STEVEN DOWNES on the television documentary being broadcast on Sunday night which seems certain to shock the nation and pour shame on Croydon Council all over again
You might think you couldn’t be shocked any more. But you’d be wrong.
Watching Surviving Squalor: Britain’s Housing Shame, the ITN documentary being broadcast on Sunday night, much of the material, most of the pictures, should be familiar. They’ve featured, prominently, in the outstanding news reporting that has been carried out into the appalling standards of disrepair in much of the country’s social housing – council homes and housing associations alike – since last March (as in the video above), when Dan Hewitt and the television producers put Regina Road front and centre of the public consciousness for the first time.
And here they are, back again, this time with a carefully considered film about the decay of public housing in Britain over the last 40 years.
Perhaps it was the squelching sound, as young mum Fransoy walks across the sodden carpet in what’s supposed to be her family’s living room in their one-bed council flat in South Norwood. I hadn’t noticed it so much when the same shot was used in the news reports six months ago. But now, that out-of-place sound seems to capture the desperation of Fransoy Hewitt, her sometime Regina Road block neighbour Leroy McNally, and all of the other interviewees in this engrossing hour-long documentary.
In interview after interview, case study after case study, you can hear it in the voices of the victims of Britain’s social housing scandal. Without exception, whether they live in Manchester or Birmingham, Brixton or Croydon, they are all close to the edge of utter despair, questioning why, or how, they can continue to exist in conditions such as this.
After five minutes, I had to press the pause button. The tears were of anger as much as pity.
This should be the Cathy Come Home film of the 2020s. Just as director Ken Loach’s dramatisation in the 1960s managed to hurry in urgent reforms to deal with homelessness, so Surviving Squalor ought to shame the nation’s politicians into getting to grips with Britain’s social housing slums.
But they won’t. Robert Jenrick, being fast-tracked as the Alan B’stard of this Tory government, makes a fleeting appearance in the film. He is the Secretary of State for Housing, among other things, and in less than 30seconds manages to claim that the appalling conditions found in so many social housing flats are nothing to do with 10 years of government austerity measures that have cut local government spending by 38 per cent.
Ensuring that the vast majority of the nation’s population have homes fit to live in is not a priority for this government. It never has been. But “Getting a foot on the property ladder”, one of the great delusions of British neo-cons, is, as is handing massive public subsidies to private property developers.
The constant churn in housing ministers is evidence of how low a priority this is for the Conservatives: Esther McVey (eight months), Kit Malthouse (12 months), Dominic Raab (six months), Alok Sharma (eight months). The current incumbent is Christopher Pincher. Yeah, I had to look him up, too.
Of course, notoriously, the former MP for Croydon Central, Gavin Barwell, was once housing minister. He lasted for 11 months, long enough to be around at the time of the Grenfell Tower disaster, a tragedy which underlines many of the shortcomings with public housing stock.
Once Barwell lost his seat, then his job as Theresa May’s chief of staff, his lordship (how else do we reward mediocrities and failures?) landed himself a cushty little number as a director with Clarion, the housing association. And they get a dishonourable mention in Surviving Squalor, too, because of the dreadful state of their Eastfields Estate in Mitcham.
Back in March, after the first shocking news report, seeing the terrible state of damp and mould, dangerous electrics and rotting personal possessions that the ITN cameras exposed in Regina Road, it might have been reasonable to assume that this was a one-off. This, after all, is modern, thrusting Britain in 2021.
But of course, South Norwood is only a few miles from those rat-infested Clarion flats in Mitcham. And there are so many other places like them just here in south London, from Lewisham, to next-door borough Southwark, to neighbouring Lambeth.
In one flat, it is not just water running down the walls, but “faecal matter”: real shit.
Politicians, like Jenrick, councils, like Croydon’s, and housing associations, like Clarion, don’t seem capable of dealing with the situations, of getting things fixed and keeping homes well-maintained. It is “because they don’t live the way I am living”, one of the desperate tenants tells the TV reporter. You fear that he is correct.
Another, who has been dealing with leaks through the ceiling of his Brixton flat for seven years, says that every time he has complained, “It just falls on deaf ears.”
That was the accusation made earlier this year when the Regina Road scandal was first exposed. Croydon council leader Hamida Ali then gave one of her car-crash interviews, telling Dan Hewitt of her shame that the council’s tenants had been forced to take the accounts of their dire situations to journalists.
Hewitt puts Councillor Ali right, reminding her that the tenants had brought their complaints to the council, in some cases going back four years.
“Yes. Yes. They had,” Ali said then, in a piece of footage so excruciating that the producers have spliced it into Sunday night’s film so we might all cringe at the incompetence once again.
The producers handle the “official response” bit to their film very neatly. After each shocking example, a caption appears on screen, silently, reflecting the full vacuous, robotic platitudes which the nation’s middle managers depend upon to avoid ever accepting any real responsibility.
Of course, all of them say that they are “deeply sorry”. These are not the most convincing apologies you’ll ever read. No one is ever truly accountable.
This is a crisis of poor housing across the country, the end-product of 40 years of Thatcherite Right to Buy which has stripped the public sector of so much of its housing stock.
Time and time and time again, the film shows us people being forced to suffer similar slum conditions. These are not coincidences.
“Tenants’ lives are being destroyed by squalid, dangerous social housing… in unliveable, unthinkable situations,” reporter Hewitt tells us.
Croydon’s Fransoy and Leroy were the focus of ITN’s first news report, and they feature prominently in Surviving Squalor, too, thankfully both after having been re-homed by their shell-shocked local council.
There’s a clear sense, though, that the mental anguish suffered after months of enduring the appalling conditions in their flats, and the disinterest of the local bureaucrats has left its scars. Fransoy Hewitt articulates it well: “It was like a horror movie,” she says.
“You prayed and hoped for someone to come and rescue you.”
Fransoy and her two young boys may have escaped their nightmare of living out of plastic bags in one small room of their flat, but it’s clear that there are many other council tenants in Croydon who are still in need of an urgent rescue.
- Surviving Squalor: Britain’s Housing Shame, Sunday September 12 at 10.15pm on ITV. It will be available to watch on catch up afterwards on the ITV Hub
Read more: Investigation into housing scandal finds systemic failure and incompetence
Read more: Ali accused of cover-up over findings on council flats scandal
Read more: Croydon shamed over ‘dangerous squalor’ in council flats
Read more: ‘Is it because the council don’t care? Where is their humanity?’
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