Two council flats are available. Five families or individuals need a home. “Who will be lucky enough to be given the keys?” asks the third series ofHow to Get a Council House (Channel 4), like the process is a sort of dystopian quiz show, where misery and poverty and desperation are the points you need to win, except winning means moving into a squalid flat infested with fleas and riddled with damp, just so you and your kids don’t end up on the streets. It is an unpleasant framing of a complex subject and it lays out the tone of this unsubtle and crude documentary series from the start.
Portsmouth is, we are told in voiceover, Britain’s most crowded city. It has lost 50% of its social housing stock over the past 30 years, leading to “limited supplies of social accommodation”. Applications of homelessness – people asking for council housing because they have or will have nowhere else to go – have risen by one third in the last year alone. There is not enough to go around, and with Right to Buy being extended, there will be less, and less.
How to Get a Council House portrays the stories behind the five applications here, engineering their stories so that viewers, like the officers hearing their cases, are placed in a position of judgment. They are plucked straight from a tabloid outrage generator. Vasile is a gay Romanian immigrant who has been living on the streets, apart from the nights he spends in a partner’s bed – he painfully, sadly points out that it does not matter if he is attracted to them, only if they are attracted to him. Vasile has got a job in McDonald’s but is not eligible to go on the housing list until he has been working for three months. He loses his job long before that time is up, because he could not keep himself clean enough to work around food, because he did not have a place to live.
Lauren and Luke are being evicted by their landlord. Luke is frothing with rage, which emerges as racist abuse, and insists that “the government are interested in housing immigrants before their own”. This is a familiar line and he is not the only person to say it, or a variant of it. Luke spits in the direction of a non-white couple outside the council building. “They probably got a home,” he decides, based on nothing. “It’s not fair.” Only 5% of council housing in Portsmouth goes to non-UK nationals.
Gordon is a 61-year-old former naval engineer who has been sleeping rough since the death of his son led to alcoholism and the end of his marriage. He is declined a place on the waiting list and told to go private, but with no deposit and no job, he is unable to find a rental property, and resorts to sleeping in a disabled toilet. The hand dryer, he explains, is like central heating.
Emma has five kids, a dog, and an anxiety disorder that makes it difficult for her to consider a property in a high-rise block – which she is, inevitably, offered. “If it was somewhere I didn’t want I’d hit the roof,” she says at the start, but Portsmouth council has a one-offer policy, a soft phrasing of “like it or lump it”, which means she either takes what she’s offered, or their “duty” to house her expires. She takes the flat because she does not have a choice. It has to be fumigated and cleared of cat faeces before she can even view it.
Chris and Emily have missed rent payments after Chris lost his job and their housing benefits did not come through in time. Their landlord says they do not keep the property in good condition; they are forced to undergo a distressing and humiliating assessment of their cleanliness by officer Billy, and in one of the most upsetting scenes in the programme, Emily breaks down, red-faced at the awful intrusiveness of it, as he tells her the cooker is not clean enough.
Because it is intrusive. All of these people are presented to the viewer as if it is our right to decide whether they are deserving of support or not. It refocuses the debate on poverty, social housing and benefits in entirely the wrong direction, placing every bit of responsibility on to the people who need help, exonerating those who might be responsible for this callous hole of bureaucracy and barely concealed disdain. The implication is that Gordon deserves it – he had a job, he has endured tragedy, he is ashamed of his situation. Correspondingly, it is implied that Emma does not deserve it in the same way: there is a snide shot of her scrolling through her iPad, of one of her children wearing PlayStation headphones, prodding the great tweeting public to sneer about what she chooses to spend her money on.
Other than a voiceover aside about Right to Buy reducing social housing stock yet further (stock! No mention of “homes”), there is no anger at why more and more people are being made homeless, why private landlords are out of control, why people are throwing all of their despair and fury at immigrants, why we are in this mess to begin with. And if we, the viewers, are concentrating on wagging our fingers at these individual cases, flashed before us briefly, with little compassion and barely any consideration of how they found themselves here (other than Gordon and Vasile, we do not get the stories of their lives), then why would we bother to consider more difficult questions? Anger inevitably flows the wrong way. Luke turns his rage on the council workers, on immigrants. Programmes like this ask us to turn ours on benefits claimants. The government continues to cut, and cut. They must be thrilled that their work is being made so easy.