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Council estate in Poplar, East London

There are a couple of things I know about myself. One is that, for me, working in the housing profession is frustrating and increasingly challenging. Second is that spending my formative years growing up in a council house on a sprawling council estate wasn’t frustrating or challenging. I found it to be safe, homely and actually lots of fun. I’ll let you into a secret; I love them both very much and my upbringing has made me the housing professional I am today. In fact, I’ve found a really similar sense of community and support in both and I’m pleased to say I’m not the only one who is proud of their roots, and of their job.

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However, it appears that my experience of housing 25 years ago is different to today as there now seems to be an ever widening gulf between those who live in a council house (or would do if they could do), and those who are ‘lucky enough’ to not need or want to. If you watch television, or read the news you will have seen the furore I’m talking about. Take a minute to look at popular twitter hashtags such as #howtogetacouncilhouse, and #benefitsstreet and you will see why I am so frustrated. This reaction on Twitter allows a brief glimpse into society’s thinking and it makes very unpleasant viewing.

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The social issues raised in the programme are being much debated right now and will be dissected in blogs and columns much more eloquently than I could manage so I’ll leave that side of it alone (for now). But I will say watching shows like this is like watching ‘The Only Way is Essex’ and thinking you know exactly what someone from Essex is like – you don’t. You know what some people from Essex (or on benefits) are like – an important difference when you are writing off and judging a whole section of our society. I watch them for the same reason I regularly read the Daily (hate) Mail and The Sun – to know what (dis)information is being spread.

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It’s interesting to consider the impact television shows like this have on us working in the housing sector, and those in similar partner organisations. Some might say don’t look then but as a housing professional, and member of society, I need to look. It’s important we understand how housing allocation is perceived (it goes to the immigrants and ‘pram face’ single mothers apparently, all of whom have a full Sky subscription and no intention of ever getting a job) and how society suggests we execute housing policy (easy – wholesale Social Cleansing! Move the poor and distasteful out of the lovely city and leave it to the deserving rich folk). Punitive reactions aside, what realistic solutions are we coming up with? It’s absolutely a difficult subject matter, but we are well placed to lead the discussions by framing the questions that need asking, as well as offering up honest answers and solutions. For example, not many of us like the “bedroom tax” but we don’t like the depressingly long housing waiting lists either. So what can we do instead to free up housing and reduce waiting times? There are options. Let’s debate and explore them. Saying its a bad programme isn’t enough. The issues are there.

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When you are watching the sector you love being maligned and misrepresented you can either pretend not to see it, or you can stand up and be counted. It’s not about pretending those tenants don’t exist, it’s about counteracting the bad news stories and negative portrayals to those outside of our profession, as relentlessly as the media wants to promote them. We all need to be involved in this, and we do it with the support of our professional body CIH, our Chief Executives (see the #whereitallbegan campaign) right down to individual housing professionals (see @ctracy861’s campaign on Twitter). I bet then other nice, normal, rational human beings will get involved too.

It’s about a balanced view and an honest discussion.  Let’s start having it.

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