The newspapers of the past couple of days have carried some interesting headlines, of the type I wasn’t sure I’d ever see: ‘Top bankers tumble as state steps in’ on this morning’s Financial Times was a particular example. One paper, however, has decided to take a different tack: in the week when it suddenly became fashionable to bash the obscenely rich, The Evening Standard has decided that now is the perfect time to…er…bash council house tenants. Yesterday, the day of possibly the greatest sea-change in the British financial system for at least eleven years and probably much longer, the Standard‘s billboards across London instead carried the headline ‘London’s £2m council house’.
This particular type of story looks like it might be developing into a trend for the Standard – they recently got Tory-run Ealing Council to summarily sack three temporary staff who were about to receive the rights that go with a permanent contract in order to appease the paper’s tabloidesque rage that a seven-person family was housed in a seven-bedroom house by the Council, in a nice area of Acton. Of course, the key issue for the Standard, never quite explicitly stated but happily mentioned at every opportunity, was that the family in question were Afghan refugees who were in receipt of benefits. By constantly describing just how well-off and desirable this particular area of Acton is, the paper’s underlying message was that such a family simply had no place in this sort of neighbourhood.
Having read through that particular story, it is possible that something had gone slightly wrong with Ealing’s system for locating suitable properties for homeless families. What is clear though is that it certainly does not constitute a sackable offence for junior council staff: had they been on permanent contracts there would have been very little question of their not taking a successful case to employment tribunal. Something tells me that Ealing sought out the most easily sackable housing employees in order to sate the Daily Mail group’s appetite for rolling heads in pursuit of its anti-immigrant, anti-benefit agenda.
So, with the bit between its teeth, the Standard charges headlong on to yesterday’s story of alleged council largess, headlined
with Camden Council being the new target for outrage. Now I hold no brief for the generally unpleasant Lib Dem-Tory administration that runs Camden – I campaigned against them in my north of the river days – but I do feel the need to rise to their defence against perhaps the most baseless, class-bashing, snobbish and bigoted article to appear in the Standard since at least last Friday. And beyond that, it is a story that any linguist wanting to study the under-hand introduction of emotive language into a newspaper story could have a field day with.
A mother from Camden is living in Britain’s most expensive council house worth £2million, it emerged today.
OK, note the choice of the first two words: ‘a mother’. Rather than describing her as, say, ‘a woman’, the paper has already chosen to mark the story’s subject out as a key member of the Mail group’s pantheon of hate: a single mother, horror of horrors. And in an expensive house, too! What is the world coming to?
X, 44, is being housed in the historic Victorian lodge which sits on the edge of a 29-acre estate in Highgate Village.
Note that I have anonymised the subject’s name, not the Standard, who prints it in full. You see, I always thought that there was supposed to be some kind of journalistic ethics that you didn’t go in for clearly identifying the addresses of people who had done no provable wrong – and having a great big picture of a very distinctive house in Highgate makes the address pretty identifiable to my mind. But then, the Standard does have form on this. Suffice to say, the lady’s surname is what I imagine passes in Standard land for ‘a bit foreign’.
The mother-of-one moved into the Grade II-listed building while repairs are being carried out on her council home in Kentish Town.
Still that interesting descriptor, you note? But now we hit the first problem with the story – the £2m house isn’t her permanent home. Obviously, a council providing a tenant with an alternative home whilst they repair her house is anathema in Standard world.
The lodge is situated in Waterlow Park and is close to homes belonging to personalities such as George Michael and Sting, as well as Government minister Tessa Jowell.
Oh no! How will the poor darlings cope? With a 44-year old, possibly foreign, single mother moving in nearby temporarily? In Highgate?
Ms X has been living in the three-bedroom house with her 22-year-old son for a number of weeks. The property, designed by architect James Pennethorne, was home to the park’s gardeners, but more recently has been used for storage despite extensive renovation work.
Ah, confirmed as a single mother! Given that one is a number, can we safely assume that she and her son have lived there for a week before the Standard decided to set about making them pariahs in the community? And pity poor Camden, they just can’t win, can they? Extensively renovate the house and use it for storage and that’s a waste, but extensively renovate it and then, shock horror, house someone in it and you’ve got a national scandal on your hands.
A local authority source said the decision to hand the property over to a council tenant was unbelievable. The source said: “This must be the most expensive council house in Britain. The place is dripping with history and there are a lot of wealthy people who would give their eye teeth to live there. “To hand it over to a council tenant is extraordinary. It’s like they made her lady of the manor overnight.”
When the Standardsays ‘a local authority source’, I think we can assume that they mean someone not from Camden. Whilst I know that the Lib Dem-Tory coalition purged many of Camden’s best officers on taking power, I doubt that any of those remaining would come up with a quote quite that condescending or offensive. Simply because lots of wealthy people want to live in nice houses in Highgate, doesn’t mean they have an automatic right to buy any council property there. And what exactly would the Standardsay about effective use of taxpayers money if Camden were to sell the house in the middle of a property slump? The overall tenor of the quote seems to be basically ‘how dare council-house dwelling scum live in Highgate?’ – the sort of attitude that some of us hoped had died out decades ago. And if she’s been made ‘lady of the manor’, why exactly is she living in the gardener’s house?
The house is owned by Camden council, who also run the park, after London’s Lord Mayor gave them to the public in 1889 as a “garden for the gardenless”.
OK, so Camden aren’t renting the property – they own it. So no extra cost to the council taxpayer is arising from Ms X living in the house: in fact, as she temporarily is unable to live in her normal Camden-provided home, the council is saving money by not renting a property for her on the open market. The Standard seems to be working on the assumption that Camden and other local authorities have a huge selection of empty flats on council estates to hand out as necessary to prevent the lower orders sullying the streets of Highgate. Strange as this may seem, in a city with an acute housing supply crisis, this actually isn’t the case: there are vast waiting lists for every available council property. Now, I can’t find the terms of the bequest that Sir Sydney Waterlow (a former Lord Mayor when he made the gift, but we won’t pick holes) gave his house and its grounds to the public, but given the verifiable quote about ‘a garden for the gardenless’, that does suggest that part of the terms of the gift may have been that the property cannot be sold off for commercial gain. Given the pretty tough financial straits in which local authorities find themselves, I find it very unlikely that Camden would not have sold off a surplus multi-million pound property if it could.
There then follows a brief description form a local historian (who has written a book on the park’s history) about how nice and historically important the house is. Given that this individual, who I assume knows the terms of the bequest, does not express moral outrage about the council’s actions, I wouldn’t be surprised if my supposition about how Camden is legally bound turns out to be correct.
And then, at last, tucked away at the bottom of the article, Camden is given an opportunity to explain its actions:
Camden Council spokesperson said: “Camden Council owns this property – we are not paying rent for it on the private market. The Council used the space for offices until recently. The lodge is not a council house but the Council chose to temporarily house a tenant in the lodge because the tenant’s council house is directly affected by a major building project in Camden. The work would cause considerable distress and disruption to the tenant if they remained in their current house. The tenant will be returning to their home once the work has been completed.”
And there we have it. Final confirmation that this is an absolute non-story. And final confirmation that the only grounds for moral outrage from this story is if you happen to have a real problem with mixed communities where people with different socio-economic backgrounds are able to live together. The Standard‘s article could quite easily be sub-headlined ‘A manifesto for ghettos’, with both the rich and the poor nicely segregated off. London is already a city with very high levels of economic segregation, which leads to social tensions and to ‘poor’ areas becoming stigmatised and losing out in terms of investment and services. Whilst the former Mayor’s housing policy of a high target for affordable housing in all new developments was a step in the right direction, I would have liked to see Livingstone adopt a more radical approach, along the lines of that pioneered by Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë of tackling social segregation through the implanting of social housing in some of the city’s most expensive arrondisements. Boris’ first actions in this field, letting through a massive housing development in wealthy Hammersmith & Fulham with no socially affordable housing, would make it appear that any such agenda is now firmly off the table.
So, we hold our collective breaths as to what the Standard‘s next great ‘council tenant lives in council property’ shock story will be and how they manage to turn it into the equivalent of a country landowner shouting ‘Gerrorff my land!’.
For now though, let’s leave the final word to the story’s subject:
Ms X refused to comment.
How very sensible.
PS: I’d like to assure my Labour Party colleagues that this is the last time I’ll write anything vaguely neutral about Camden Council before the Kentish Town by-election.