. We left uni in 1971, had to save for a deposit for a year to get a mortgage. In that year house prices in much of the country more than doubled, and despite the rocky economic situation and sky-high interest rates, they continued to rise throughout the 70s. You can blame her for selling off public housing stock and discouraging replacement, but both home ownership and property prices were rising fast long before. Your memory seems to be selective.

    Scarce resources paid for at public expense must be allocated to those in the greatest need. And that one section of society can expect to pay low rents for housing for a lifetime, regardless of how their needs and their income change over time, while others must pay market rates for rent or mortgage even though their needs may be the greater is simply wrong.

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    • Hello Bebe. Thank you for commenting on my post. If you had read my book you would know from C1.1 ‘Origins and Perspectives’ that although I was born in 1947 my parents only moved to live with my grandmother in Birmingham in her two bedroom terrace house on the death of my grandfather in 1952. So we were given our new council flat after six years on the housing waiting list. I was sharing a bedroom with my grandmother, which became less acceptable as I grew older. After WWII there was massive council house building in Birmingham partly necessitated by bomb damage but also to cope with the post war bulge in the birth rate of which I was a part. I am surprised that your mum’s local authority was so unhelpful in such circumstances. It doesn’t seem right to me either. Yes, there was corruption in some local authorities – the Poulson affair in Newcastle-on-Tyne comes to mind. Such corruption almost always arose when council officials entered into corrupt relationships with private businessmen. There is no doubt that constant scrutiny of public bodies is important.

      While it is true that job security has become increasingly more precarious, why should anyone want to make life even more difficult for families by making home security more precarious as well? It is one thing to choose to move to a different area by choice to take advantage of a job opportunity. It is quite another to lose the security of tenure in you home when you have a job that you wish to keep. That is a wickedly perverse incentive not to seek promotion or improvement in your employment in case you lose your family home as a result.

      The main fallacy in your argument is the assumption that council tenants are subsidised at the expense of the public. 1950s council houses are now more than 60 years old. The tenants have paid back the building and maintenance costs in rent many times over. The council housing stock is a high quality public asset which can and should be recycled with great financial efficiency on the departure or death of the last tenant. A ‘lifetime of low rents’ in a council house costs the public nothing. Selling off these public assets to sitting tenants has impoverished us all not just by reducing the stock of quality housing available for rent, but also by stoking private house market inflation to the present levels that far outstrip the ability of young families to buy or rent because the private rental market has become a wealth creating opportunity for private landlords. None of this is the fault of council tenants or their low rents.

      Defining council housing as being ‘social housing’ for the most needy has just created ghettoes of deprivation that have damaged schools and general social cohesion. I make no apologies for celebrating the socially mixed council estate community I was lucky to grow up in.

      You are right however to draw attention to the massive private housing inflation of the early 1970s, which as you point out pre-dated Thatcher’s council house sales.

      So it is clear that I do not agree with you at all and I am heartened by the hundreds of comments in response to the recent Guardian articles that make the same points that I am making.

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