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Opinion

Little Simz deservedly won a Brit award – where she lives is irrelevant

Council houses – and their occupants – come in all shapes and sizes, so why does the media insist on painting a sneering picture of adversity and low aspirations?

On the estate where I grew up, there was this wild tortoise. It was a pretty large estate in West London, comprising high-rises, low-block maisonettes and clusters of small houses. There were play areas, a network of concrete walkways and vast underground garages where local bad lads would hide in the daytime while bunking off school.

This tortoise just roamed free, wandering among buildings and gardens like any other local resident. As far as anyone knew, it was ownerless. Everyone on the estate knew it and would say hello when it slowly passed them by. It survived on whatever wild vegetation it could find plus the odd titbit left out by compassionate locals. 

Nice story, right? Mind you, I haven’t visited that estate in years. For all I know a drug addict cooked and ate that tortoise years ago. Council estates, like any other parts of our communities, contain all sorts of different lives and fascinating stories – some good, some bad. I spent my whole childhood in social housing and have no grandiose conclusions to draw on the experience beyond the fact that there was never any central heating so it got fucking cold in winter.

The media like to report on social housing in a binary way: the people who live there are either dangerous dole scroungers or heroic families triumphing against the odds. The only constant is that to grow up in council accommodation is to be dealt a bad hand that you will struggle to recover from for the rest of your life. 

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Take The Guardian headline a few weeks back when Little Simz won Best Newcomer at The Brits: ‘Little Simz’s long path from council estate to Brit awards podium.’ I couldn’t understand why the lead take on a brilliant artist’s success was the sort of home she’d grown up in.

I mean, Little Simz is a rapper making music that documents urban life. If she’d grown up in a nice suburban semi that her parents had paid for using an inherited deposit and a small mortgage from a high street lender, her music would be a lot shitter and she probably wouldn’t have won the award. But if she had, her background would definitely have been more worthy of press scrutiny: ‘Rapper wins Brit despite growing up in generic middle-class tedium’ feels like much more of a reasonable news story.

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If you are a young kid living on a council estate, what does that Guardian headline tell you? I suspect it would have told me, when I was growing up, that success for people from an estate was exceptional. It was certainly not the norm. I should set my aspirations low.

It’s weird. Most of us pay someone or other for the right to live in our home, whether it’s the bank, a private landlord, a local authority or a housing trust. Council houses come in all shapes and sizes. My mum still pays rent to the council to live in the one I spent most of my childhood in.

I own one (or at least my bank does, until I pay them off in about 20 years) that used to belong to the council. Some of the people I went to school with now live in social housing, some live under the yolk of intimidating mortgage repayments like I do. I know of one or two who were lucky enough to have homes basically bought for them by rich parents. Comprehensive schools, like council estates, comprise an array of human life that might seem surprising to some who’ve never set foot in either.

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Each of us have complicated stories beyond what sort of home we grew up in and what sort of home we live in now. The places I lived in were pretty good (apart from the heating situation). But these days, thanks predominantly to the national tragedy that was Grenfell, we’re all too aware of the millions living in rundown and neglected social housing.

Does living in a dangerous, uncomfortable place impact upon your life chances? Probably, yes. But there are a million and one other factors involved in what cultivates our ambitions and generates our outcomes. Either way, it’s really not helpful to propagate lazy assumptions about the inherent hinderances of life in social housing. Triumph over adversity narratives like the one surrounding Little Simz might masquerade as celebratory but, really, they are just sneering.

Read more from Sam at samdelaney.substack.com

@DelaneyMan

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