Council Houses Offer Security and Help. It’s Time To End the Stigma

What links Alan Sugar, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Caine, Cheryl Fernandez-Versini, Lewis Hamilton, John Lydon, Idris Elba, Morrissey and Tinie Tempah? They all grew up in council housing, as did numerous others in the industries of art, business, entertainment and sport. In many cases, the security of a council home helped working class families give their children the opportunities that would prove key to their success. So it’s surprising that there is so much stigma about living in council housing in our society, not only from people who believe that the pejorative stereotypes in poverty porn TV shows like Benefits Street are an accurate reflection of those who live on council estates, but also from those who do.

There is no shame in living on a council estate; there’s nothing abnormal about being proud of your council home. Politicians who think we should all desire to own our homes are attempting to sell us the dream of aspiration; both the Tories and Labour make great capital out of “affordable housing”, but the term is a misnomer - those who pedal it are trying to sell us snake oil. The so-called  'Starter Homes' that were announced as part of the Housing and Planning Act will be available to first time buyers (under 40) at a 20% discount off market value, yet are still unaffordable for the majority of people.  

Critics of the Housing and Planning Act have described it as an attack on our communities that will signal the end of council housing, at least as we have come to know it. The key provisions of the act suggest that the future is indeed bleak: the end of lifetime secure council tenancies, fewer homes available as social rents, the introduction of a pay-to-stay tenant tax that will hike up the cost of renting, the extension of Right to Buy to housing associations, and legislation that forces local authorities to sell vacant, high value council homes. The reduction in social housing has grave implications for anyone who is unable to get on the property ladder and own their own home; the prospect of being trapped in a cycle of expensive private rent that will be difficult to escape.

Kate Webb of Shelter recently wrote a blog that analysed why the government was able to pass the Housing and Planning Act with relative ease. Webb referred to research by The Fabians, which highlighted the stigma that surrounds social housing. Only 28% of people questioned said they would be happy if they or their family lived in social housing. And when questioned about which word they associated most with social housing, half of them answered, 'benefits”. There are numerous reasons for this stigma beyond an acceptance that people see more value in buying their own home rather than renting. The underlying issue is a collective sense that those who live in social housing are somehow less successful, or dare I say it, un-aspirational.  

The people who live on estates aren't benefits scroungers, criminals and immigrants

False representation of council housing in the arts and media is also to blame. Mention council estates to most people and they will conjure up images of Little Britain’sVicky Pollard, Frank Gallagher from Shameless, or the cast of Benefits Street. As a filmmaker, these representations of working class people insult and infuriate me. My debut film, Sleaford Mods – Invisible Britain, was made in order to show how people and places across the country have been neglected and forgotten by the media. For my next film (which I’m making with BBC and Channel 4 director Lee Skelly) we’ve chosen to focus on the human cost of the housing crisis; specifically, the demolition of council estates for profit. In Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle we want to show that the portrayal of estate residents in the arts and media is disproportionately negative, and explore how successive governments have failed to protect council housing and neglected the people who live in it. We will tell the stories of individuals and families who have been uprooted from their homes and communities due to estate demolition, and been forced to relocate miles away from their support networks.

The people who live on estates aren't benefits scroungers, criminals and immigrants, as the Daily Mail et al would like us to believe. They are working class families, grandparents, single mothers, nurses, teachers, artists and people from a variety of backgrounds. One of the first people we interviewed for the film is Ronda Daniel, a 20-year-old woman who lives on the Becontree Estate in Dagenham and is in the second year of a Sociology degree at the London School of Economics.

“Communities are being torn apart because people are being relocated,” Ronda tells me. “Think of the impact this has on families, jobs, identity. Being told to go somewhere unfamiliar because you've been told that you no longer belong in your home is shameful.”

Ronda believes that along with the NHS, social housing is an obligation of the state: “It’s something that older generations fought for and worked towards. If people need homes, they must be built and they must be affordable. Every day I see homeless people sleeping outside so-called ‘regeneration’ developments.”

 “I would say to David Cameron, come and live like we do for a week, and see how you fare."

Ronda has lived on the Becontree Estate her whole life and is fearful of the threat that the Housing and Planning Act poses to her family, particularly her autistic younger brother. “It means no security for my brother's future. He is probably never going to be able to live independently because of his needs, and it's awful to know that he could be made homeless, on top of all of the cuts attacking disabled people.”

As a student at the London School of Economics, Ronda has experienced first hand the stigma that surrounds council housing. “At LSE, the classist culture there is nearly always directed at people like me who live in council houses. A student from Balham, whose entire family are university educated, once told me that I was ‘too good to come from a council estate in Dagenham’. I've also been referred to as the ‘underclass’, having been told ‘it must be fun sitting on a couch in a council house all day’. I’ve worked since I was 16 years old to contribute to my household. I’ve also been told I should want to aspire to ‘get out of there’ by an upper class woman from Kensington, as if my identity should be abandoned if I’m to be successful.”

I’m appalled at these comments; Ronda is an intelligent, working class woman who deserves to be treated with respect by her peers. I ask her whether she thinks that the wider stigmatisation in the arts and media has encouraged such narrow-minded views and made it easier for the government to justify its programme of austerity. “I think it's because the working class are stigmatised as much as they are that they can get away with these cuts. Benefits Street and How to Get a Council House took care of that, portraying these communities as ‘scroungers’ who were at war with others or under threat.”

How did Ronda feel when she heard the  Prime Minister’s promise to “blitz” poverty by demolishing what he referred to as “sink estates? “I would say to David Cameron, come and live like we do for a week, and see how you fare. Come and see mothers go without meals so their kids can eat, come and see how disabled people live when they are placed in third floor flats. Try and live on minimum wage with seven children. He wouldn’t last a minute.”

If you want to know more about Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle and support our campaign, please visit our crowdfunding page


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