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After Grenfell, we need to change how we talk about council housing

Services for the poor become poor services.

The words “Labour gain Kensington” were one of the biggest shocks of last week’s election, but they shouldn’t have been, really. While the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (RBKC) as a whole is the richest in London, its northern-most wards are among the city’s most deprived. That so many commentators were so surprised when Labour won serves mainly to highlight that we’d forgotten that poor people live there. 

The stories now emerging about the maintenance of the Grenfell Tower suggest that the council had done much the same. Local residents warned repeatedly that a number of local blocks were at risk of fire. Those warnings were ignored.

Accusations that the Tory council is in favour of social cleansing are probably overdone. The council has talked about dealing with its waiting list by sourcing homes outside the borough (often, in all likelihood, a long way outside). But similar plans can be found all over London, and mostly reflect the scale of waiting lists and the shortage of housing, rather than a sinister plan to actively export the wrong sort of people.

Nonetheless, it is – let’s be charitable about this – not obvious that RBKC has gone out of its way to meet its duty of care towards its poorer residents.

It’s certainly not been building the homes required to house them. Between 2004 and 2014, according to the Mayor of London’s office, four boroughs managed to increase their total housing stock by over 15 per cent; Tower Hamlets managed nearly 30. In RBKC, though, housing stock grew by just 1 per cent: only two councils in the whole of England performed worse, neither of them in London. The council would no doubt point out it was already one of the most densely populated areas in the whole of England. This would be a valid point, were it not for the fact that the three which are denser have all managed an increase of 15 per cent or more.

As fun as it is beating up on a Tory council for being Tory, though, RBKC is far from the only council with an under-resourced housing department. The decline of British council housing is a national problem, and one which goes back a very long way.

Once upon a time, council housing was part of the welfare state – something that was there for anyone, of whatever class, who wanted it. Council planning departments were packed with visionary young architects, hoping to remake the post-war world. Housing was, to a great extent, what councils were for.

Since then, though, it’s turned out that many of the estates they built were badly designed, and many more have been undone through poor maintenance. What’s more, the last 30 years of housing policy have focused – initially in practice; latterly, more in theory – on extending home ownership.

Margaret Thatcher’s Right To Buy enabled (largely Labour-voting) council tenants to magically transform themselves into (largely Tory-voting) homeowners. Significantly, the government never intended to replace the council homes it sold.

The clear implication was that, for the respectable, aspirational voter, home ownership was required to be a full member of society. What this meant for those who remained in council housing was something that was never quite articulated.

The last Labour government didn’t try to change these attitudes: its focus, too, was on ownership, and while it spent billions on upgrading existing council housing, it built remarkably little. In 1953, local authorities built 245,000 houses. In 2004, they built 130. (More recently, they’ve been managing around 2,700 – a figure that only looks impressive if you read it right after the one for 2004.)

At any rate: in the last 40 years, the proportion of the population living in social housing has halved. What’s more, the insularity of both media and politics means that, when we talk about housing, we tend to talk about house prices or bad private landlords – not the state of the social homes that still house one in six of the population.

All this means that, in the age of austerity, the political pressure to invest in what remains has been minimal: services for the poor become poor services. Worse, many councils, facing budget cuts of 50 per cent or more, have been forced to look around for what assets they have to sweat.

In London, especially, that has meant their land, and the homes it contains. If you’ve ever wondered why councils are so keen to redevelop estates, and why existing tenants get squeezed out when they do, this is why.

Even before the tragic events of this week, it was clear that this had to change. A city cannot function without nurses or cleaners or retail workers: not everyone in London will ever be able to afford London housing costs. But people do not cease to need homes, simply because they can’t afford them. If the market won’t provide – and it should be abundantly clear by now that it won’t – then the state must step up.

If it did, then maybe we would shake this ludicrous idea that having the state as a landlord means that, somehow, you’ve failed. And maybe then councils would feel pressure to treat their tenants as citizens or customers to whom they owed a decent standard of home – rather than people who should take what they’re given and be grateful.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Why gay men love this photo of Prince George looking fabulous

It's not about sexuality, but resisting repressive ideas about what masculinity should be.

Last week’s royal tour by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge provided the most intimate view of the young family to date. Throughout the five-day visit to Poland and Germany, it was the couple’s adorable children who stole the spotlight.

As George and Charlotte become better acquainted with a world in which everyone recognises them, this level of public scrutiny is something that will no doubt have to be carefully managed by the family.

But there is one particular image from the trip that has both captured people’s hearts and prompted debate. On the eve of his fourth birthday, Prince George was invited behind the driver’s seat of a helicopter in Germany. Immaculately dressed in a purple gingham shirt neatly tucked in to navy shorts, the future King is pictured staring out of the helicopter in awe.

As a man who was visibly gay from a young age, the distinctly feminine image of George smiling as he delicately places his hands on his face instantly struck a chord with me. In fact, an almost identical photograph of five-year-old me happily playing in the garden is hung on my parents' kitchen wall. Since the photos appeared online, thousands of other gay men have remarked that the innocence of this image reminds them of childhood. In one viral tweet, the picture is accompanied by the caption: “When mom said I could finally quit the soccer team.” Another user remarks: “Me walking past the Barbies at Toys ‘R’ Us as a child.”

Gay men connecting this photograph of Prince George with their childhood memories has been met with a predictable level of scorn. “Insinuating that Prince George is gay is just the kind of homophobia you’d be outraged by if it was you," tweets one user. “Gay men should know better than that. He is a CHILD," says another.

Growing up gay, I know how irritating it can be when everyone needs to “know” your sexual orientation before you do. There are few things more unhelpful than a straight person you barely know telling you, as they love to do, that they “always knew you were gay” years after you came out. This minimises the struggle it took to come to terms with your sexuality and makes you feel like everyone was laughing at you behind your back as you failed to fit in.

I also understand that speculating about a child's future sexual orientation, especially from one photograph, has potential to cause them distress. But to assume that gay men tweeting this photograph are labelling Prince George is a misunderstanding of what we take from the image.

The reaction to this photo isn’t really about sexuality; it’s about the innocence of childhood. When I look at the carefree image of George, it reminds me of those precious years in early childhood when I didn’t know I was supposed to be manly. The time before boys are told they should like “boy things”, before femininity becomes associated with weakness or frivolity. Thanks to a supportive environment created by my parents, I felt that I could play with whichever toys I wanted for those short years before the outside world pressured me to conform.

Effeminate gay men like me have very specific experiences that relate to growing up in a heteronormative world. It is incredibly rare to see anything that remotely represents my childhood reflected in popular culture. This image has prompted us to discuss our childhoods because we see something in it that we recognise. In a community where mental illness and internalised homophobia are rife, sharing memories that many of us have suppressed for years can only be a good thing.

People expressing outrage at any comparisons between this image and growing up gay should remember that projecting heterosexuality on to a child is also sexualising them. People have no problem assuming that boys are straight from a young age, and this can be equally damaging to those who don’t fit the mould. I remember feeling uncomfortable when asked if my female friends were my girlfriends while I was still in primary school. The way young boys are taught to behave based on prescribed heterosexuality causes countless problems. From alarmingly high suicide rates to violent behaviour, the expectation for men to be tough and manly hurts us all.

If you are outraged at the possibility that the future king could perhaps be gay, but you are happy to assume your son or nephew is heterosexual, you should probably examine why that is. This not only sends out the message that being gay is wrong, but also that it is somehow an embarrassment if we have a gay King one day. Prince William appeared on the cover of Attitude magazine last year to discuss LGBT bullying, so we can only hope he will be supportive of his son regardless of his future sexuality.

Whether Prince George grows up to be heterosexual or not is completely irrelevant to why this image resonates with people like me. It is in no way homophobic to joke about this photograph if you don't see a boy being feminine as the lesser, and the vast majority of posts that I’ve seen come from a place of warmth, nostalgia and solidarity. 

What really matters is that Prince George feels supported when tackling the many obstacles that his unique life in the spotlight will present. In the meantime, we should all focus on creating a world where every person is accepted regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, because clearly we’ve got some way to go.