|In the post-war era of my childhood, absolute poverty was eliminated in this country and the differential between the poorest and the richest eroded. We seemed on the verge of proving that the poor do not always have to be with us. Sadly, in recent times this trend has gone into reverse. The number of people in households with below half average income rose from 4 million in 1982 to more than 11 million in 1992. Britain has, once more, become a divided nation. Worse still, the poorest and most disadvantaged people are concentrated in particular neighbourhoods, most of which contain a preponderance of council, or other 'social', housing.
I cut my political teeth in one such area in Birmingham, campaigning with people in damp-ridden 50s and 60s concrete-built properties, against a Council which told them the problem was caused by "condensation due to the mode of living of the tenants". Although not affluent, the majority of families had someone in work, and all they demanded was that their homes be brought up to modern standards and their repairs done on time. If only life was so simple now!
The investment needed never arrived, or arrived too late. In the meantime, other changes wreaked havoc: allocation policies meant that long-standing tenants moved out of flats into more desirable houses; unemployment brought poverty and family breakdown; the best houses were sold... Council housing, long regarded as second-best to owner occupation, became stigmatised as the 'choice' for those with no choice. Now, those that can, leave. Transfers between estates are arranged for those fleeing violence and crime or whose homes are being demolished, leading to a massive increase in the rate of turnover on council estates, destroying social cohesion and doing great damage to children's education. Crime and poor education standards are the big issues.
This legacy will be familiar to most readers. Tony Blair is on record as saying that, if his Government has not raised the living standards of the poorest by the end of its time in office, it will have failed. But we have heard rhetoric like that before, usually at the launch of some new regeneration initiative. Yet, if you re-visit areas subject to these various programmes - inner city partnership, estate action, city challenge and so on - it is difficult to detect any sustainable improvement in the quality of life of the inhabitants. However, these programmes concentrated on physical change, rather than on social and economic processes. They were short-term. And local people were only involved in a tokenistic way. To cap it all, they were financed through cuts in mainstream housing investment programmes.
There is hope that the new Government has learned from these failures. New Deal for Communities is based on a comprehensive approach, tackling housing, health, education and employment issues together, and developing a watertight framework for dealing with anti-social behaviour. There is a recognition that regeneration will take a long time - a generation.
Above all, there needs to be a transformation of the attitudes of professionals and policy makers towards council tenants. What is needed can be summarised in one word - respect.
The lack of respect for council tenants is epitomised in a letter sent by Matthew Parris, when he was Margaret Thatcher's parliamentary aide. He told Mrs Collingwood, who had complained about the poor state of her council house, that she should be grateful for what she had, seeing that it was, after all, paid for by the taxpayer.
The vogue for re-designating tenants as 'customers' will not help. With no financial transaction between landlord and tenant in most cases, the relationship is not one between equals. Indeed, the echo of Parris' words can still be heard every time a housing officer complains of the 'ingratitude' of their 'customers'. The social security system should ensure an acceptable level of income, with Housing Benefit assimilated into other personal allowances and into benefits like Child Benefit, leaving the individual to decide how it is spent. This would restore the relationship between the quality of housing and the rent paid - handing self-determination back to tenants and improving the cost-effectiveness of the service. The cost of a decent home must be affordable to people in work, on average earnings, by keeping rents reasonable through bricks and mortar subsidy.
Can people believe their views will be take seriously when the system does not even trust them to pay their own rent?