September 20, 2021
News Opinion Property

MICHAEL WOLSEY: We need council houses, not fancy names

The language of housing is built on class division. If homes are close together and fronted by streets you have a ‘working class ghetto’. Space them out a bit, plant a few trees, and it becomes a ‘desirable suburban development’.

It could just as accurately be called a middle-class ghetto. But that won’t happen. The chattering classes, who assign such labels, see ‘ghetto’ as the proper collective noun for a development of houses all occupied by working class people. ‘Attractive residential area, near the Luas and all amenities’ is their middle-class equivalent.

I grew up in one of those ‘working class ghettos’, Ballysillan, on the north side of Belfast. It consisted of, I guess,  a couple of thousand houses. Like so many council estates built in the 1950s and 60s, it was short on basic amenities. But the houses were sound and so, by and large, were the people.

My family was glad of the house. Without it we would, by today’s measure, have been homeless. In fact, some relative – a granny or an uncle – would have taken us in, even if their own house had been packed to the rafters and bursting at the seams. I don’t understand why this is not happening today, why parents are allowing their offspring to live out of cars or in hostels.

But that is beside the point, which is that Belfast council housed many thousands of people by building decent, if not very exciting, houses on land it already owned or had acquired by compulsory purchase. All over Ireland local authorities did the same thing. The great Dublin slum clearances of the Fifties and Sixties would not have been possible if the council had not acquired huge tracts of land, at Ballyfermot and Ballymun, and filled them with serviceable housing.

These estates were not well planned. Like Ballysillan, they lacked amenities, and too much of the housing was high-rise.

But those flaws should not detract from the overall achievement. A great many people were housed in a relatively short time, in a way that is just not happening now.

These were council houses. Not ‘affordable’ houses or ‘social’ houses or houses with any other fancy name designed to obscure their origin. They were houses for working class people who were not ashamed to live in them and did not feel, for a minute, that they were living in a ghetto.

The policy of mixing public and private housing is well intentioned but unnecessary, because it is not the ambition of every council house renter to live next door to a family with a mortgage on a three-bed semi. The policy was devised by people who talk about working-class ghettos and have never been in a council estate. The nearest most of them get to Ballymun is when they pull into the long-stay car park at Dublin Airport.

The Government is preparing to spend more money on ‘social housing’ and to offer new subsidies for ‘affordable housing’. But money is not the problem; ‘social housing’ is the problem, ‘affordable housing’ is the problem.
The state has land at its disposal which could be filled with houses. If we want to end homelessness they must be council houses. And they must stay council houses and not be sold off to their tenants at a cut-price rate.

If those tenants want to move into private housing, and can afford it, that’s fine. In Ireland, owning your own home is a widespread aspiration – but there is no reason why taxpayers should help anyone to achieve it. If more council housing were available it would take pressure off the private market and those who want to buy might be able to do so without help.

The Government is not obliged to help people climb the social ladder but it does have a duty to end homelessness and to do that we need new ‘working class ghettos’. Until that fact is recognised there will always be a housing problem.

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