I arrived at the council estate where I work yesterday with spring in the air. There’s blossom on the trees and some of the daffs and tulips are coming up, which is miraculous because I planted them! But at the risk of straining a metaphor, there’s another sense of renewal at work.
One of my earliest council housing memories is of going to my grandparents’ home in Dagenham and finding it redecorated. It seemed to happen by magic. One week nan and granddad were choosing wallpaper from a book, the next week it was on the wall! They didn’t seem to have been afflicted by the same stress I’ve come to associate with DIY. That’s because they didn’t do it – the Council did.
It wasn’t that my granddad wasn’t capable of wallpapering. He was very skilled, but he was probably still working at the time and also liked gardening, marquetry, reading and spending time with his grandchildren. My nan wasn’t up to it. It wasn’t charity either. They’d lived in the same house for thirty years and like many council tenants, had paid enough rent to buy it several times over. Regular redecorating was part of the service.
The estate where I work is ‘tenant managed’ so residents have a degree of control over what gets done. Having a local budget enables us to pay a dedicated handyperson to do small jobs for tenants at a fraction of the cost and frustration we’d face by using sub-contractors. Routine repairs get done almost immediately and we’ve also saved enough money to undertake a limited programme of improvements to tenants’ homes. We’re decorating! As with nan and granddad, all we’re really doing is giving tenants some of their money back, but in a form that (we hope) they’ll appreciate because we improve their home while they get on with something else. We also have older, iller and poorer residents for who this means a bit more.
On a more ambitious scale, we’re also looking at putting in a lift to give the estate a new lease of life at a time when, thanks to 35 years of individualistic housing policy, opportunities for moving as tenants get older or mobility becomes difficult are much more limited. The jargon phrase is ‘lifetime homes’.
It’s a great feeling, but I’m not seeing this as utopian exceptionalism. What we’re doing could be replicated at every council estate. It could even happen for non-municipal housing, but it’s the unifying principle of publically owned housing that sees beyond the limits of personal property that really makes it possible.