I was at a meeting this week between a residents group and Council officers. We were sorting out the right permissions to move a project forward. One of the officers (no names, no pack drill) was shocked to discover that as a group the residents knew more about the subject than the Council seemed to know. But what floored her was that the most expert of the group lived in council houses.
I think there are two strands to this officer’s shock. The first is that different people have different priorities in their life. We are told that we must strive to be successful at work. We must have a career and follow the rungs on the ladder however brain deadening the work. Some of us prefer to find work that fits around our other interests.
In my experience, voluntary work is always more enjoyable than paid work. It’s very nice to be paid, but it changes the relationship. Voluntary work is something you choose to do, you have a free choice. Once you start getting paid it becomes something you have to do and that compulsion takes some of the pleasure out of the situation. For the politicos and philosophers amongst you, it’s what Marx called ‘alienation’.
The second strand is the common misconception that council housing, social housing, is for losers, scroungers and the feckless poor. If you are a successful, capable person you must be a homeowner. It’s a bit like the quote “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.”
There are a hundred reasons why people live in social housing. Social housing is for people in housing need and we all have all sorts of housing needs. It could be you have an accident and are unable to continue working, or you have to look after a disabled partner or child. You might even need an adapted house. It might be a redundancy or a relationship breakdown. Or you might just not be able to afford a mortgage. All these things happen to ordinary people like you and me.
Those of us who think about the house that we live in as a home rather than an investment might then find we like where we live. We might choose to stay a tenant to stay in our home and our community. If we’re really radical, we might even think that rented housing is a more sensible way to organise housing than owner occupation.
The point is that all sorts of people live in council houses, just like all sorts of people live in South Leeds. If you don’t venture out of your own cocoon you may not realise that. But a common misconception is just that, it doesn’t become true just because a lot of people believe it.
There’s a campaign called Shout (Social Housing Under Threat). It’s calling for an expansion of social housing to help meet the housing crisis – 26,000 on the waiting list in Leeds. I think its interesting that in order to make that argument it is having to make the argument that I’ve just tried to make. That is the positive aspect of social housing that has been forgotten in the public mind.
It’s a measure of how much successive governments have denigrated, cut and ignored social housing.
One of the most positive social housing stories I know is in our own Belle Isle. It’s one of Leeds’ great unsung successes. Tenants have been managing the council housing on the estate since 1991 first as an Estate Management Board and since 2004 as the Tenant Management Organisation BITMO.
TMO tenants have a vote every five years either to stay a TMO or revert to the council. I’m in favour of democracy, but I find it odd that other tenants don’t get to vote on such things unless there’s a change proposed. It’s as if there’s a built in assumption that TMOs won’t work and tenants will need to be saved from themselves.
Of course the opposite’s true. TMOs are more efficient, more responsive and promote more community and regeneration activity.
I’ve got an appointment with a tent and a beach in Devon, but I’ll be back in two weeks with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.