My husband comes from Scotland, and we used to drive up every few months to see his parents and, as we rolled down towards his home town, we’d go past numerous tower blocks 30 or maybe 40 stories high, glowering down from the nearby hills. The phrase ‘filing cabinets for the poor’ always sprung to mind – I thought it was a quote from Jamie Reed, but I’ve had a look for it on-line and all you get is search results for office furniture, but it’s a powerful turn of phrase and tragically appropriate this week.
My nana lived in a small block on the 17th floor when I was a kid, it had a long balcony with brilliant views of the admittedly shittier parts of Manchester. But it also had big windows, a proper bathroom and a fitted kitchen. Nana loved it, it was on a busy bus route into the city and there was a row of shops nearby and space for kids to play. I remember sliding in my socks on the the shiny lino, high on wax polish fumes, outside her flat, and the delirious adventure of sending a bag of rubbish down the shute.
The years passed, Nana stayed but her neighbours changed. The lifts weren’t reliable and it became hell for families with small kids. The shops closed and the local friendliness that I remembered dripped away and was replaced with hostility, unhappiness and mistrust; most likely because the only people who would live there were people who didn’t have any more options: the death spiral of the area had begun. The play areas ended up filled with rubbish and broken glass. I’m trying to think who would have been in charge of the government at the time, and I’d like to think that it was Thatcher’s Tories, but it was most likely the city council that deprived the area of much needed maintenance money. Saving money on housing the poor isn’t – regrettably – a new invention or the sole territory of the Tories
This week tower blocks and poor public housing standards are in the news because of an horrendous London fire with its frightening amount of likely deaths. But virtually every left wing commenter – like me – could have told you that this was simply the shitty end to a sequence of everyday tragedies. From Thatcher’s ‘Rght to buy” that removed social housing, from Blair’s inability to be the Labour leader we should have had (he didn’t replace the lost houses, even with a mandate that could’ve covered the country in council properties) to the current incumbents who cut services that impact the poor even as they hand more money to the rich. Housing is now viewed as an investment for those who can afford to buy, landlords get rich on those who can’t and the safety net designed to keep folk off the streets – clearly doesn’t work. Housing the poor means poor housing all over again.
From shoddy terraces, grim Scottish tenements, tower blocks that melt after a gas explosion (Ronan point 1968), council housing estates that stretch to the horizons with nary a shop to be seen, to tower blocks gift wrapped in flammable plastic for future private investors, we don’t seem to have learnt anything. We have continued to vote for parties that put profit over people, we have looked the other way while our brothers and sisters have ended up on the streets, we have disregarded the corners of our cities that offer their residents grim housing and not much else, while we watched ‘reality’ TV. We need to understand the lessons that are being offered at Grenfell Tower and while we mourn for the victims we should be saying ‘never again’.