My mum is in her eighties and she still lives in the home I grew up in. My father spent his final days here and the house holds memories of him. She has all her things around her. For my brother, sister and I it is our family home. My mum loves her home and she would not want to live anywhere else. That home is a two bedroom maisonette on the 11th floor of a council tower block in South London.
My parents were housed by the council as they were renting rooms in a house which was part of Southwark’s slum clearance in the late fifties early sixties. My mum and dad were one of the blocks first residents. Growing up we knew all the neighbours. The lovely nurse and her girls down the corridor who we could call on in an emergency. The wonderful lady who was incredibly posh and went on holidays every year. Parents and children, old and young. We had neighbours from around the world. As my father lay dying a neighbour came in saying ” this wonderful man has prayers being said in every tounge and of every religion”. My family were part of the fixtures and fittings, with our involvement in the tenants association fighting for the rights of all the tenants.
We fought to get new lifts installed back in the early 80’s. We had elderly people on the top floor who would become prisoners when the old ones broke, which was often. I remember one man who had a serious heart condition who also lived at the top. If he came home and the lifts were out he would have to sleep in his car. He unfortunately died before we won our case. His death was an important factor in the council agreeing to the lifts being installed.
We had Christmas parties, and Santa would come around and give a gift to all the children in the block. We had jumble sales and fetes. We had ups and we had downs. We were a community and there was help if needed.
So the events of last week, seeing a tower block being turned into nothing more than a bonfire. Well it hit home. The deaths the stupidity of the whole thing. The crimes that have obviously been committed.
Don’t politicise it we are told. This is council housing we are talking about here. The same council housing which has been declining in number ever since Maggie handed over the first set of keys in the Right to Buy Scheme. Nothing more than a tactic to to gain many more Tory voters. Indeed this was the crux of the “Homes for votes” scandal in Westminster council. We have had regeneration which basically results in gentrification. The accommodation that is left could be filled a thousand times over. There is even more of a need for council housing now as house prices mean that the majority of people, especially young people, have no hope of buying a home. Council housing is always political.
Oh I’m sorry, I have just noticed I should of course be saying “social housing”. We live in social housing now not council. I wonder how long the meeting was to think that one up.
However, regardless of what we call it the outcry at these tragic preventable deaths is quite rightly going to have repercussions for a long time to come. Social media is putting on the pressure as usual. And it is social media that has me made me realise something.
The comments I read from so many are of the shock of disabled people on high floors, the elderly in such a block. The lack of fire alarms or fire fighting equipment. The lack of a fire drill. The lack of emergency lighting.
I have replied to many that this is pretty normal. It is what social housing is like. It’s the no thrills every thing on the cheap. It is the Tesco value of housing. It is a limited resource that means people live in the wrong places for their needs and overcrowding is common. What these very well meaning people did not understand is the acceptance and experience of those living in social housing. The “them and us” that is ingrained in the minds of us in dealing with authority as time and again we see our rights our needs neglected by councils. That councils only respond after we express anger or die. The mindset we have to have if we are to survive and protect our homes from those who want to take them away.
Then we get the other comments. They were all on housing benefit anyway, why should they be rehoused in London? Why aren’t they grateful for what they have? Why should they get luxury flats? Why don’t they just move to Preston? If they were so desperate they would take the first thing going. People should get social housing until they are earning then they move out. The block was full of illegals and sublets anyway. They will trash those new flats it a disgrace.
It is these comments that have made me actually stop in my tracks. Not just because they are basically uncaring and unsympathetic judgemental and racist. But because I realised that those for who social housing is not their home know very little about the social housing experience. It suddenly dawned on me that the term social housing brought to mind Social workers, Social Security, Social invisibility. The belief that the only good people are those who own their houses and those who can’t must have some kind of individual fault. They are lazy, scroungers, good for nothings, immigrants, illegal, criminal. They are Benefit Street.
They seem to want us to be the cap doffing serfs who should be grateful that the Lord of the Manor grants us a hovel and a bag of coal. We should be thankful that our lives are controlled by our Local Authority which in this case was deaf to the voices of the Grenfell Tower community and indifferent to their suffering. .
Social housing should be available for the nurse or the firefighter or the teacher so they don’t have to work second jobs or visit food banks as they struggle to pay the mortgage or overpriced rent. For the veteran, the single man, the homeless. It should be something to be proud of. To show the world that this country takes care of all its citizens. It should not be stigmatised as there are many great great people who have been nurtured and cared for in the centre of a council home and have gone on to great even historical things. We need to stop decanting over a thousand tenants from their homes against their will and using the land their homes were on to build luxury apartments and only seventy nine social housing units. We need to stop councils voting to omit affordable housing on new developments, such as the project around Battersea Power Station.
It is not a gift nor a disgrace to be given a flat next to luxury apartment when your home has been burnt out. It is not disgusting that these people are being re housed in the posh end of Kensington. It is not unfair to those who work hard that they have been given social housing , although many still believe that they are being given million pound flats each.
Now we have the evacuation of hundreds of people from dangerous buildings. Flats, hospitals, hotels all worried about cladding. The cladding which gave the impression that life in Grenfell Tower was ok, that it would disguise the poverty, the injustice , the social stigma of the block. So that it would look nice for those nearby. As if it were an invisablity cloak, hiding from view those who have been forgotten anyway. Dehumanised by terms such as immigrant, Muslim, single parent, disabled, black, unemployed, mentally ill, white working class, benefit scroungers, uneducated, lazy, apathetic. Abused by the papers who sell to those who only want confirmation of their views. Those scared by the thought that their world is falling away. Those fighting against equality as they have the most to loose. Now the residents of Grenfell Tower have been gassed and incinerated. I don’t think I have to spell out the similarities here. But don’t call for patriotism when that blackened shell of a building incorporates all that was fought against in World War II.
I think we need to drop the term “social housing”. Why don’t we call them “affordable homes” or “sensibly price homes” or “rental homes”. Take away the terminology that so strongly brings to mind those negative concepts. Call them homes. Because that is what they are. Homes.
I have also realised due to the type of home I live in I am a voiceless one. A expendable existence. Someone who should not even live in London, my home city that I was born in and grew up in and which I love. I should be on my knees in gratitude. Don’t get me wrong I feel very blessed I have a home that is large enough for my family and in an area I love. But this is one of the richest countries in the world. It needs its cleaners and porters, it’s shop staff and it’s waiters. The minions who work to keep the city and the country and the economy going. It needs to realise that the people who live in social housing are not all on benfits. They are not all uneducated lowlife trash. They are humans and no matter what particular situation they are in at this present time they deserve a home. The social cleansing that is happening will mean there are no homes for these people. They cannot commute as wages are too low. What will all those who have moved into the once vibrant working class areas do when the working class are no longer there?
This crime against humanity, witnessed by all through the screens of the phones that captured the horror, almost had to happen. It was enevitable when the companies lied to councils about the cladding they used. When councils ignored the tenants. When the country became obsessed with home ownership. When lies became the truth. People cannot unsee the fire. Cannot unhear the screams. But those voices that once were silent are being heard. I and many others intend to make use our voices, talents abilities and passion in whatever way we can to shout above the noise of inequality. Those voices need to be heard. These voices will no longer be igonored. For the memory of those who can no longer speak and to stop anything like this happening again.