South of the River – Another council tenancy

Like many of you I was gripped on Tuesday night by BBC1’s The Moorside. I don’t know that much about the Shannon Matthews case, but the writer, Neil McKay, seemed to get the feel life on the estate pretty accurate.

Watching the media scrum took me back to the days and weeks after 7/7 and bizarre phone calls from CNN wanting to come to our community forum – “er, no.”

The fear of saying the wrong thing to the authorities and having your kids taken away as a result rang true too. I remember when Social Workers were there to help, to befriend, to offer guidance. Now they seem to have become an arm of the Police, indeed many Children’s teams are now based in Police stations because they work so closely. They still offer advice and guidance, but people hear that as instructions that must be followed, or else.

And then there were the comparisons with the Madeline McCann case. I had forgotten that they happened at the same time.

Here were two families: one somewhat dysfunctional working class family living in Dewsbury, one apparently perfect middle class family on holiday in Portugal. One girl was drugged, the other was given a sedative. In other words they were both drugged, but because the McCanns are doctors we don’t use such coarse language. The media treated the two cases very differently even before the truth of what had happened to Shannon came out.

I’ve never been to the Moorside estate in Dewsbury, but I’ve been to plenty of similar estates across Yorkshire and beyond. They are generally portrayed in the mainstream media as being full of feckless scroungers and petty criminals, but the truth is always much more interesting.

And there is usually a strong character who organises stuff, people like Julie and Natalie. And they are usually women. Stand up Cathy, Denise, Sandra, Jill and all the others – I am honoured to have known and worked with you.

One of the things they have to fight is the image of their estate. What’s wrong with council estates? Well there is a problem with council estates (and housing association estates). The problem is that there aren’t enough of them.

Since the 1980s Council properties have been sold off and the numbers of new houses built has been pitiful. That has led to rationing, not everyone who needs a house can have one. How do you manage rationing? Well being a civilised country we prioritise those in greatest need. The end result is that the remaining estates have more and more people with problems living on them.

Any estate, any neighbourhood, no matter what tenure, can cope with a small number of households suffering unemployment, marriage breakdown, accidents leading to disability, disturbed children, ex-prisoners etc, etc. But if you concentrate all these issues together in one place then that’s puts an enormous strain on the place.

That’s where these amazing women come in. Somehow they are never beaten down by obvious problems around them. They take things on one by one and sort them out one by one. They stand up to whoever gets in their way, they make alliances with whoever is prepared to get their hands dirty alongside them.

Watching someone who calls a spade ‘a bloody shovel’ argue with an ‘authority figure’ – usually a middle-aged white man – who is used to shutting people up by spouting jargon and platitudes, is something to see.

Although many don’t, or can’t, most people living in social housing do work. The trouble is that the people who judge these things tend to visit in the daytime, so they only see part of the picture.

Because of the rationing situation it’s become a ‘bad thing’ to live in social housing. That’s ridiculous. Why wouldn’t you want to live in a house with a decent (if rising) rent; a responsible landlord that (mostly) sticks to their side of the contract in terms of repairs etc; a (mostly) stable community that doesn’t have to move every six or twelve months like they do in the private sector.

As I said the problem isn’t social housing – it’s the shortage of it.

I’ll be on back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.


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