August’s riots reinforced the unfair stigmatisation of social tenants. But more council housing would solve social and economic woes
Crush the cliché
Nye Bevan is best remembered as the founding father of the National Health Service. But he unleashed another of the post-war Labour government’s social revolutions: a massive council housing programme. Rather than abandoning working people to slum landlords, millions were provided with good quality, affordable homes.
What made council housing so revolutionary was that it was not intended as a safety net for the poorest. Its architects wanted to support mixed communities.
Mr Bevan’s vision was, for a time, a success. Astonishing though it now seems, a fifth of the top 10 per cent of earners lived in social housing in 1979. Butchers and doctors really did live on the same street.
Three decades on, council housing has never been so stigmatised. Much of the best stock was sold off in the 1980s and failure to replace it has had dramatic social consequences. Councils have no choice but to prioritise those most in need, leading to a concentration of social problems in certain communities. Council estates are wrongly caricatured as dysfunctional ‘sink estates’, but problems that do exist have often been socially engineered by government policy.
In the aftermath of the August riots, council estates were in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Proposals by both Conservative and Labour-run local authorities - with the blessing of prime minister David Cameron - to evict rioters and their families from council homes were fundamentally unjust. Not only was it collective punishment, it instituted the principle that the poor should be punished twice. But it also helped establish a link between disorder and council tenants generally.
Positive images of council estates and their tenants rarely (if ever) make their way into the media. The popular view of an estate is shaped by the likes of Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard and TV series Shameless. Invented acronyms for ‘chav’ include ‘council housed associated vermin’.
With the proposed abolition of secure tenancy, today’s Tories appear determined to finish off council housing for good. But with 5 million people languishing on social housing waiting lists and with homeownership in retreat, Mr Bevan’s dream is more relevant than ever.
A council housing programme could be at the centre of a strategy for growth and, therefore, deficit reduction by getting people into work and boosting industry. Such is the stigmatisation of council housing that it would need real political courage. But, for the sake of a generation facing an insecure future in the unregulated private rented sector, it is a case that must be made.
Owen Jones is the author of Chavs - the demonization of the working class, which is on the longlist for the 2011 Guardian First Book Award