Tuesday, 2 November 2010
Transit camps for the poor
Growing up in our block of flats, there were always small tasks for children. I had slim, flexible wrists and was in demand whenever a neighbour accidentally let the front door slam behind her and found that she was locked out. I could slide my fore-arm through the letter-box and, using a hooked kitchen utensil, pull the inside door handle down until the door opened again. Sometimes I'd be offered sixpence as a reward but I was sufficiently well-schooled by my parents to refuse it, unless the neighbour was particularly existence. Helping out was a way of life.
Often someone would run out of a basic food. I would be given a cup to ask the neighbours if we could borrow flour or sugar, with the promise to return it the next day. Back then, the shops shut at 5.30 and shopping was a daily activity. Best of all was running out of milk. Only one of our neighbours had a fridge and borrowing milk meant drinking milk that was icy instead of room temperature or, in a hot summer – and despite our efforts to cool by evaporation in a sink full of water – not far from going off.
I don't recall envying the wealthier neighbours. I enjoyed the excitement of rummaging through jumble sales for books, ornaments and clothes (my order of priorities). I would have liked a holiday and wished my mother could have better shoes – but she insisted her canvas plimsoles were comfortable and children are apt to take parents' reassurances at face value. Mum did her best to convince us that holidays were boring, though Butlin's sounded terrifically exciting. Instead we had Sunday school outings and days out roaming Putney Heath, Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common. Sometimes we walked as far as Kew Gardens or took advantage of our cheap tube fares to explore London's (mostly free) sights and museums. There were always books, libraries and sometimes theatre trips to Shakespeare in the parks or plays, musicals and ballet from the gods of the nearby theatres.
As a small child I observed and marvelled at all kinds of glamour: I remember golden beehive hairstyles, possibly tinted by the hairdresser, and stiletto heels. One neighbour invited us for drinks at Christmas and we sat nervously in her pristine living room where she offered a choice of tea, squash and Bristol cream. (Mum disapproved of the sherry - she thought it the first step to alcoholism). Usefully, one neighbour acquired a telephone and gave us all his number for use in emergency. We were instructed in the routine of the phone box – when to press button A and button B – and learnt to deliver a quick message in ten seconds should we depend on the return of twopence for the bus fare home. The telephone and fridge-owner even had a small car. He worked as a chauffeur and once, resplendent in his chauffeur's uniform, gave me a lift into central London. I'll never forget how he stood and saluted as I emerged from his small grey morris minor.
I suppose we were still in the post-war atmosphere and believed we were “all in it together,” whatever “it” was. Linked by our need for council houses, we were a surprising jumble of people: young couples with children, older people, respectable types who had lost homes in the war, ex-servicemen and women, refugees (some with numerical tattoos we didn't mention), people with shady pasts. There was a loving father who occasionally vanished into jail for a few months. One glamorous woman was said to be “on the game” but “a very good mother..” There were loving marriages and couples who fought. Being a child, I probably missed a great deal – it was more exciting to explore “the woods,” “the bomb-site,” to “go trespassing” and to dream of the big adventure of going down the steps of the underground air-raid shelter. I needed occasional risks - children do when they feel secure.
I still visit my parents in the council estate where I grew up. I don't get there often enough and these days I feel like an outsider. The atmosphere has changed – we're no longer in the post-war world, in which progress was taken for granted. At some point during my childhood a council house ceased to be a badge of respectability and “council tenant” became a term of abuse. Perhaps the upper middle classes needed someone new to fear and despise. Or perhaps they always did fear and despise people like me and I didn't know it. I remember the rants in the press about the evils of tower blocks - I loved and still love the high-rise block in which I lived – and the new acquaintances who examined me for evidence of neurosis or criminality, if they didn't (as some did) cut me dead on discovering where I lived. At around that time, people on the estate seemed to lose a certain self-confidence. It didn't help to know that an address might disqualify you for a desired job. I was assured, by people who didn't know my background, that council tenants were stupid, ignorant and never read books, went to museums or walked in London parks. I was told that people like me were vandals, racists, criminals and scroungers who didn't care to know right from wrong. The transition from home to wider society was uneasy. I learnt to keep quiet about my background and to mimic the nonchalance of the rich.
There was a shortage of council homes in London. For a while councils bought up big houses in wealthy areas and converted them into flats. Then the policy changed. Under Mrs Thatcher, tenants were encouraged to buy, at a substantial discount, and councils were not allowed to spend the proceeds on further council homes. We were to become a home-owning society. My parents, who had paid more than the value of their flat to the council in thirty years of renting, took advantage of the discount and used Dad's redundancy pay to buy their flat. While the policy as a whole seemed dodgy, I was glad for them. There were voices on the extreme right of the tory party suggesting that tenants with spare rooms should be moved. After bringing up a son and a daughter in a 2-bedroom flat, Mum and Dad finally had a little extra space – a room where their children and, eventually, their grandchildren, could bed down for the night.
There's more to that flat than extra space. Mum and Dad, who are still there and approaching their nineties, know the neighbours. They visit a familiar GP and are greeted by adults who remember Mum from the days she worked as an infant helper at the local primary school. The bus drivers recognize and lower the platform on the bus so that Mum can get on without difficulty. The views are the familiar views of Richmond Park. It's changed a little from my childhood by storms and the fall of trees. There are no longer sheep in the park and I don't know if the parrots who arrived in the 1980s survived the last harsh winter. But you can still hear the bark of foxes at night and the rough call of rutting stags. Sometimes you can look down on a hawk as it stoops for prey. When I stay there in summer I'm often woken by the rowdy clamour of the dawn chorus. It all brings back memories – memories cherished by my parents who have now lived there more than fifty years.
The sale of council houses brought changes, of course. Flats were the least popular part of the council's housing stock. It wasn't just the contempt in which tower-block dwellers are held which caused that. Anyone buying a flat has to contribute to maintenance, repairs, renovations and upgrades for the block as a whole – my parents had to put money aside for bills which can run into thousands or tens of thousands. So far they've managed. They are secure in their home with their memories.
Other neighbours bought, then sold and moved away. Tenants died and were replaced with new tenants. Suddenly individual and families on the council house waiting list needed more than inadequate housing to qualify and reach the head of the list. Desperation helped. So did illness or personal disaster. The shortage of council houses made it harder for relatives to live near one another – grown-up sons and daughters sometimes stayed as tenants or carers but many found themselves driven from London. I have a four-hour journey each way when visiting my parents and that's not unusual. I still feel comfortable on the estate. The sight of library, maisonettes and tower blocks among the trees tells me I'm coming home.
Now even faster change is arriving. It sounds as though the Big Society will mean higher rents, lower income for people on housing benefit (some of whom work at several jobs for low wages) and insecure tenancies. People who can't find work for a year will be punished by a cut in housing benefit, although their housing will be no cheaper. Rents are set to rise to 80% of the private equivalent rent – and in London that will be high if the housing shortage continues to contribute to landlords' profiteering.
It all worries me but it's the insecurity that nags at me most. If council houses are allotted only for a short period and, as has been suggested, those who are luckier with pay or promotion are rewarded with eviction, there will be no chance for a mixed community to grow. At the same time, the jobless – and the latest projections suggest unemployment is about to rise by 1.6 million – may also be punished by eviction as their housing benefit falls. Will they join the council outposts in Slough or Hastings, where cheaper landlords are said to be offering bulk bed-and-breakfast accommodation for the needy and homeless?
If all this happens, children growing up now on the council estate where I lived will never have the secure childhood I had. Their parents will take less pride in their homes as they wait to be moved on. If they are cautious and anxious they will save any spare pennies and pounds for the cost of the move and the demands of the next home. They will hesitate to root themselves in a community of temporary dwellers. Schools and doctors will see pupils and patients who pass through and never settle for education or care.
I'm concerned for all who live on the estate where I was so happy. I fear that these policies will swell a tide of anger and despair, leading at times to wide, directionless anger. I know how I feel when my security is threatened – and how my anger is trebled when those I love are at risk.
I fear that my parents, who still take pride in their flat and its views, will wake one morning to find themselves marooned in a transit camp for the poor.