The official at the housing office was typically blunt. His third customer of the day, a blonde with a northern accent, the pinched face of poverty and a baby in a buggy, looked crestfallen when she heard the news.
‘You’ll have to wait between one and ten years for a flat from us,’ he said, blithely, from behind his desk. ‘There are 18,000 people on the waiting list and, as of today, only 30 homes to go round.’
No wonder that when the young woman left, pushing the buggy out of the door into the sleeting rain of the shopping precinct in Salford, Greater Manchester, she looked near to tears. In her haste, she almost collided with Jason Hedgecock, a 20-year-old chef, who has also been queuing at the city’s Home Search office.
‘My family come from Salford, and I was born here,’ he says flatly. ‘I have been waiting three years for a home, ever since I left school. I’ve put my name down for one on the eighth floor over there,’ he points to an ugly blue and white tower block, called Fitzwarren Court, across the busy road.
Jason is desperate to move out of the home he shares with his parents, John and Eileen, where he has to sleep on the sofa. Also living there are his two brothers, Scott, 24, and Adam, 19, as well as Adam’s pregnant girlfriend, 20-year-old Jade–none of whom has anywhere else to go.
But the chances of a generation of young people such as Jason and the disappointed blonde ever getting a council home in Salford are next to zero. They are living in one of many places in England where a dire shortage of state housing has become the most controversial political issue of our time.
The statistics are stark. One in 12 council homes in England are now lived in by migrants, while the list of people waiting for social housing has doubled during Labour’s time in power to 1.7million.
Last week, a government report from the Whitehall department of Communities Minister Hazel Blears warned that the crisis has resulted in a surge of popularity for extremist groups, including the British National Party.
After interviewing 43 British families in Birmingham, Milton Keynes, Liverpool’s Runcorn and Thetford in Norfolk, the report concluded that the white working class think they have been ‘betrayed’ and ‘abandoned’ by mainstream politicians who make them ‘come second’ to immigrants on the housing ladder.
The report provoked an instant response from a seemingly repentant Ms Blears herself. She admitted that white working-class people ‘sometimes just don’t feel anyone is listening or speaking up for them’, adding that they should be allowed to voice their worries ‘without fear of being branded racist’.
In the furore that followed, Frank Field, Labour MP for Liverpool’s Birkenhead and joint chairman of the Cross-Party Group on Balanced Migration, agreed that the Government was riding roughshod over the working class at its peril.
He predicted that Labour policies on housing would turn local people to Far Right parties in the next general election, echoing a dire warning he gave last year.
‘Slowly, but determinedly, the white English working class–and I guess, some black Britons, too–are voting against unlimited immigration by embracing the BNP,’ he said back then.
So, what is the truth? Of course, there are two sides to this story. As well as being responsible for years of uncontrolled immigration, New Labour has created a benefit culture that has led to vast numbers of white working-class families not bothering to seek jobs and exploiting the welfare system. Too often they complain that all the work is going to newly arrived foreigners.
Predictably, the BNP has been busily exploiting this; making inroads in towns and cities where mass migration, unemployment among local people and housing shortages are huge issues.
The party holds 12 seats on the council in Barking, Essex, a quarter of the total. In Stoke, Staffordshire, there are six BNP councillors, and the BNP last year captured one seat of the 25 on the London Assembly.
The party now has a sprinkling of councillors in Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cumbria, although in Salford (Hazel Blears’s constituency) the BNP’s six candidates failed to gain seats at last year’s council elections, with only one making a respectable showing.
Indeed, Salford has always been staunchly Labour–Karl Marx even lived there in the 1800s to research his tome The Condition of the Working Class In England.
But that may be about to change. This summer, Nick Griffin, the controversial BNP leader, will stand in the European Elections as a candidate for the northwest of England constituency, which includes Salford, where I went this week to see how Blears’s remarks have been received.
There, no one could be more pleased about the BNP’s resurgence than Jason. He hails from a working-class family which has voted Labour in Salford for generations. His father is a retired landlord at the city’s Royal British Legion club, and his grandfather was a porter at the nearby Hope Hospital.
Jason is about to break ranks. In June–like many other young people ranging from shop-workers, to bricklayers, young mothers and the unemployed–he will be putting a cross on his ballot paper next to Griffin’s name.
Robert Whelan, a director of the think-tank Civitas, is not surprised. ‘The white working class is growing bitter,’ he says.
‘They loyally supported Old Labour, but New Labour has ignored them. Ministers have shut down the debate on mass migration. If the working class object to what is happening, they are called racist. They are not allowed to discuss their concerns publicly.
‘This is fuelling the fires of extremism, and the BNP is knocking on the door. The working classes feel there has been a huge unfairness, particularly when it comes to housing. It is the big bone of contention.
‘They feel they have paid into the system, and should get something out. That was how it used to work right up to the 1990s. Then New Labour dismantled the system. Now housing priority is about need, not about the time you have lived in a town or city, or how long your name has been on the list. This is making local people feel they are missing out.’
Of course, some might question the whole idea of an inalienable right to housing provided by the State–for immigrants, or for those who are British born and bred. But assuming it is the State’s responsibility, just how is property allocated?
In Salford–like many other towns and cities where Labour is in control–the criteria for getting a house or flat is based on whether you are homeless and the size of your family. Inevitably, this puts a newly arrived immigrant couple with a large number of children at the front of the queue.
A pamphlet issued by the council’s letting service Home Search–titled A New Way Of Finding A Home–contains instructions about how to get help with housing in 12 languages, including Polish, Arabic, French, Mandarin and Urdu. Home Search offers translators for those who can’t speak English.
Each week, the service issues a list of empty council properties. People are invited to put in a bid for up to three homes each week. If more than one person bids for a home–which in Salford is inevitable–the successful one is deemed to be the person in most need.
Thousands of people are on waiting lists for council housing, with some complaining that new migrants get preferential treatment
Under the strict criteria, homeless people, those threatened with homelessness or those with medical problems come top. Although the leaflet states that people with a local connection will be given some priority, it adds bluntly: ‘The lower your housing need, the longer it will take for you to find a new home.’
The bidding system is little better than farce. There has been a terrible shortage of subsidised housing since hundreds of Coronation Street-style terrace houses were destroyed in the Seventies to make way for council blocks. And now even more have been pulled down. Whole swathes of the city are derelict with homes boarded up.
‘For many local people the waiting time turns out to be for ever. There is no end to it,’ he says, standing with his former girlfriend, Kayleigh Brassington, 19. The couple, who remain friends, have a baby, Jacob, two, and are bringing him up together.
Kayleigh used to live with the baby, her mother, two brothers and little sister Terri-Lee, 12, in a two-bedroom house near the shopping precinct. There was so little space that she slept in the same room as Terri-Lee and her then newborn Jacob.
But still she didn’t win a bid for accommodation. ‘I never got nearer than 20th, whatever kind of home I bid for. In the end, I approached a Manchester housing association and they gave me a flat,’ she says.
‘I got sick of coming down to the housing office and seeing a whole line of foreign-speaking people being handed out houses. It isn’t that I didn’t want them to have a home, it is just that I wanted one, too.’
Jason’s brother, Adam, works at the local bingo hall, also near the shopping precinct. His girlfriend, Jade, is expecting their baby in March.
‘We have been bidding for a council flat for two years now. If you come down to the office early in the morning on a Wednesday, when they give out the list of the homes available, you will see as many foreigners in the queue as the people from Salford,’ he says with a grimace.
Adam adds: ‘It’s difficult living with Jade at my parents’ house. I have a job, I work hard, yet, I have to beg a bed from my mother and father. Of course, we feel angry.
‘My parents were given a council house when they were young. I know a lot of people, including my own brother, who will vote BNP. What else can we do?’
Standing nearby in the shopping precinct is Chris Tyldesley, a 23-year-old who is Salford born and bred. His mother kicked him out of her council house (she was allocated one by Old Labour in her early 20s) a couple of years ago because ‘we were always arguing’.
He explains: ‘I ended up living on the floor of a mate. I was homeless, but because I had a floor to lie on they didn’t treat me as though I had nowhere to live.
‘It meant I didn’t stand a chance, although I came from Salford. I am a qualified mechanic, and have worked and paid my taxes.’
Chris, however, was lucky. In October last year he won a bid for a flat in Spruce Court, a block five minutes’ walk from the housing office. Now he says the ceiling is leaking and he would love to find somewhere else. ‘I keep bidding, but I don’t have much hope.
‘In my block, there are lots of foreigners. They use the phone box in the lobby to call their families with phone cards given to them by the council, and speak in languages I can’t understand.’
Drift to the Right
Not long after, a young Polish girl emerges from Salford Home Search office. She is clearly pleased, and is clutching a piece of lined paper with writing in green ink on it. It gives the address of a council house which she has just been allocated.
Anna Tronia is 25, has a young baby, and has lived in Britain since her country joined the EU four years ago, allowing her to live here.
But should she really be given a council house? ‘I had nowhere, and so I told them that,’ she says, excitedly. ‘I have a baby, and I think that helped, too. I don’t work any more now that I am a mother. I am very pleased about what has happened to me in Salford,’ she says, before walking off down the street towards a group of her friends.
A few minutes later, I meet Abdul Aljenid, a handsome 30-year-old from the Sudan. He came to Britain on a three-year visa to study English in 2005.
He says he goes to Salford College for six hours a week and works on a construction site on the city’s quayside overlooking the Manchester Ship Canal. He is helping to build the new northern headquarters of the BBC.
‘The work is hard, I admit. But I like it in England. I live with my friend over there,’ he points to another block near the precinct.
‘My friend is also from the Sudan and has a council flat already,’ adds Abdul. ‘I want one, too, of my own.’
He isn’t the only one. I hear very similar stories from other students in Salford. They come from Angola, from Somalia, and Ukraine–countries with no discernible link to Britain. Yet all confidently expect to get a council house.
Just how Hazel Blears would react to this is anyone’s guess. Just a few months ago, Dr David Cutts, a senior academic at Manchester University’s Institute for Social Change, warned that the MP last won her seat by only 14,000 votes.
He said: ‘Such Labour seats could be vulnerable to a more extremist candidate with a mobilised base. This could happen in places like Salford.’
Of course, these words were lapped up by the contingent of would-be BNP councillors in Salford. They include a former managing director of a packaging company, a railway worker and the owner of a driving school. Every so often they set up a stall on a Saturday at the Salford shopping precinct. They hand out leaflets which are more moderate in tone than in the past.
‘The BNP don’t hate anyone,’ states one, ungrammatically. ‘We just want to make sure that our own people aren’t turned into second-class citizens.’
Another adds in a deceptively friendly tone: ‘It’s wrong that immigrants who’ve never paid a penny into our system can come to Britain and go to the front of the queue.’
A third makes it clear where they are coming from. ‘Teach the politicians who have ignored you a lesson. In 2009, everyone can vote BNP in the Euro Elections.’
Few born and bred Salfordians would disagree with their sentiments. Certainly, on one Saturday before Christmas, every single leaflet from the BNP stall was carried off to be read by eager locals, many of them women.
When the Right-wing activists ran out of magazines and literature there was, according to one shopkeeper who was watching, nearly a riot as the disappointed were turned away empty-handed.
Perhaps this should serve as a timely warning to Hazel Blears and the rest of the New Labour hierarchy, who many feel have let down the ordinary people who put them in power.