George Clarke summarises key issues in the decline of Council Housing

 

Transcript of Clarke's interview, BBC Today Programme, Saturday 26 August 2023 (1.34,56 - 1.39.30). 

The programme was guest edited by four residents of a 1960s Bristol council estate containing high-rise. The theme was how to design such places with the real needs of residents in mind. I think that these things were considered when this estate (and others) were originally planned. Things have gone downhill in the 50+ years since.

George Clarke was one of the guests. Born 22 May 1974 in Sunderland, Clarke was bought up in the Washington area. Both grandfathers were builders and he spent summer holidays in and around building sites. He decided at age 12 he wanted to be an architect. He graduated with a first class degree in Architecture from Newcastle University in 1995. Began TV career almost by accident in early 2000s. He had a shared practice at the time and now runs a solo practice alongside extensive TV presenting, originally for Channel 5, now mainly for Channel 4.

This career makes him a celebrity, so subject to gossip column and social media coverage. Underneath he is still a real architect.

 

Simon Jack Architect, broadcaster and author George Clarke was brought up on a council estate near Washington in the north-east and with his experience now as a designer I asked him to reflect on his time growing up there.

George Clarke It was a brilliant place to live, it was absolutely amazing. I think since then I’ve always been passionate about homes and housing and how a good quality, safe, secure and stable house can give you the kind of foundation stone for the rest of your life. If you’ve got that security then many other things in life can become that little bit easier.

But I’ve also seen that when people have struggled to get a roof over their heads, how damaging that can be. We’ve now got an enormous generation of people who are stuck in private rented accommodation, quite often unaffordable, it’s not secure, you can get moved on from one place to the next and - where I lived, it was amazing actually, I didn’t really know there was any difference between council housing and private housing, when I was a kid. We just all lived in housing, thinking it was all very stable and it was brilliant. And it was only later actually when ‘right to buy.’ came in and I saw council houses being bought on my estate and, you know what, it  actually created like a mini-division in the working class system. Those that could have a house and those that couldn’t.

Simon Jack It sounds to me that what you’re saying is that the drive towards private property ownership has created a division, possibly a stigma.

George Clarke Simon, its not possibly a stigma, there is a massive stigma associated with council housing and social housing. The divide is absolutely enormous and it’s massively looked down upon if you live in a council house. The house that I live in now, in London, is a former council house bought by somebody years and years ago, taken out of the system. People will say, when they pull up to this estate that I live on, like, taxi drivers will go

‘You live here? on this council estate? You?’

And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I do actually. Its a great community and everybody gets on, its a wonderful place to live.’

There’s a stigma with government. There’s a stigma with developers. Developers don’t want to build social housing. I mean some do, don’t get me wrong, but its very, very, very few. A lot of the stigma is because people think that people living in social housing, they’re all on benefits, they’re all blaggers, they’re all wasters, they’re not contributing to society. They’re just a burden and they’re a cost.

That is an absolute load of rubbish. Of course there are some people on benefits there might be a few blaggers here and there. You’re always going to get a couple of bad apples in any system, but the vast majority of people that I know that’s lived in council houses, certainly when I grew up, were grafters. They went out there, they worked, they did their jobs, they paid their taxes and they were living in a very stable community. People weren’t being moved on all the time. In many ways you had a home for life. We are absolutely obsessed with home ownership. I think it even goes back to big landowners, back in the day, landed gentry. But you go to places like Vienna. Vienna tried to launch a ‘right to buy’ scheme for their council housing stock. There was no take up. People went, ‘why would we want to buy our houses? We pay our rent.’

Simon Jack I know that one of our guest editors, Mike, has focused on Vienna and said this is a model of how it should look. Why is it so great?

George Clarke Because they’ve got the system right in terms of rent control, good quality design, no stigma, culturally there isn’t this obsession with home ownership so you don’t have the division in society, the kind of ‘them and us’. What they are very, very, good at is public realm. You know, wonderful spaces where communities can come together, safe places for children to play, nicely landscaped and, for me, that’s about creating a sense of place, if you like, design in the community and talented architects coming up with those spaces where people can then come together and feel like they are part of the community. 

On a very simple level I wandered round in Vienna and they’ve created wonderful, communal spaces inside the building where people could gather, have a coffee and have a chat and they would have, like, residents’ meetings and they’d put on cinema nights in some of those communal spaces. But they also had courtyard space outside the entire housing development, creating this beautiful little public square, where, when I was there, the kids were just playing outside, really safely ’til seven, eight, nine o’clock at night. You know it was brilliant. You know it’s not rocket science, its about creating good quality housing, good space standards of those houses as well, we don’t want everybody living in tiny little rabbit hutches, that’s not good for anybody’s mental health and well being. People need access to outside space that’s very safe. Its creating those internal spaces in the development where people can gather and come together like having a community living room if you like. It’s simple stuff, its not difficult.

Nicholas Russell