I was given a council house when a landlord kicked us out – today’s working class aren’t so lucky

My old block in Portsmouth is due to be demolished – and while I don’t want to sugarcoat the time I spent living there – it’s important to recognise that insecure housing would have only exacerbated the social problems I experienced

Hayden Vernon
Saturday 27 April 2019 14:36
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Number of social housing properties in England drops 11 per cent in one year

I grew up in Portsmouth and lived in private rentals with my single mum and my brother until I was 11, until we were evicted at short notice by our landlord and re-housed in a council flat by the local authority.

We were quite lucky, even though it didn’t feel like it to me at the time. Nowadays families often end up in emergency accommodation, such as hostels and B&Bs, before getting housed, but I still remember the lump in my throat as we drove up to the monolithic tower and it sunk in that I’d be living on an estate in Somerstown; the sort of place my mum had warned me not to walk through on my own.

I hated it at first – but there were upsides to living in Leamington House, the 1960s tower block where we were housed that were not all obvious to my 11-year-old self. My brother and I had our own bedrooms for the first time, it was always warm because we lived on the 13th floor and heating from other flats radiated upwards, rent was cheaper, we could decorate however we wanted and it was safer, inside the flat at least, because high rise flats are rarely burgled. This was a nice change for us, as our old place was above a chemist that junkies used to break into regularly.

Earlier this year, Portsmouth Council announced that the block, along with its sister Horatia House, are set to be demolished. A survey commissioned in the wake of the Grenfell fire found structural weaknesses in the buildings’ concrete that the council say would cost £86m to repair and only increase their lifespan by another 30 years.

I was saddened, not just for nostalgic reasons, but because Leamington House gave my family somewhere to call home when we were at our most vulnerable – and true social housing like this is disappearing.

Since the Tories came to power in 2010, the number of new social homes being built is down 90 per cent. The rate of house building, along with failure to meet the one-for-one replacement target on council houses that are bought via right to buy, has led to a steady decline in social housing availability.

I don’t want to sugarcoat the time I spent living in council housing. I was mugged near the block when I was 14, money was always tight and my mum was constantly fighting with her abusive boyfriend, who rarely worked and sat around the flat most of the time smoking weed with his mates.

But the point is these problems would have still been there if we had not been in a council flat. In fact, insecure or unsuitable housing would have exacerbated them, especially when you consider the alternatives that have sprung up as social housing has declined: there have been huge rises in council housing waiting lists and a 71 per cent increase in families living in temporary accommodation since 2011. Just this month it was revealed that property developers have been creating slum-like dwellings by exploiting a loophole introduced by the government in 2013 to turn offices into homes without planning permission.

Since Grenfell, the government has made the right noises about social housing – even commissioning a review into it – but it has prioritised affordable housing, which is rented at 80 per cent of the market rate, over proper social housing which typically costs around 50 per cent of the market rate. It has blurred the line between the two by counting both as social housing in its figures, even though affordable homes do not come with the secure lifetime tenancies that social homes do. Around 5,000 new homes were built for social rent in England in 2017-18, the latest figures available, compared to 24,000 newly built homes for affordable rent.

So far the signs have been positive from Portsmouth Council about the future of the Leamington/Horatia site. Preliminary work has shown there could be space for more new homes than the blocks provided previously and the council’s head of housing, Darren Sanders has said that at least 272 should be social housing, replacing the number lost.

But regeneration projects by other councils have started optimistically, too. When the Heygate Estate in south London was marked for regeneration in 2002, Southwark Council announced that the new site of around 2,530 homes would include 500 social housing units. By the time Lendlease, the developer that won the bid to build on the site, unveiled its final plans, just 82 remained. Time will tell if Portsmouth Council delivers on its promise. The next generation of working class families are relying on them doing so.

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