Michael Collins is styled as a biographer of the working class, with his best known work being ‘The Likes of Us’ published in 2004. The book’s rosy view of working class culture in history and how it was destroyed by social change was controversial, with black writer Mike Philips saying ‘the book… appeals to the most destructive form of nostalgia.’
Recently Collins has meandered through the history of council housing. I mainly enjoyed his TV film history ‘The Great Estate: The Rise and Fall of the Council House’ earlier in the year, but took issue with his analysis of what had gone wrong over the last 40 years and in particular the blame he attaches to the 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act, an argument he returned to this week in a piece for the Independent. The core of our difference is that I think the homeless are ‘us’ too.
Comparing a distorted view of how awful council housing is now with an exaggerated view of how great it used to be only benefits those who wish to undermine its future. The golden era was just as mythical as the right wing press’s modern view that it is a failed sector populated by ‘Shameless’ characters, everyone skiving, dependent on benefits and getting their home by conning the State that they were homeless.
I don’t look back on my childhood in Newcastle, on the Montagu Estate in Kenton, as some great heyday when everything was right in the world. Still in the desperation of the post-War housing shortage, it was without doubt a pretty good deal: a brand new Bevan house, with partial central heating, front and back garden, close to both the Town Moor and the countryside stretching towards the tin hut called the airport. Virtually all the men were in work, most had skilled trades or were clerks, so I suspect there had been social selection going on. It could still be a tough place, with gangs and fights and flick-knives, and we didn’t venture onto neighbouring estates. Periods when men fell out of work, as most did from time to time, were hard. There were no shops, just travelling vans, and no community facilities apart from the neighbourhood school. The front door was the colour the council said it would be, no-one had security of tenure and anyone not paying their rent got kicked out. So my nostalgic memories are reserved for Len White or Stan Anderson playing at St James’s Park (now forgodsake the Sports Direct Arena) and a youthful visit to the Club A Gogo to see Eric Burden and the Animals.
So where specifically do I think Collins gets it wrong? Let’s start with his tirade against the homeless persons’ act. “It was Labour who demolished a fair letting system. In 1977, the homeless were made a priority and a system of “need” was introduced that was open to abuse. Unsurprisingly, a lot of “homeless” people appeared, to the annoyance of locals who had waited patiently for years on the housing lists.’
This revision of history, that allocating council housing according to housing need is the root of the sector’s perceived problems, has been gaining currency, influencing ‘Blue Labour’ and the Labour’s front bench. The reality is that the impact of the homelessness legislation on allocations after 1978 was slow. The Act encouraged a high degree of gatekeeping (and still does), and there was a high refusal rate for applications, rigorous application of the ‘intentionality’ rule, and many people suffered the purgatory of a period spent in bed and breakfast or single mother’s hostels. It was a process no-one would choose to go through if they had any real alternative. Local connection was vigorously applied and people with a connection to another place were sent back. Virtually all homeless applicants were local and on the waiting list. Crucially, the homeless only became a significant proportion of total allocations when supply collapsed in the 1980s as homes were sold and not replaced. Most homeless people would have been rehoused off the waiting list before becoming homeless in the 1970s when supply was much better.
I also disagree with Collins when he says ‘The Government should clarify who the houses are for. In the past it was clear who was entitled.’ My view is that it was only in late 1960s and early 1970s, following ‘Cathy Come Home’ and the rise of Shelter, that council allocations policies came under greater scrutiny. Before that there was a variety of local practices, but rarely were they transparent. Applicants were subject to subjective assessments of their housekeeping standards by home visitors, and the practice was often discriminatory as the poorest were kept out. In many areas, individual house allocations were made by councillors, a practice that would be condemned today.
Collins lauds ‘sons and daughters’ schemes which ‘ensured extended families remained on the same estates, in the expectation that further generations would remain locally.’ But it is worth remembering that in many places black people were excluded either by schemes that favoured existing families or by direct discrimination. The National Front used the phrase ‘sons and daughters’ to mean ‘no blacks’. It was right that these practices were challenged vigorously by the Community Relations Commission and others.
There’s plenty wrong with council housing, now as in the past. But it is better run and managed than it ever has been. Tenants have gained security of tenure and reasonable rents in a profit-making and improving sector. 5 million households have expressed their demand to live in it. Council housing is a success story, just as it was in the past, and could have a great future. Its role in providing decent housing to millions of ordinary people deserves proper recognition and proper assessment – with a lot less spin.