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Houses and skips

03 June 2016


IN THE middle of a referendum campaign full of wild claims and counter-claims, it might seem injudicious of two television channels to offer, on the same evening, programmes that, on the face of it, could stoke the flames. How to Get a Council House (Channel 4, Tuesday of last week) could have been headlined “Now they’re taking your homes”, and Last Whites of the East End (BBC1) could have been billed as “Migrants drive out the natives”.

Both were well-made and judiciously balanced, however, and any conclusions viewers could draw were not so simplistic.

How to Get a Council House completed a series looking at the work of Hounslow’s housing department. This London borough is adjacent to Heathrow, and consequently faces daily the problem of people who arrive in Britain without a job or somewhere to stay. Inevitably, they end up at the council offices, where the staff, with unfailing courtesy, have to explain to them that there are criteria to be met.

Florin, a young Romanian, had already spent a short time in Britain, but had gone back to bring his wife and five children to London, where he hoped he and his wife would find work. They were initially helped by a church-based refuge, but it was already full, and a Baptist pastor took on the task of trying to help them.

Visits to the housing department followed, and then treks up and down the streets of Hounslow to try to find bed and breakfast accommodation. The pastor agreed that Florin had been “irresponsible”.

So, in different ways, were the other cases we followed. All were migrants from various countries; all were without work; all were soon deeply in debt. And none of them got a council house.

Last Whites of the East End was based in Newham, which has the lowest proportion of white British inhabitants of any part of London. What was once a cockney heartland is now home to a range of cultures and races. If you want to hear white cockney now, go to Romford or Billericay. That fact was the unspoken revelation of the programme.

This was not ethnic cleansing, whites driven out by migrants, but gentrification. Like the East End Jews before them, who went west to Finchley, Golders Green, and Edgware, the native British people decided, when finances allowed, to leave the crowded tenements of Newham to settle in the green fields of Essex.

Television comedy is now largely in the hands of the bawdy “Mrs Brown” and stand-up comedians. Love, Nina (BBC1, Friday) offers a pleasing contrast. Written by Nick Hornby, and based on Nina Stibbe’s droll memoir, it is perceptive, literate, and, above all, genuinely funny.

The Nina character is an unorthodox nanny. This episode focused on her neighbour’s skip. If, like me, you find an argument about the ethics of putting your rubbish in someone else’s skip refreshingly amusing, you will like Love, Nina. “How can you possibly steal space?” she asked. I’m still working on that one.

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