Council housing is not for ‘losers’

Former home secretary blames Right to Buy for stigma attached to social housing.

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Right to Buy is to blame for a culture that sees council housing as homes for “losers” says former home secretary Alan Johnson.

Johnson told Channel 4 news that Grenfell had drawn attention to “how low in consideration” council tenants were.

He urged contemporary politicians to end an “obsession” with home ownership to talk up council housing.

The one-time Labour leadership contender now an acclaimed biographical author grew up in the slums of North Kensington – in accommodation condemned as unfit for human habitation well before he and his family moved in.

At the time, the home was a ticket out of squalor, despite it being a rough area. The dream, the escape route, was to land a council house.

”There’s no romance in poverty, but there was a community,” he says.  “We were part of the lucky generation – we knew things were going to get better for us.”

Recalling his childhood home, he remembers how it only had one sink, no hot running water or electricity and one outside toilet (or Khazi as he calls it) for up to 18 people.

“You didn’t have statistics on health and equality then, but now, as then, a boy growing up in North Kensington will die 12 years earlier than one from South Kensington. That’s about the difference between North and South Korea.

“Now, somehow, if you are a council tenant you are a loser in life. There must be something wrong for you to still be a council tenant. There is a stigma attached to a council estate.”

Asked why he thinks there is that stigma, Johnson says: “It has to go to the 1980s and the Right to Buy, which meant that anyone who take didn’t advantage of that … you’re still a council tenant? There must be something wrong with you.

“I think it is thoroughly depressing. Grenfell in a way has drawn attention to it, not just the terrible tragedy but the fact it shows how low in consideration these people are – almost an under-class, as we were.”

He would like to see society’s view on social housing and the people who live in it change, but realises the enormity of such a vision.

“Politically you can’t change the stigma – it’s a cultural issue.

“You can’t pass a law to say there must be no more stigma about council housing.

“But if politicians talked it up a bit more and weren’t so obsessed with home-ownership, suggesting that the Valhalla for everyone is to own their own home.

“Yes it’s important, but it’s not everything.”

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