Opinion

Social housing is one of our most pressing concerns – and there's only one way to right the wrongs

A stay in the Midlands inspires a wave of nostalgia

Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). Image: Allstar Picture Library Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Last week I spoke at the Housing Technology conference, run by the magazine of that name. I was asked to go to the East Midlands Conference Centre at Nottingham University to give a short speech and accept an award, which I did. 

Seemingly always on and off the train these days, I relished that the morning after the conference
I could walk from the campus to the station in town. I walked along a canal, past parts of old industrial Nottingham now converted into bars and houses and offices for a new post-industrial world.

Like most conferences with awards ceremonies – though it was Housing Technology’s first – it was loud and self-celebratory. Blaring music and jocularity turned it into a version of the ultimate award ceremony, the Oscars, though with more serious ends: to award people who have created technical innovations around social housing.

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Social housing remains one of the most pressing of all our contemporary concerns and will remain so for dozens of years to come. Our crisis of supply has taken decades to grow to the current fever pitch of need, and only a very full and deep investment programme will right the wrongs of undersupply.

But as with most concerns around social housing, the terrible outrage of Grenfell Tower hangs over us,
even though the palls of black smoke have long since cleared. The monster of municipal neglect that grew out of a housing crisis in possibly the second-richest borough in the UK raises serious questions about local democracy; and how it can work in an area where there is so much wealthy housing while people in deep need live around the corner.

That alas, is the lot of the place of my birth, born as I was up the road a few minutes from where Grenfell killed so many people. Knowing the slum streets that were blown up to make way for Grenfell I can’t help but feel that Grenfell is more symbolic (yet real) of a deeper malaise that dogs local democracy.

Nottingham has always had a great pull for me because it was the first place I ever recognised as representing a different Britain to the one I grew up in. I grew up in a slummy London that did not have Nottingham’s big factories and the row after row of poorly made housing. It had different people who spoke with what we in the South took to be northern accents, only later to discover that they were in fact Midlanders. 

There was a closeness among industrial workers and their families and the areas they came from. And it was only when I moved north and lived for a few years in Yorkshire that I understood this, in those solidly industrial times before Thatcher’s new broom swept away the UK’s industrial solidarity.

But before I went north, in 1961 aged 15, I lined up to see a film that would blow me away. Set in Nottingham in and around the Raleigh bike-making factory, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was the first truly powerful film I had ever seen, containing these exotic ‘northern’ people who drank hard, worked hard, fought hard and seemed to stick to each other in a way I had never experienced. My working-class life seemed to be full of thieves and wife beaters, full of people who did not bind together in the face of employers. Seemed in it just for themselves. 

Albert Finney, the star of the film, was young, strong and handsome – and speaking the words of the great novelist Alan Sillitoe, a Nottingham man who wrote the book from which the film was made. This was an amazing and different world from my own working class, where the posse I moved around with seemed intent on harming each other – and anyone else who got in the way.

My canal walk through a former industrial landscape was a treasure, reminding me that at least once a year I would always advise people to get out and do things that were healthy and free. I would write a Big Issue article that celebrated casting off the ‘slough of despond’, as I believe Bunyan said, and getting on ‘Shanks’s pony’ (a reference to your feet) just to promenade wherever your fancy took you.

But in our cost of living crisis, and during Covid before, I seemed to have pulled in my advice to get out and saunter freely. Not wishing to be mistaken for a variation on Norman Tebbit, who once said to unemployed people, “Get on your bike.” In other words, if you’re without work try harder.

Another great Alan Sillitoe story, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, about a reformatory boy, was also turned into a film in 1962. Set in and around a youth offenders’ institution, it coincided with my own youthful incarceration and having to learn to run for miles cross country. I can remember the pain of running until you got your ‘second wind’. That was like suddenly realising you were rocket powered. I recommend it to anyone yet to discover the beauty of it.

I returned home southward, my nostalgia for the Midlands and the North still intact. It’s a great country up there. And University of Nottingham campus was a brilliant place to visit. 

John Bird is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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