RIGHT TO BUY
My Dad came home from WW2 in 1946, having spent years in Burma with the RAF, his unit was one of the last to be repatriated. He was suffering from various tropical diseases and almost straight away went into hospital, a very sick man. His homecoming was not too easy either; the family had been bombed out several times from their homes in the Bermondsey/Peckham area of SE London, and had recently been moved into a house on the Bellingham estate, my Nan and Grandad, Auntie and Uncle, and my Mum (then Dad when he eventually found them by dint of going straight to his Mum in law). All Sharing a three bedroomed house, plus me when I arrived in 1950.
A story Mum never tired of telling was how, when she found she was expecting another child in 1954, she went to the Council to ask for a home for her family. ‘Come back when the child is born’ they said. So, when my sister was born, back Mum went to the Council. ‘Oh no’ they said, ‘Wrong sex. If it had been a boy….’. By this time Auntie and Uncle had moved to Crawley New Town, but Mum happened to know that her neighbours had exactly the same housing arrangements as them: Grandparents, parents and 2 children of roughly the same age as us – the difference being their kids were both boys. And they had recently been allocated their own house. What really got Mum’s goat was that the young wife in question was a German war bride. Mum had been rather friendly with Ursula, but this put an end to that. Mum was furious, and staged a sit-in at the Town Hall Housing Office with us kids, threatening to go to the papers, until eventually she was promised a place.
We moved in to a block of flats; not an actual HOUSE the enemy wife (as Mum now referred to her) was given, but a 2 bed ‘maisonette’ in Lewisham. There were 16 flats, all built on the bombed site of what had been four gracious Georgian houses backing on to the railway and coal yard. Presumably why the bombing was so bad in that street – bomb sites still abounded right into the 70s.
All Mum ever wanted was her own front door, but this was not to be, for both Mum and Dad died in that flat, 46 and 57 years later, having their hopes of being re-allocated a place of their own slowly eroded as they watched others, often newcomers to the country, being given actual houses, which we know many of them eventually purchased under the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme.
Of course, in the 1980s they had the opportunity to purchase their flat; but this was never a good proposition as it would be Leasehold and the annual fees were ruinous for an elderly carpenter, so they turned the offer down. Which turned out to be a good decision soon after, as the next door neighbour, a widow, who had a son and daughter who were able to buy the flat in her name, had a demand for something like £10,000 for roof repairs. A bill like that would have killed my parents.
By then, me and my sister had left home and married. Neither of us was able to get a council house, and eventually I became pregnant when we were living in a privately rented furnished flat, with the very nice landlord and family living in the flat below. We had 2 bedrooms, so we could have gone on living there even with a baby. However, the government decided otherwise. That was 1974, and they brought in a Housing Act designed wo protect tenants. Did it my arse! A flurry of private landlords, especially those like ours living on the premises, gave tenants notice to quit before the act came into force, so they could sell their properties and get out of the renting business.
We went to the council. They laughed in our faces – we ‘both had jobs and should buy a place’ they said. We had nothing saved, baby on the way, so we were homeless and spent the next few often very uncomfortable months living in our respective parents’ spare rooms, or with friends, or even sleeping in car parks when it all got too much. We eventually managed to secure one of the council’s 100% no deposit mortgages (which I believe they had been forced to introduce as their housing stock went down due to Right to buy, and homelessness began to be a bigger problem).
We moved in to the tiny Victorian terraced property just weeks before the birth of our daughter, and though it was what seems like silly money now, less than £10k, we struggled to survive as my husband worked long hours and I did temping work when my child was old enough to be left with my Mum. When she was 4, we decided it was time for a sibling, and we searched round for a bigger house with one more bedroom and a garden. All we could find within our budget was an ex-council house in New Addington, whose owners had got it via the generous discount offered on the Right to Buy scheme. Lucky buggers. They of course were moving on to bigger and better things, as were many of the first round of ‘Right to Buyers’.
New Addington is a nice place, seemed like being out in the country to this London girl, and the neighbours were nice. Definitely not the crime-ridden dangerous estate that some would have us believe. My parents in law were horrified, living (as school caretakers) in posh Selsdon, they feared for our lives! All went well for a while; the larger mortgage was hard to find, but when my new son was a few months old I got a job as a homeworker for a computer data collection company. That was in 1980 when computing was fairly unusual as a profession. It began with a huge electric typewriter doing Optical Character Recognition work; I had to go on a course but picked it up quickly. I would work for at least 5 hours a day; it was hard slog for little money – piece work they call it. Sometimes I would work through the night bashing away on the keys, small child on lap or under the desk (actually the dining table). At least it enabled me to stay home with my kids.
However, not that long after we moved in with our new larger mortgage, there came a day when the world monetary business went mad. I sat at my desk watching TV open mouthed as the mortgage went up minute by minute, and by the end of the day our mortgage had gone up beyond all reason. That was the start of our downfall; loans, credit cards etc, I had various jobs as well as the home work – which became easier over the years as computers replaced OCR – and I had another child of my own to care for, plus two inherited ones.
So here we still are, in the same unimproved house, no central heating, nothing changed escape that we are an ageing couple on our own. We still love New Addington and take part in many aspects of the close-knit community, so when the author John Grindrod, a New Addington escapee whose work I have read, put out a plea for contact with people who had taken advantage of the Right to Buy, I was most interested and decided to put down my own thoughts on the subject.
Am I bitter? Am I jealous? Do I still find it grossly unfair that some people were double lucky – firstly to be allocated a council house at all, then being virtually given it at a generous discount – you bet I am. How unfair is it that us unlucky ones have had to pay rent and/or high mortgages all our lives whilst subsidising the Right to Buy through our Council Tax! We watch some of those people doing so well having made a killing, whilst we try to support ourselves and family members who are not so lucky. And to cap it all, so many Croydon tenants are newly arrived in the area and no doubt claiming more of our taxes.
And the irony of it all is that by dint of that long ago government deciding to endow others with money we have earned, we are still living 40 years later in the same ex-council house with no expectation of improvement and little hope of ever actually owning it ourselves; a rapidly increasing population coming in from all round the world, and the social housing stock diminishing before our eyes. And I have never lived in a centrally-heated house in my whole life.
What is the answer to it all?
45 I suspect.