A benefit to society

News that 90% of social housing tenants feel that the media presents stereotypes of them is depressing but sadly not surprising.

As a report launched at the House of Commons today by the Benefit to Society campaign argues, the negative views are embedded in whole swathes of TVprogramming that links housing tenure to benefits status.

But it’s not just about poverty porn like Benefits Street and Council House Crackdown and tabloid headlines about scroungers and large families.

More thoughtful programmes like How to get a Council House can mine the same themes and generate the same hostility.

And even supposedly objective TV and broadsheet news coverage can strengthen the stereotypes by resorting to the lazy clichés of ‘sink’ and ‘crumbling’ estates and using stock pictures and idents of tower blocks and abandoned shopping trolleys.

So it is good to see that my union, the National Union of Journalists, is backing the Fair Press for Tenants guide aimed at journalists, PR people and documentary makers.

And the level of media interest in today’s launch and opinion poll also bodes well and is a chance to combat the stereotypes and change a few opinions.

However, as we all know, the campaign faces an uphill battle to change public opinion not just about social housing and social tenants but also poverty and welfare benefits.

That’s seen every time a new poverty porn TV programme gets transmitted – for everyone on Twitter and in the media challenging the portrayal of social housing there are others on Twitter and in the right-wing tabloids using it as more reasons to put down tenants.

The issues are longstanding and deep-seated, as today’s report by Anne Power and Bert Provan makes clear:

  • The poor management, design and construction of some post-war estates – though it’s important to note that they were not the inevitable product of council housing but forced on it by central governments that put quantity before quality
  • Highly visible events like the collapse of Ronan Point and the riots at Broadwater Farm that embedded an image in the public mind
  • The twin impact of the right to buy and homelessness legislation that reduced the proportion of homes for rent and increased the proportion of vulnerable households in the social housing that was left
  • The impact of waves of welfare reform, cuts in services and ‘scrounger’ rhetoric – when in reality only 7% of tenants are unemployed, 70% are in work or retired and 23% are unable to work because of caring responsibilities or disability.

But other big issues raised by tenants themselves include concern about poor housing management, often by private landlords of ex-right to buy properties, and, worryingly, being made to feel uncomfortable about their tenure by someone in an ‘official’ position, including housing association and local authority staff.

So on top of the national campaigning, perhaps progress could start with a reflection on whether social landlords themselves are always doing the best job they can as well as pressure on journalists and TV programme makers to reflect the positive reality not the negative stereotypes.

Housing minister Dominic Raab tweeted that he was ‘excited’ to be attending the launch – but will he also reflect on the fact that his party has spent most of the last eight years reinforcing the stereotypes about social housing and tenants?

Hopefully journalists will respond to the call to give tenants a fair press – most of the recommendations are things that good reporters should be doing anyway but they are often under huge pressure to churn out content as quickly as possible.

So maybe there is more that social landlords can do too? Their PR departments can often be better resourced than the cash-strapped local papers reporting their news.

And perhaps social landlords should also ask themselves how far all the talk about tenant ‘involvement’ and ‘empowerment’ really delivers what it says.

The report makes the key point that the reduction in the amount of social housing in the last 40 years has not just reduced the options for people in need of good housing, it has also reduced the number of people with direct experience of what it means and the benefit it is to society.

Reaching them and communicating the positive message what social housing can offer to communities will be one key to success.

All of this would be important at any time but in the shadow of Grenfell Tower, and the questions that need asking about what role stereotyping may have played in the decision making that led to the fire, it is vital. Especially for the green paper to come.

As Soha Housing tenant and retired senior BBC archives assistant Carole Burchett puts it:

‘I can’t understand why it’s acceptable for the media and politicians to present tenants as constantly taking something from society. It’s just not true. I’ve worked all my life and always lived in social housing with all kinds of different people. Many are working, retired or volunteers and many others are caring for loved ones.

‘I feel very strongly that we must do something to challenge this constant attack. When I tell people where I live their expression changes. Friends and relatives say to my face “we don’t want any social housing here, we don’t want those sort of people nearby” even though they know where I live. This campaign is about setting the record straight.’

You can pledge your support here – it only takes couple of minutes.


2 Comments on “A benefit to society”

  1. Chris Daniel says:

    Fair Press for Tenants !!! – I haven’t seen any bad press about tenants, Only Landlords. Just look at the BBC Panorama last week, interviewing tenants and not cross -checking the claims with landlords. I don’t see any legislation or regulation coming out that impacts tenants directly.
    Plenty that affect landlords ( which of course gets passed on as a a legitimate business cost to tenants, a point not picked up on )
    Almost half of landlords have experienced rent arrears and the legislation does nothing to protect good tenants because they pt no measures in place to distinguish the bad ones – Guess why some landlords won’t let to certain groups ? )

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