I was once in a meeting of a housing association which was discussing buying land and developing homes in Stevenage. “I’ve been there” chirruped the Chief Executive, “it really is chavland”. I have been in plenty of other meetings where senior housing folk have talked about their clients in disparaging terms. I can recall one Housing Director in the north responding to a presentation on the Decent Homes programme by saying “There’s nothing wrong with our houses, it’s the people that need fixing”. Fortunately most people who work in the profession are more enlightened and have a more balanced view and a better choice of words.
As a fan (mildly obsessive) of EastEnders I get outraged by every story line that involves any character visiting a council estate. They are always the same. High blocks, lifts not working, rubbish strewn everywhere, hoodies gathered menacingly outside, drug dealers hovering, noisy music blaring, people shouting, and in the middle of it some poor EE character suffering terrible deprivations, and desperate to get back to the square where decent folk live (now there’s the joke). I used to start talks by asking people if they knew where the Jasmin Allen estate was. Invariably they knew it was a bad bad place where police only went in big groups because it was run by gangs and the residents appeared to throw rocks at them on every visit. Everyone thinks they’ve heard of it and the penny eventually drops that it was in The Bill, and was fictional. I believe the filming was done on an estate in south London famous for being visited by Tony Blair on his first day as Prime Minister.
I was got going on this topic by Polly Toynbee’s piece on ‘the vile word’ chav. How right she is that the use of the word chav is just one part of a sustained effort to ‘foster the loathing of a feral underclass’ thereby diverting public resentment about economic and social failure from the rich to the poor.
Polly quotes Baroness Hussein-Ece – a LibDem Equality and Human Rights Commissioner no less – who tweeted: “Help. Trapped in a queue in chav land. Woman behind me explaining latest EastEnders plot to mate while eating largest bun I’ve ever seen.” And then of course this week we have Iain Duncan Smith, hand wringing in public and in private getting his department to place stories in the media – and picked up endlessly by the BBC – about the ‘top ten’ most ridiculous stories told by some benefit scroungers.
For this government (LibDems should look suitably ashamed, I expect it from the Tories) and their supporters this is all part of the softening up exercise for the cuts. Everyone’s on the fiddle, no-one wants to work, they’re breeding like rabbits, they get subsidised housing and don’t even pay the rent, so we should take their benefits away from them. Even decent politicians run in fear from the stereotype and feel it is necessary to back some variant of ‘welfare reform’.
The outcome is that it is so much easier to make cuts that really hurt people. We have blogged about some of these before. The latest news this week, from the heads of Britain’s main charities dealing with mental health, concerns the ‘devastating effects’ welfare reform (ie cuts) is having on the mental health of hundreds of thousands of people.
The long title of Owen Jones’ book ‘Chavs’ being published this week is ‘the demonization of the working class’. That’s what is really going on and council tenants get the worst of the stigma. Some politicians and housing professionals need to read it and begin choosing their policies and words more carefully.