Saturday, July 01, 2017

Perspective required

Architect Piers Taylor is quoted by Dezeen as stating that those dependent on social housing are worst affected by corner-cutting measures.
"To be working class or to live in social housing is to be punished by a state and a society that considers your life so worthless that you should be banished to a world that is dangerous, ugly, cruel and uncaring. The Grenfell fire, tragically, comes as no surprise. As a society, we have become almost blind to a world where social care, social housing and social services have their life, quite literally, squeezed out of them."
The architect spoke out after being contacted by Dezeen in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, in which at least 80 residents of the north London high-rise are believed to have lost their lives.

And yet, while I remain of a 'left-of-centre' persuasion, I feel that Taylor's verdict is too harsh and in some ways facile.

A program of council house building started after the First World War. The Housing Act 1930 stimulated slum clearance, the destruction of inadequate housing,  in the tenements and slums of Britain’s inner cities. The 1945–51 Labour government introduced legislation that removed explicit references to housing for the working class and introduced the concept of filling the needs for a wide range of society. Aneurin Bevan, the Minister for Health and Housing, promoted a vision of new estates where “the working man, the doctor and the clergyman will live in close proximity to each other”.

Last year David Cameron struck a different note, suggesting that council estates epitomise the failures of the state: “Some of them, especially those built just after the war, are actually entrenching poverty. On these so-called sink estates you’re confronted by concrete slabs dropped from on high, brutal high-rise towers and dark alleyways that are a gift to criminals and drug dealers.”

Two decades earlier Tony Blair had warned that “There are estates where the biggest employer is the drugs industry, where all that is left of the high hopes of the post-war planners is derelict concrete.”

This tone of despondency, even defeatism, might have amazed the council house tenants of the late forties. To be sure, the local authority tenants of that time were offered only shelter, accommodation less awful than what they had known before. It was up to each and every individual to make of their lives what they could, in spite of the stigma attached to their dependency on the state. There were those who were unequal to the task, who remained educationally disadvantaged, who were far from skilled in parenting, who swelled the ranks of society’s losers. But equally there were many who accepted the challenge of finding ways to escape from a cycle of deprivation, to qualify for decent jobs and to come closer to fulfilling Bevan’s utopian vision.

I would argue that today, while there is no shortage of those who can be termed society’s losers, there is probably an unchanged proportion of council estate residents who have taken their destiny in their own hands and made of their lives something we should properly admire and encourage.

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