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How to get a council house Matthew Warburton - 02/08/2013

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Anyone tuning in to "How to get a Council House" on Channel 4 expecting a lurid expose of corruption, bureaucratic insensitivity or tips on how to jump the housing queue would have been disappointed.  Instead, the programme followed the stories of a few of the 24,000 applicants on the housing waiting list in Tower Hamlets who are chasing a weekly supply of around 40 vacant homes.

 

It showed people in a variety of desperate housing circumstances - a family of four crammed into a one-bedroom flat, a couple expecting their first baby living in a single privately-rented room infested with bed-bugs with no lock on the door and an elderly man with limited mobility trapped in an upstairs flat with no lift. 

 

What shone through was the patience and dignity with which they coped with all the disappointments the allocations system could deliver - being told they did not have enough priority to be shortlisted for an offer, expectantly turning up for a viewing only to have the applicant ahead of them take the property, accepting an offer than did not really meet their needs knowing that nothing better would come along.  Patient, too, were the Tower Hamlets staff forced to explain over and over to obviously needy people why the council could not help.

 

For the general viewing public, the programme did a first rate job in spiking some popular myths about the housing shortage and council housing.  It knocked on the head any idea that the housing shortage is the result of immigration, or that deserving applicants are suffering because council housing is unfairly allocated.  It also showed the very real need for council housing, by carefully highlighting fact that market rents in Tower Hamlets are two to three times higher than council rents for equivalent properties, putting private renting as much beyond the reach of most households as home ownership.

 

But there were also messages for a housing audience.  One of these was the fact that, in a situation of acute shortage, choice-based lettings offers no choice at all for the vast majority of applicants who bid unsuccessfully week after week for property.  Another was that the use of time in need to distinguish among applicants in equivalent need does no favours to those who cannot wait.  Except, of course, when it is the council which cannot wait because it is waiting to demolish an applicant's home.  So, while some applicants never get near an offer, others turn down half a dozen or more.

 

One of the more touching moments showed an 83 year old woman with arthritis reluctantly accepting a flat at the top of a flight of stairs knowing that it would not long remain suitable for her as her condition worsened.  But it was the best offer she was likely to get.  It had been turned down by a man trapped upstairs in a liftless flat who could only accept ground floor accommodation.  In conversation with his neighbour he wondered why the council had ever built flats without lift access, knowing they would not remain suitable for tenants when they grew old.  His neighbour blamed the Right to Buy.  The system used to work, he said, when there were enough flats for people to move around as their needs changed.  But too many have been sold, and not enough built. Which only shows that your average council tenant has a better understanding of the problem than your average Daily Mail leader writer.  

 

I shall definitely be watching episodes 2 and 3.   

 

Episode 1 broadcast at 9.00 pm on Thursday 1 August and currently available on 4 on Demand; episodes 2 & 3 to follow on 8 and 15 August.

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