Originally published on October 24 on my blog for Inside Housing
Whether we are talking about benefits or housing, a new Ken Loach film and a BBC documentary expose a system that’s failing. In the face of growing demand and shrinking provision, the safety net has gaping holes. Rising homelessness and the queues at foodbanks are the symbols of this. The basics of life – shelter, food and warmth – can no longer be taken for granted.
Seen from the outside this is obvious and so are the answers. Return to provision based on need. Build more social housing. Abandon the divisive rhetoric of strivers and scroungers. Follow the founding principles of the welfare state.
Most people working on the inside will agree with this. But they also have to work within the system as it is and they know that there is little chance of real political change any time soon. This dual reality is perhaps most obvious in the social/business divide within housing associations but it exists right across the public and voluntary sectors too.
Watching I, Daniel Blake and No Place to Call Home over the last few days, these divides were obvious. One is a documentary, the other a film, but both would claim to be revealing truths about life when the safety net fails. But they also beg a less obvious question for people working within the system: how do you know when you’ve crossed the line between doing your best in an impossible situation and making that situation worse? One answer, I’d suggest, lies in the language we use.
I was nine years old when Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon and uttered the immortal words that he didn’t quite get right.
At the time the landing seemed most memorable because we got the day off school to watch it. In retrospect, of course, it was almost the end of term anyway so the teachers were probably glad to pack us all off into a room to watch TV.
Re-watching it now the main thing that strikes me is how blurry and black and white it looks but it was a completely different story then. It’s important to remember that hardly anyone had a colour TV and live TV of any kind was pretty primitive, so it did not seem that way at the time. The whole thing with the beeps on the soundtrack etched its way so far into the national consciousness that we would be doing them on the school playground for months afterwards.