To Cameron and Shapps, council housing is temporary shelter

I’m somewhat giddy with excitement at finding something to be pleased about in recent government policy.

Usually very low on my tolerance meter (or the Tolermetron ™) is housing minister Grant Shapps, but I have to admit I was pleased when he announced ‘Tenant Cashback will allow residents to take more control of their repairs budgets for their homes, for example carry out their own DIY, or commission it locally and pocket any savings made. Cash they could use however they want – for example, towards a deposit on their own house’.

I don’t mind playing prolier than thou, so I’ll tell you I grew up on a massive council estate and as far as I was aware everyone considered their homes to be their own. Numerous members of my family still live in council houses (and on the same estate, oh the poverty of aspiration, weep those who’d have them socially mobilised out of there), proof that council estates are often remarkably stable communities.

It’s because people consider council houses to be their own that they have always carried out repairs and done the same jobs round the house as the mortgaged sector (stripped of its sugar-coating, that’s what home ownership is).

What council tenants don’t do is inform the council they’re making repairs and most definitely don’t tell them about improvements in case the rent gets put up. The trick is never to give the council reason to pay you a visit, so keep the rent up to date and your head down and you can merrily knock through walls, build extensions, add garages, put in central heating, build stables and a swimming pool if you like, as long as nothing shows from the front.

With Tenant Cashback, Shapps is effectively giving away free money (always pleasing!) because if councils refuse to contribute, tenants will just get on and do it anyway as local authorities are far too busy managing public sector cuts to come round and check whether someone might be illicitly improving their own living standards.

So Shapps’ announcement pleased me very much indeed: until the last seven words.  I find it hard to understand the entrenched notion that council houses are the housing of last resort; that what the state provides are not homes, but temporary shelter.

Riding roughshod over working-class community stability Cameron recently said: ‘There is a question mark over whether, in the future, should we be asking when you are given a council home, is it for a fixed period because maybe in five or 10 years you will be doing a different job and you will be better paid and you will be able to get into the private sector’.

The assumption being that council housing is something you aspire to leave.  There’s a very confused message being sent in the tacit acknowledgement of a tenant’s sense of ownership with Tenant Cashback, combined with a heartlessly ruthless solution to housing shortages.

The area I grew up in was infused with stability, belonging and a powerful sense of community, and most estates remain so, despite constant negative press written by those with no experience of them. With relief we finally stopped moving between private rented properties when we got our council house and my mother resorted instead to weekly rearrangements of the furniture, which is not good when your dog has gone blind.

If the NHS is a matter of national pride and we fight fiercely for our right to state education, why do we stigmatise state housing and make it a matter of shame? If waiting lists are doubling then build more council houses.  It really is very simple. And I don’t mean Registered Social Landlords, I mean council, so tenants have transparent lines of accountability between themselves and their landlords.  Council housing should not be regarded as the housing of last resort but as a respectable and affordable way of living.


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