Greasy Pole: Home Sweet (?} Home

David Cameron and his Coalition Gang are working tirelessly to introduce the novelty of a more balanced economy, fortified against any repeat of the so-called Credit Crunch, the collapse of the banks, the calamitous recession. Their proposed method is anything but novel – cutting spending so as to reduce what are known as services, lowering our living standards, enforcing a larger element of austerity into our daily lives. That is also true of the terminology – punitively flavoured – which they call into use to excuse their policies. How often in the past have we heard of the need to “tighten our belts”? Of unavoidably therapeutic “tough decisions” which have to be taken? The assurance that “we are all in this together”? The concept of mendacious, self-promoting ministers proposing to take their belt in a few notches is risible enough to lighten an hour or so at the Job Centre. From experience we know that “tough decisions” are not something we participate in; they are imposed on us to teach us to mend our ways. And are we supposed to be ”all in it together” with a government crowded with millionaire wealthy products of the public schools? Like Eton?


A provocative, newsworthy addition to the groups whose profligacy has landed the country into its present desperate state – like the inveterate unemployed, the chronically disabled, the pensioners – has recently been unearthed by David Cameron – the long term council tenant. “There ls, “ he recently told a Birmingham audience “A question mark about whether, in future, we should be asking when you are given a council home, is it for a fixed period? Because maybe in five or ten years you will be doing a different job and be better paid and you won’t need that home, you will be able to go into the private sector”. This was more than just random speculation: a consultation paper suggests that councils should keep an eye on their tenants so that, if they are observed to be rattling around in some three bedded mansion when strictly speaking they could manage on just two, or living it up with expensive holidays abroad on an income to compare with some of Cameron’s friends in banking they can be made to “downsize” – in other words kicked out. Presumably it will be overlooked that to restrict council housing according to a tenant’s income would dissuade unemployed, or low-paid, people from trying for a better situation – which could mean council estates sinking into concentrations of workless poverty with all that means in terms of alienation, crime, sickness. This would serve to justify the prejudices about council estates, about the behaviour of those who live there and the conditions they create for themselves – which Cameron was appealing to.


Among the expected minor tsunami of response there was one supporting both Cameron and his implied threat to the stereotypically pampered but ungrateful council tenant: “I grew up on a council estate just after the war and it was not a bed of roses”. Indeed. One such estate in west London can be as bustling at the middle of a week day as a town centre – because there are so many workless residents there, out on the drab streets rather than going quietly mad inside their tower block. It was in fact from the balcony of one such block that a TV set was once vengefully aimed at an unpopular fellow resident taking the air below. During bad weather it was not sensible to visit one tower at another estate a few miles away. The lifts were likely to be out of order and the stair well made perilous by the rain or snow driven through the holes hammered by the residents in the surrounding concrete walls. But these were tragic chapters in what might once have been presented as a happy fiction – a romance – of the human benefits of well built, comfortable, secure social housing.

Fit For Heroes

The whole massive and expensive question – clearing slums as well as the provision of stable and affordable homes- was among the preoccupations of politicians for much of the 20th century. At times it was a crucial factor in determining the standing of the minister concerned – as in the case of Harold MacMillan and his promise to arrange the buiulding of 200,000 council houses a year. In the late 19th century, in recognition of the profitability benefits of a safely accommodated work force, the principle responsibility for housing was placed with local authorities so that social housing became in effect homes which were built, owned, managed and allocated by the council. Several measures, such as the Addison Act of 1919 which purported to provide the promised Homes Fit For Heroes after the First World War, were designed to ensure the smooth running of the system. But there were some unforeseen problems, among them the reluctance of tenants to be dragged from communities which, however rancid, had the merit of neighbourly cohesion and support, to be dumped in some blandly frigid new development a long way off. And in any case the slums persisted; by the outbreak of the 1939/45 war there were some 470,000 of them, bad enough to be knocked down.

It can be assumed that the council’s living-space police implied by Cameron’s scheme will be selective about those they spy on. Cameron himself, for example, will be exempt from their attentions in spite of his possessing two large homes, one in a trendily costly part of London and the other in Oxfordshire with wisteria which has to be trimmed – naturally paid for by his expenses. Between them he and his wife have a fortune of some £3 million. Chancellor George Osborne (whose first name is actually Gideon – he changed it because “life was easier” as a result) is heir to a fortune arising from the family wallpaper firm and a huge property portfolio. He spent his early life in a £3 million mansion in Berkshire with a swimming pool, tennis court and gamekeeper. These two, and their associates, have no concept of what it means to live under poverty – of struggling in unsavoury, cramped homes, of the fear of being homeless through ill health, unemployment or eviction. The most effective way of informing them of these realities would be to evict the very system which shelters them.


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