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Surviving Squalor: ITV’s Conversation Starter

Over the last few weeks, ITV has broadcast a series of articles highlighting terrible social housing conditions from a cluster of tragic cases in both council and housing association properties.

ITV’s series of Housing Stories has charted disrepairs in many forms.

Using the format of a longer documentary, ITV brought many of these stories together again in a fifty-minute programme on Sunday 12th September entitled Surviving Squalor. The focus was primarily on councils, although a small number of housing association cases were included.

From the managed decline of entire estates, to children sleeping in tents to shield them from conditions in the home. From collapsing ceilings deluging water, to homes with walls covered in thick black mould. It was a shameful and damning indictment of public housing in Britain. Presenting the programme, reporter Daniel Hewitt concluded:

“These are all real examples, and I could go on and on. The point here is one of culture.”

Daniel Hewitt, ITV

The piece promised that Hewitt would hear “first-hand from residents being forced to live for months or even years in unsafe and uninhabitable properties”, and the programme ably delivered on this part of its promise.

A Voice for Survivors of Squalor

In the early sequences, previous cases were reviewed and new accounts added. Together they showed in graphic and horrific detail the appalling conditions that tenants endure. All had spent months trying to get their landlords to address the problems, and getting nowhere. It was critically important that these tenants were finally heard.

Clarion, the largest UK housing association, was one of the landlords featured

Contributions from tenants were interspersed with written statements from landlords apologising for having got it wrong – usually adding ‘on this occasion’. And of course, promising to put it right. Their statements were predictable, fleeting corporate handwringing and buck-passing exercises from the usual suspects at the executive level.

Corporate crocodile tears will no doubt be followed by frenetic activity from public relations teams who will make sure the same executives will easily survive the squalor depicted, and continue to draw nice, fat salaries.

Hewitt highlighted the impact on physical and mental health for tenants living in these conditions, and the consequent cost of health services. The Building Research Establishment’s report on the cost of poor housing to the NHS for example estimates this to be around £1.4 billion.

Towards the end of the piece, the tenants interviewed earlier in the programme were revisited, accompanied by a banner explaining how their issues had been addressed. Some were rehoused, others put into hotels. What was not shown was the fate of all the other tenants on the same run-down estates, who no doubt will continue to live in squalor.

A Welcome Airing of Housing Issues

The series has been widely welcomed by tenant and resident groups across the UK who are keenly aware that social housing has moved far from the vision of its founders.

Hewitt promises that ITV’s housing focus will continue, and this too is welcomed. What needs to be shown however is the commonality of these cases. They are not isolated incidents, nor the regrettable, occasional malfunctioning of an extremely large and complex housing system. Instead, the problems arise from deep-rooted, systemic factors such as the weak remits of government bodies which should be protecting tenants and a lack of legal protections for tenants.

The Impact of Council Cuts

Hewitt pointed out to Robert Jenrick (then Secretary of State for Housing) that for council tenants, these conditions are the inevitable consequence of cutting local government budgets by around 20% over the last ten years.

Jenrick (right) swiftly but implausibly denied that his government’s ideologically driven cuts bore any responsibility for the disrepair of council housing.

There was unfortunately however no exposure of the vast wealth that housing associations have at their disposal. The sector recorded a £4.7 billion surplus in 2019/20 and housing association executives therefore have no equivalent poverty-pleading excuse for the squalid condition of their properties.

The scale of abuse of the service charging system is yet another form of exploitation of the poor by the rich, contributing the entrapment and impoverishment of tenants. It goes unchallenged partly because a proportion of it is paid by the benefits system, so moves from taxpayers directly into the coffers of housing associations. It is also unchallenged because so many of the systems for redress favour landlords over tenants.

Pertinent Questions

Hewitt’s team have asked some pertinent questions, but have not attempted to answer one that they started with, namely “why [are] some of the most vulnerable in society being failed by a housing system that consistently ignores their concerns, fails to fix their problems, and offers them nowhere else to go.”

Commercialisation drives housing associations away from social purpose

In addressing this point, the programme could have explored for example the extent to which housing associations are moving away from social renting as their core business, and focusing instead on developments for sale or rent on the open market. This commercialisation is rapidly making housing associations indistinguishable from large, private construction companies.

No Way to Make an Impact

Another point that could be usefully developed is the one common thread connecting all these cases, no matter what the nature of the issue. Large, powerful, remote housing associations can get away with this behaviour because there is no meaningful way for tenants to hold them to account.

Housing association complaints systems are an endlessly repeating loop. Neither fines from the First Tier Tribunal nor compensation orders from the Housing Ombudsman are big enough to make a financial dent in the vast reserves of housing associations. Downgrades from the Regulator of Social Housing are rare, and usually triggered only where there is a concern about financial mismanagement. Their remit is to protect assets and investments, not tenant wellbeing. Councillors and politicians acting on behalf of constituents are just as easily ignored as the tenants themselves.

The point is not that things go wrong, but that there is no way for tenants to get things put right. Tenants are left forever banging on a firmly locked and bolted door.

Media Power

Five and a half decades ago, the BBC drama Cathy Come Home mobilised people into action over homelessness and poor housing conditions.

Ironically, the programme helped L&Q, one of the huge and faceless housing associations featured in Surviving Squalor, to achieve its first corporate merger.

Cathy’s fictional but realistic story exposed the very human, very brutal costs of housing insecurity. Back then, a BBC television play had a profound social impact. It led to an urgent Parliamentary debate and far-reaching discussions in the media.

ITV could follow in Cathy’s footsteps and take the discussion it has started with its Housing Stories beyond the purely individual cases. It has educated and informed. The next step is to bring about change.

Organising Ourselves

For their part, tenants and residents are organising for themselves. Under the banner of SHAC, Clarion tenants have hung flags from their doors and windows demanding “Clarion: See Us, Hear Us”. Hyde tenants have collectively petitioned their executive to review service charges. In L&Q, they are mounting a high profile online campaign to get their landlord to “Fix Our Broken Homes”. Across landlords, some have begun rent and service charge ‘strikes’. If you are interested in self-organisation, join us. See our SHAC@ groups for more details.

15 September 2021

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in our Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Social Housing Action Campaign (SHAC).

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