It was only a joke…?

Despite forcing Clinton Cards to remove its offensive card about council housing, as a sector there is much to be concerned about.  The battle for public opinion is still very much in the balance.

Someone at Clinton Cards HQ is probably having a very bad day.  Whilst #Cardgate has shown the positive power of social media (maybe now some higher up in the housing world will start to take note of its importance) in reality there are no winners in the events of the last few days.  The card was crass, with poor grammar and a highly debatable punchline but it raises more issues for the social housing world than merely a bad joke.

The key thing for me is not so much the content of the card, but the fact that it was thought to be publishable.  Comedy is often a yard-stick, a barometer by which to gauge public opinion.  Just as Bernard Manning has been assigned to the racist dustbin of the past by all but an idiotic few (thank god for social progress) so council/social housing has become fair game.  Whilst there was enough backlash to force Clinton Cards into a bland corporate apology the reason why the card existed in the first place is because it taps into a narrative most in this country already believe.  That those living in social housing are feckless, lazy, money leeching cretins.  I doubt if you nipped down your local boozer that many would take deep issue with the card.  Like it or lump it we’ve lost the PR battle, badly.

I fully agree with Colin Wiles’ assessment that had the phrase ‘Council Estate’ been swapped for ‘black people’, ‘gay people’ or ‘Muslim’ that veritable poo-storm would have kicked up such a stink (pun intended) that the card company would have been in deep trouble.  Instead, a few headlines have been made, one or two hardy souls popped their head over the parapet and defended the sector but realistically the whole thing will be forgotten in a week.  It is a sad indictment of the current state of play that a whole swathe of society is so easily cast aside.  But it should be no real surprise to those who live and/or work in the sector.  For years social housing has been pushed to the margins, those living within it largely reduced to the level of ‘they’, of the ‘other’.  Mostly because it is easier to belittle, isolate and undermine a group of people when they have no recognisable public identity.  Better to hate the enemy you don’t really know (or understand).

In one of his (many) blogs Joe Halewood noted that #housingday2014 should be everyday and not just one 24hr period of the year.  That as a sector we don’t do enough to promote the good that we, and the people who dwell within the homes that it serves, do.  This sorry episode backs up Joe’s argument.  On a day when the OECD, a body hardly known for its radically left-wing politics, has published a report highlighting a) the growth in inequality and b) the negative impact this has on a nation’s economy we would do well to carry on banging the drum in favour of social housing.  SHOUT and Council Homes Chat are a start, but we need much more.

For some the mere existence of social housing is an insult, an affront to their view of the world, even a lefty’s wet dream.  I would argue for the most part that these are people who never have needed social housing and probably never will.  Me, I’m a bit more of a rounded kind of guy.  My old man was born and raised on a working class housing estate, my mum was the daughter of a successful doctor who did very well in his chosen field of expertise.  Apart from getting to see both sides of the curtain it has meant that I have a chip on both shoulders (a rounded fella, dontcha know?).  I am lucky that my immediate family has been able to buy the house it lives in and have a comfortable lower-middle class life.  This isn’t the case for everyone and simply going “la la la, get on your bike and sort your self out” to people less fortunate is patronising and degrading.

As Max Salsbury puts very eloquently:

as long as genuinely affordable housing remains a pipedream; as long as right to buy homes end up in the laps of private landlords; as long as millions of people are paid hopelessly inadequate wages, social housing has to exist.”

Fundamentally we have social housing because the free-market doesn’t provide well enough for the vulnerable, the destitute or those at the margins of society.  Despite this we need to defend what is already in place because it is seen as unnecessary by a large minority. Stopping a crap Christmas Card won’t change that.  But hopefully it will help to re-affirm the need for a loud, clear and angry voice in favour of the sector that actually gives a rat’s arse about the poor.

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