Of cows and council housing: the strange case of Eddie Grundy and socio-tenurial polarisation

Date: 16.03.2012

Patrick Mulrenan writes:

It doesn’t take too long. Sit and watch television and wait for council tenants and council estates to be mentioned. Maybe it will be Toy Boy, based on a Hackney estate, or Shameless in Manchester. Or perhaps Vicky Pollard, the comedy character living on a council estate. The message is the same- if you are a tenant and live on an estate, you are feckless and possibly criminal.

Tenants on the Heygate Estate in Southwark are so sick of this they are banning filming around their homes, foregoing £60,000 annual income. It’s just not worth the negative publicity, whether from the grim Channel 4 logos or the Harry Brown film.

It’s easy to see why companies film on the Heygate- it’s close to the centre of London, it has lots of walkways, and, best of all, there are plenty of boarded flats as the estate is demolished. So plenty to look at.

What is not so obvious is why the negative image of council housing occurs on the radio. Take the ‘everyday tale of country folk’- the Archers. Based in fictional rural Borsetshire, it focuses on village life, where rumours of infidelity and foot and mouth travel faster than Nigel Pargeter falling off the roof of his mansion. But nothing seems to upset this happy rural world more than council tenants and council housing.

There’s only one council house in the village. And who lives there? The local postman? A farm worker? No of course not, it’s ‘various members of the disreputable Horrobin family’. The website cites the inhabitants as Gary Horrobin- ‘not much use around the house. Or anywhere’- and his dad. They’ve recently been joined by Tracey (‘not known for her work ethic’), who is conning her dad out of his tenancy (though for some odd reason, this was now a housing association tenancy). Lucky sons Keith and Clive have escaped- to prison.

The other story line was about the Grundy family losing their farm in 2001. They were evicted and rehoused in a ‘sink estate’ in Borcester. Things got so bad here that Joe Grundy took a hammer to his beloved ferrets ‘in one of the most harrowing episodes ever’. Luckily they escaped back to the rural life, but the memory of their short stay in social housing is enough to bring them close the tears.

Perhaps writers on the radio, TV and cinema can stop using social housing as a lazy shorthand for social problems. But it does beg the question- how did council housing become the target of comedians and drama writers, when is used to be seen as a step up and a permanent solution to housing problems?

Patrick Mulrenan
Course leader, FdA Community Work and MA Housing and Inclusion
Faculty of social sciences and humanities