After the riots the police, press and politicians were quick to point the finger at social housing tenants, but maybe they should look closer to home, argues Julie Fawcett
People in glass houses . . .
The summer of 2011 will probably end up in the history books as the summer of the riots. There was rather a lot of bad behaviour about.
Of course the main perpetrators of the bad behaviour were the police, press and politicians. Fortunately for them, headlines about their own misdemeanours were replaced by vicious headlines attacking social housing tenants following the mayhem of August’s riots.
The press did a really good job of dissing the social housing tenant. Usually this is reserved for slow news days when there are no real events and someone having too many children, or riding a bike while claiming they are disabled becomes a big newsworthy story. It often goes hand-in-hand with an overt discriminatory attitude to a group of more than 10 million people, most of whom are just getting on with their lives - often in extremely challenging circumstances. The professionals had a free-range discussion on the feckless, rioting, low-life that they insist live on social housing estates. It sold papers for a few days and made us forget just how corrupt the press really is, despite the ongoing hacking scandal. Job done.
Politicians showed us just how out of touch they were by deciding the sentences passed down to those foolish enough to go out on the streets during the riots should be enhanced by the loss of their homes. This extension of ‘joint enterprise’ to include a whole family in a tenancy agreement is deeply worrying.
Our elected members (with honourable exceptions - always) can hardly hold up their own heads either. The expenses scandal showed a serious lack of morality but, when found out, few actually lost their jobs and none lost their homes, of which they mostly had more than one. In fact, they retained their seats as long as the press did not kick up a fuss. It was a different kind of looting, but I think in monetary terms the MPs might have got away with a higher profit margin.
Sadly, some housing associations and councils seem to believe that signing a tenancy agreement with them means they can dictate our behaviour, not only in the homes and estates they own, but elsewhere too and that they can penalise tenants when they behave badly anywhere in the country.
Deportation was once the answer. These days no one would have us. It’s harder to get into Australia than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.
Paying for the privilege
It is argued that it is a privilege to live in social housing and that tenants should show their gratitude by being especially righteous at all times. We are defined by our tenancies, but a neighbour who had exercised the right to buy, and thus brought money into the equation, would not be subject to such strictures. They have bought their way out of that moral maze.
Youngsters in the inner cities are the victims of a history they are too young to remember. The police, given a thorough kicking by both the Scarman report after the 1981 Brixton riots and the Macpherson report following the death of Stephen Lawrence, took out their anger at being portrayed as discriminatory on the estates of the multi-cultural poor for years. It was clear that certain sections of the police regarded themselves as the biggest gang on the block and their weaponry made them masters of the universe and upped the ante of distrust between them and the disenfranchised young people they lorded over. The hostility the youngsters have to put up with every time they go out has clearly made them feel like outsiders in a society fixated with league tables and a life determined by the number of GCSEs accrued by parents who are really good at doing course work for them.
It isn’t as if there was no warning of the impending mayhem. Notices had started appearing in shops telling everyone that only two school children could enter at the same time and even in the wettest weather youngsters were told to remove their hoods. CCTV, suspicion and lack of trust fuelled the kids anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian attitudes.
Had they been encouraged or even able to read JG Ballard’s Violent London, they would have realised that the struggles they face are those that have been around for years.
Even as far back as Lord Mayor’s day in 1830 a notice appeared that read: ‘Liberty or death. Englishmen, Britons. All London meets on Tuesday…These damned police are now to be armed. Englishmen, will you put up with this?’
Well apparently we did put up with it and this is the result.
The rioting was underpinned by the fact that for six whole weeks a large number of young people were kicked out of school and left floundering on some of the most deprived streets of this country.
Why six weeks’ holiday? Well once upon a time it suited the university terms. It clearly suits no one bar the teachers anymore.
With parents out at work all day, no money for lunch, no money for holidays, often having to babysit the younger kids, summer holidays for the over-11s are hardly the carefree times portrayed in Swallows and Amazons. More like Lord of the Flies…innit?
Julie Fawcett is a housing association tenant and a director of Stockwell Park Community Trust