Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Landless Peasants

Poor Caroline Flint. As you read this, our Minister For Housing sits in a darkened room, rocking to and fro, pausing only to bang her head on the table. Occasionally she turns to a colleague, groaning: ‘…whatever was I thinking?’

She’s still floundering in the fallout after suggesting the withdrawal of tenancies from those found shirking employment. She even cited ‘…a culture of nobody works around here,’ allegedly rife in social housing (i.e. council housing, as ‘twas in the olden days.) But don’t worry, Caroline, I won’t be mentioning your funny five minutes here…

…except to run through the following points.
Firstly, ‘…culture of nobody works around here?’
What’s that then?
There indeed exists a culture of ‘…nobody can get a job around here no matter how hard they try,’ but try they do. Meanwhile, the blameless residents of many estates endure ‘…a culture of nobody can get their windows repaired around here,’ as cutbacks mean that councils routinely evade even essential repair obligations for all tenants, employed or not. What about briskly evicting the officials responsible?

And about those estates: most inhabitants work, despite living on ‘schemes’ or ‘developments’ (never say suburbs) frequently placed - because of invidious notions of social hygiene - well outside the city walls. Spiralling transport costs render it prohibitively expensive for job-seekers to ‘network’, attend interviews, or try on spec in person with employers to see if any unadvertised vacancies have arisen. And that says nothing of bus timetables which are downright useless if you work punitive, anti-social shifts for minimum wage and can’t afford a car.

Education is a vital tool in acquiring well-paid, secure and interesting work. Stand outside a school on most of the estates Caroline refers to and you will observe a lack of Chelsea Tractors driven by eager, well informed yummy mummies and daddies, and rarely are parents from miles away moved by the Holy Spirit to come over all Catholic in order to secure a place for their bright eyed brood. Of course, there are local heroes, but most parents are fighting to transfer out, rather than in.

Social Housing is being reduced, and in order to secure access a family will likely have been homeless for ages. They might be bedraggled and demoralised to breaking point and beyond, having lost precious belongings like interview clothes and references (even their confidence, and ultimately the will to live) during the trauma of constant jaunts between hostels and B&B’s, and yet they still work, or at least they try.

If Caroline’s wish is granted, what sort of jobs will be provided? Properly paid, meaningful employment with some hope of advancement? Or just another badly organised, box-ticking training scheme which – somewhere along the line – involves learning by heart the phrase ‘Do you want fries with that?’

Full employment is a myth; there isn’t a job for everyone. Treating housing as a treat for those who behave themselves is not only patronising and offensive, but also another example of people who own no property being treated like teenagers who have outstayed their welcome in the crowded parental home, or landless peasant scum. Even so, Caroline Flint might have earned my respect had she suggested penalising those city wide boys personally responsible for breaking the UK’s economy by spiriting away mortgage money in convoluted, avant-garde but (for them) lucrative trading methods, which have siphoned off billions of pounds to rest a wee while in pixie-lala-land.

C4’s ‘Shameless’ is not a documentary, and the idea that on council estates, those in full employment are ridiculed by masses of scrounging, jeering neighbours is utter bunkum. Her now infamous statement was a cynical attempt to appease Middle England - that bastion of tolerance this government is so peachy keen to mollify, but she failed. When even the head of The National Federation of Housebuilders speaks out against you, then something is badly wrong.

I’m sorry if this response seems a little tardy, but when I first heard what she said, I couldn’t stop laughing. Then I started to cry. I’d imagine that’s exactly how Caroline Flint feels right now.


Anonymous said...

Rentergirl, I like your blog and you're obviously an intelligent and erudite person, but you are so frequently wrong you make me despair sometimes.

There's a good blog about writing blogs. I forget its name, but its first tip is to stop and think before you write. Coming from a complete stranger, as someone who admires your blog and genuinely wishes you all the best, can I suggest that you take this advice a bit more often?

Flint's mention of the "no-one works round here" culture is of course crude and based on prejudices, but there is a large element of truth in what she says, in the same way that there's a large element of truth in your response. Neither of you are wrong - it is simply wrong to say that everyone living in social housing is an angel, desperate to work but crushed by the system; just as it is wrong to say that everyone in social housing is a lazy arse who gets pregnant just to claim the benefits.

The culture she was referring to is the culture of "residualised poverty". Sorry to get all academic on you but I get the impression that you're a well-educated graduate who's probably read about residualised poopulations. In places where people with talent and ambition have left, then the culture of those left behind becomes self-reinforcing as there's no-one to question it. Why should someone work when it's a mission to take the bus for wages only slightly more than benefits and you have to deal in drudgery and ridicule? It's a no-brainer of a question and yet we're all paying for this. This isn't fair for anyone concerned - for the "hard working" nor for the people stuck in that kind of attitude; and yet it condems people and families into poverty of spirit and of kitchen cupboard: there dwells mistrust and jealousy that turns into racism; there dwells antipathy of those who have "succeeded" which turns into aggression or even criminality; there dwells resentment that turns into depression, substance abuse, neglect, abandonment.

Flint may be wrong, but so are you. Flint may be right, but so are - life just isn't black and white.

Anonymous said...

I think her comments were also silly and misjudged. But while such generalisations should be avoided, it's also incorrect to assume that everybody in this country wants to do an honest day's work. There ARE people that aspire to do as little as possible. There are those who have complete disdain for the individuals that do take meagre employment. Those that feel - in their unemployed state - that they are above such tasks. There ARE whole estates where the idea that crime is an honourable living remains absolutely rife. And a lack of education and general ignorance which has lead to estates where such myths are allowed to become local law.

It does exist. I've lived amongst it. And I don't know what the answer is. Educate? Educate the parents so that they may instil other values based on self-worth? Create better environments for people to live so that they may have more civic pride?

It's a very complicated problem that has no easy solution. But in as much as it doesn't help to get all 'them' and 'us' to appeal to the Daily Mail readers, neither can it help to be all completely Guardian about it either. There is a culture there - where not everyone in such a situation will be a 'salt of the earth' character that's simply a victim of society. And until we can find some middle ground where the woolly liberals aren't up in arms about such observations and where the 'my taxes' population aren't exaggerating the point to fit their own hysteria/paranoia, I can't really see how any successful initiative could be put in place to create better, more prosperous communities.

RenterGirl said...

Connor: you too are obviously an intelligent and erudite person, but here's some advice that I hope you won't find offensive:
(1) The point of this and all other blogs is..well; it's mine.
(2) I'm sure you don't mean to sound patronising, but frequently you do.
And Anonymous: I apreciate that I wrote was the opposite side of what of what Flint said (she reiterated it on recently - has she no shame?) but I didn't notice any of the points I made even in the liberal press. She's the Minister For Housing, and I feel that her time would be better spent
sorting out...HOUSING! and all the problems I write about here.

DaveC said...

Reading more of your blogs, I find myself agreeing more with you than the obvious academics above.
I was brought up on council estates in pit villages 'up north' but I now live in leafy suburbia in the Midlands, so I have seen both sides of the argument.
There are plenty of examples of both hard-working families (though in many cases with a single parent) and idle slackers in these estates.

I left the Labour Party partly because it was trying to attract Daily Mail readers and comments like Caroline Flint's don't make encourage me to reconsider.

If she had ever lived in one of those estates she would have known what it takes to escape from them - social mobility is now much more difficult than it was a generation ago. And 'post-code prejudice' also exists among some employers, making it difficult to get decent jobs - if there are any in the area.

So you kick people out of their house if you can't get a job that pays the rent, because the 'marginal rate' of taxation (i.e. the amount your benefits are reduced for each £1 extra you earn) means that you can be paying 80% or more 'tax'. I don't suppose you remember Super Tax, do you?

And then they remove the 10% starting rate of tax to make the poor even worse off - a Tory idea if I have ever seen one. Hold on - isn't GB Labour?

Have a nice day - if that's possible in Dovecot Towers!

Anonymous said...

Very Interesting!
Thank You!