The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s platitudes offer no solution to the UK’s housing crisis. What does it mean to ‘ask for beauty’? The report says that ‘schemes should be turned down for being too ugly.’ But who will be the judge of that? Any volume housebuilder’s sales office will tell you that the house people want to buy is like the one they just saw, ideally the one with the best view and the one they can afford. The market favours the traditional: pitched roof over flat roof, sash window over wrap-round glazing, a tiny porch instead of a doorstep, even – if the budget allows – a chimney in which to lodge a flue pipe. Above all, keep one house away from the next, even if the gap is little wider than an Amazon parcel.
Rough sleeping is up 169 per cent across the country since 2010, along with every other form of homelessness. The rate in Manchester is more than twice the national average. Among major English cities, it’s higher only in London and Bristol. The numbers of homeless people referred to temporary accommodation in Manchester rose 319 per cent between 2010 and 2017. It’s bizarre in these circumstances for Greater Manchester Police to downplay the crisis of homelessness by claiming that the genuinely homeless receive help, and those visible on the street are not really in need. ‘There is plenty of help for those willing to accept it,’ they say.
The last time I was in South Africa, in 2015, I met with members of Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), an organisation of informally housed people, based mainly in Durban and the surrounding KwaZulu-Natal region. The group’s name means ‘Shack Dwellers’. I was added to their mailing list. In the last few months the tone of AbM’s updates has become increasingly urgent, as the violence of the state’s response to the movement seems to have intensified.
When the Ministry of Defence sold its armed forces housing in 1996, it already looked a bad deal: 57,000 houses were sold for £30,000 each, well under half the average house price at the time. Overnight, the sale created Britain’s biggest private landlord and gave it a blue chip tenant – the MoD. Yet the company that won the contract, Annington, had just been set up and had no experience of management on such a scale.
Last Thursday morning I called my friend Mateusz to tell him a high court judge had ruled against the Home Office policy of detaining and ‘removing’ EU citizens who sleep rough. Not before time, he laughed. The previous day, he and his friends had scarpered after being approached by charity outreach workers in South London. Since May 2016, immigration enforcement teams have been raiding the sleeping sites of homeless Europeans across London.
‘Online intimidation of Tories brings call to curb Momentum,’ a headline in the Timessaid on Wednesday. The article was about a new report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which ‘contains detailed criticism of “fringe groups” that have a big impact on the tone of political debate’. The report doesn’t name Momentum, but the Times is confident the left-wing Labour group is its target. But what about the right-wing press? Yesterday, the Daily Mail attacked a number of Conservative MPs on its front page for voting to give Parliament a say on any final Brexit deal. Most of them were among those branded ‘mutineers’ by the Telegraph last month. Some of them have since received death threats.
Colourful banners hang from the balconies of Bowater House: 'Under London, heaven's light, grow life, not loot,' one of the 21 slogans says. Another: 'One day will this shadow fall.' The building is part of the Golden Lane Estate, a Grade II-listed social housing complex designed in the 1950s and built on a bomb site in the City of London. Bernard Morgan House opposite is shrouded in white sheets bearing the logo 'Taylor Wimpey'. The developer is about to demolish the building, which housed key workers between 1960 and 2015, and replace it with a 10-storey luxury block called The Denizen.
Kensington and Chelsea Council has said it will rehouse 68 families from Grenfell Tower in luxury Kensington Row apartments, where prices start at £1.7 million. But the housing crisis that led to the fire – the overlapping effects of underdevelopment, neglect, cuts and sell-offs of social housing stock – has left many other people in the borough homeless, or in unaffordable or substandard accommodation. Thousands languish on waiting lists for the ‘very few social housing properties available’. Meanwhile, 1399 privately owned homes in the borough lie empty. Senior Labour Party politicians have suggested that the council should use compulsory purchase orders to ‘requisition’ empty investment properties. The idea was met with outrage from people scandalised by the thought of a government ‘land grab’: ‘The state shouldn't seize private property backed by the implicit threat of violence,’ GQ’s political correspondent, Rupert Myers, tweeted. But councils have been using compulsory purchase orders for years.
The Festival of Britain showed postwar Britain what it might yet be. The crowds flocked to London to see the Skylon and visit the Dome of Discovery. Peter Laszlo Peri’s concrete Sunbathers writhed on a wall at Waterloo Station (recently found lying in a hotel garden in Blackheath, they are being restored after a crowdfunding campaign and will soon return to the South Bank) as the visitors came off the trains in their thousands. Rowland Emmett’s toy railway was the main attraction at Battersea Pleasure Gardens. More seriously, the Living Architecture exhibition in Poplar, the Lansbury, though still largely under construction, offered a prototype for modern New Town living. The estate caught the local imagination, showing how enlightened planning, social policy and architecture could be harnessed.
In 1893, the London Daily News published an article about Notting Dale, an area in north Kensington also known as the Potteries for its brick-making kilns and clay pits. ‘A West End Avernus’ was the headline: poor, overcrowded, with shocking housing – if there was an entrance to the Underworld, then this, the article said, was it. A grotesque report inspired by the piece a couple of years later blamed the bad condition of the area on the ‘vicious proclivities of the people themselves’. They were, the report said, ‘loafers, cab-runners, beggars, tramps, thieves and prostitutes’. One of the clay pits made by the 19th-century brick makers was so large that it was called the ‘Ocean’: it was filled with slime. The houses nearby were said to be of ‘a wretched class, many being mere hovels in a ruinous condition, filthy in the extreme, and containing vast accumulations of garbage and offal’. The wells were contaminated. The risk of cholera was high.
D.H. Lawrence’s relationship with the town he grew up in, Eastwood in Nottinghamshire, was always ambivalent. Its rural surroundings were ‘the country of my heart’, but the streets of miners’ cottages where his family lived were ‘sordid and hideous’. He freely used Eastwood characters in his writing, and to many locals he was ‘that mucky man’ who’d left the town then rubbished its reputation.
HMP Holloway, the largest women’s prison in Western Europe, shut down in July. Prison reform campaigners and charity workers argue that the ten-acre publicly owned site in Islington should be ‘reclaimed’ for the community and turned into social housing and a women’s centre. Instead, it’s being marketed to property developers. It could be turned into 500 flats worth an average of £500,000 each, giving the site a redevelopment value of more than £250 million.
Athletes are now arriving in Rio for the start of the Paralympic Games next week. The predictions of unfinished stadiums, Zika outbreaks and rampaging crime at the Olympics last month proved largely unfounded. Brazil won more medals than ever before, with some powerful symbolic victories for its ordinary citizens. The men's football team avenged their 7-0 World Cup defeat against Germany. Brazil's first gold of the games (for judo) was won by Rafaela Silva, a black lesbian from the City of God favela. Maicon de Andrade Siqueiro, who got a bronze medal in the taekwondo, trained around his work as a builder and a waiter. El País described him as a fighter not only in the stadium but, ‘like so many Brazilians’, in life.
George Osborne, before he reinvented himself as Rambo, when he was still the 'austerity chancellor', committed Theresa May’s government to spending a huge sum to prop up the housing market. The combined total of grants, loans and guarantees devoted to helping developers and homebuyers is set to exceed £42 billion between now and 2020 (similar to the cost of building four new Trident submarines). It’s supposed to achieve two things: build a million new homes and double the number of first-time buyers. An equally important but unstated priority is ensuring that house prices continue to rise. After the EU referendum, all three targets look much tougher.
Forty years ago, there were five million council houses in England, lived in by three out of ten families. Since then the number has declined by two-thirds. The Housing and Planning Bill, which returns to the Commons this week, will make it even more difficult for anyone either to get a council home or to keep it once they do.
In their general election manifesto, the Conservatives promised to ‘extend the Right to Buy to tenants in Housing Associations’. More than 1500 housing associations, all registered charities and some, like Peabody and Guinness, over a century old, would have to let tenants buy their houses at discounts of up to £103,000 each. The cost would be met by forcing local authorities to sell their most valuable council houses. After paying off councils’ debt, in theory these sales would not only provide enough to compensate housing associations for their losses but also allow replacement homes to be built both for them and for the councils. In practice, no one knows if the numbers will stack up: the financial details were removed from the Conservatives’ website shortly after they were put up and official figures haven’t yet been produced.
Even through the rose tint of my 3D glasses, the architects’ rendering of Rawabi is a dizzying sight. Their animated introductory film swoops down on the central square, where men sit with shisha pipes in one hand and iPads in the other, glamorous women go shopping, young couples stroll by, businesspeople talk on the phone, and boys and girls (with and without the hijab) play football together. At a cost of $1.2 billion, Rawabi will be Palestine’s largest ever private sector project, and its first planned city. It’s the brainchild of the US-Palestinian multimillionaire Bashar Masri, who is funding it with backing from Qatar.
In Patrick Keiller’s film London (1994) there’s only one moment at which the camera moves: on the up escalator in the old central court of Brent Cross Shopping Centre, a once magical attraction for children all over north-west London. The fountain you can see in the court and the panels of rainbow-coloured ‘stained-glass’ in the cupola above aren’t there any more. They disappeared in 1996, in an ‘improvement and expansion’ scheme.
In December 2013, a group of people living in shack settlements in Newlands West, Durban, entered and squatted a development of 16 nearly complete apartment blocks on Castle Hill, about ten miles north-west of the city centre. They stayed for more than a year before they were evicted on 17 December 2014. The developer calls the site Hilldale; the squatters called it the Mandela Complex.
Under pressure from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight in February 2003, Tony Blair conceded that the number of asylum seekers coming to Britain was too high and pledged to halve it by the following September. The promise was widely derided, but Blair had done his homework: officials had assessed the impact of Labour’s 2002 Asylum Act, the closure of the Sangatte asylum centre near Calais and other measures to deter refugees from coming to the UK. When September’s figures were announced, the target had been met. David Cameron’s target of cutting net migration to 'tens of thousands' was first made before the 2010 election, then spelled out – 'no ifs, no buts' – in April 2011. A few weeks ago Theresa May called it an 'objective' the government was 'working' towards. But the nearest they ever got was two years ago, when net migration fell to 154,000. Since then it’s risen to 260,000, higher than when Labour left office. Cameron’s mistake was to assume that net migration to and from the rest of the EU, over which he has little control, would stay where it was in 2011 (under 80,000). The Home Office focused its attention on non-EU migrants – students, family members and skilled workers – all now subject to tighter rules. What Cameron didn’t foresee was that net EU migration would almost double. Or as he put it last week, 'our squeeze in one area has been offset by a bulge in another.'
‘If it rains could you pop into ours to switch that thing on?’ my neighbour said before going away for the weekend. ‘And while you're at it, make yourself a cup of tea; you can also do your washing.’ Their flat was recently flooded, and the company responsible for the leaking roof gave them a dehumidifier and offered to pay their electricity bills until the problem is resolved. On Monday I went to the launch of the Energy Bill of Rights at the House of Commons.
The property industry met at Kensington Olympia last week. MIPIM (Le marché international des professionnels de l'immobilier), held in Cannes for the last 25 years, came to London for the first time, gathering together ‘all professionals looking to close deals in the UK property market’. Tickets cost £500. (I had a press pass.) Day one kicked off with the announcement of a deal 'to deliver the £400 million Kirkstall Forge development in Leeds'. The large sums of money and vague management speak remained a key feature for the three days of the conference.
Barnet Council and Barratt Homes are in the early stages of knocking down a housing estate in West Hendon, to replace it with a new development. Their aim is to create ‘high quality new homes in a pleasant environment and make the area a desirable place to live, work and spend time in’. But not for most of the current residents: nearly 400 homeowners and non-secure tenants, along with their families, are being ‘decanted’ off the estate. Twenty-six non-secure tenants have already been made to leave. Those remaining are not going quietly.
Rectory Gardens, a residential mews in Clapham Old Town, is being emptied, one household at a time. Henry, who has lived in the street since 1985, is among those waiting to be rehoused. When he leaves, Lambeth Council will probably hire Camelot, a ‘vacant property management’ company, to install ‘guardians’: people who pay the company for the privilege of staying in disused buildings and keeping out squatters. There are several property guardians already living on the street.
'Housing is a right, tax-dodging is wrong,' read a banner outside the Oxford Street branch of Vodafone on Saturday. UK Uncut had organised a day of action in cities around the UK. Vodafone recently reported a post-tax profit of £59.4 billion for the year to March. For the third year in a row the company has paid no corporation tax; in 2010 HMRC wrote off a £6 billion tax bill. Meanwhile, the government says it can't afford not to make cuts to social housing. The protest took the form of a housewarming party. There were balloons, music and fizzy drinks outside the shop; inside, a few people behind a half-lowered shutter. Three women, a toddler and a man in a wheelchair had managed to get in there early. The protesters at the door had a minor scrap with the staff, then chatted to the police. An activist in a Gary Barlow mask explained the amount allegedly owed by Vodafone. One of the officers asked him: 'Yeah, but have you done your own investigation?'
Worldwide, one billion people live in slums. By 2050, it might be two billion. India has the world’s second largest slum population, after China. In 2009, the government launched a plan for a ‘slum free India in five years’: since then, slum growth has continued unabated. Mumbai has more than nine million slum inhabitants, up from six million ten years ago. In the face of such statistics it is easy to be pessimistic. Yet most slums are hives of economic and political activity. Shack/Slum Dwellers International and its president, Jockin Arputham, have been nominated by the Swedish housing minister for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
The ‘deconstruction’ of the main part of the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle is well underway. Since last autumn, it has been almost completely hidden by scaffolding; to a passerby, it might have looked as if the blocks were being built rather than being taken down. But now that any asbestos and all the fixtures and fittings have been removed, cranes are removing the concrete panels from the block nearest the Walworth Road. It’s an unspectacular demolition, and a quiet one. There won’t be a specific moment of explosive collapse; the 1974 structure will just be gone by the end of the year.
Last Tuesday a group of 29 young mothers and mothers-to-be occupied an East Thames Housing Association show flat in protest against their prospective eviction from the Focus E15 Foyer, a hostel that provides temporary social housing and training to young people in Newham. Some of the Focus E15 Mothers have been there for more than three years. Six months ago, the women were served an eviction notice following a council decision to cut £41,000 of funding for the Foyer and its purpose-built single-parent units. The only alternative offered to them was private rental accommodation in Hastings, Birmingham or Manchester, far from their families, friends, jobs, colleges and children’s schools.
Squatters have moved in next door. 195 Mare Street, a Grade II* listed Georgian villa built in 1699, is the second oldest surviving house in Hackney. It’s been derelict for years: windows boarded up, front garden overgrown. Until, that is, one evening last week, when I saw people passing bags and boxes over the gate. The next morning, some sheets of A4 paper had been posted to the railings.
On 15 January, in a six-hour meeting that ended just after midnight, Southwark Council’s planning committee voted to turn the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle, where 2800 people once lived in 1212 flats, into a ‘mixed-use development’ of 2500 homes for 4000 people, plus shops and restaurants and some ‘community space’. It was asked why the scheme would be an improvement on what’s already there. ‘It’s better because it’s an improvement,’ came the non-answer. Nearly 300 fully grown oak trees will be cut down to make way for a privately managed park. A quarter of the land will be given over to car parking, on a site that has the best transport connections in London.
Ed Miliband’s latest speech on welfare pretty much capitulates to the Tories, just as Ed Balls has capitulated on the economy. Both have willy-nilly accepted a Tory ‘interpretation’ of the financial crisis, even though that ‘interpretation’ has been relentlessly political. How little austerity actually has to do with the economy or those on welfare was demonstrated by the hooting and hollering of the Tory front bench when Miliband was seen to give in; and by Iain Duncan Smith’s casual description of Labour as the ‘party of welfare’ as though that were self-evidently a bad thing. It is clear what Tory priorities are, and they are not the well-being of the people. Labour’s capitulation was both unnecessary and unwise.
Foxtons estate agents started out in Notting Hill in 1981, and opened their second branch in Fulham two years later. It was just the time for them. Large Victorian houses were being stripped down and redone, and in a recession London property still represented a good investment. The Brixton branch of Foxtons opened last weekend. The windows are full of two-bedroom flats for 11 times the median London salary. Rents meanwhile keep going up – by as much as 15 per cent last year, according to the Standard.
From 1 April something like 660,000 people who have spare bedrooms are going to be taxed if they don’t take in a lodger or move to a smaller house. This might sound like a selflessly even-handed if drastic move on the part of the welfare minister Lord Freud, given that his own house has eight bedrooms, some of which are presumably spare. But the tax applies only to those in social housing who receive housing benefit, not to owner-occupiers or people with two homes. It doesn’t apply to pensioners, unless they are foolish enough to have a younger partner. The government is trying to sell it as a sensible measure that simply requires some of us to shove up a bit and make room for someone else. ‘What we can’t continue to do,’ Grant Shapps says, ‘is pay for a million empty rooms whilst we’ve got… so many people in desperate need of a house at all.’
Last March there was an explosion at a semi-detached house on the Gleann Riada estate in Longford, seventy miles north-west of Dublin. The blast – which blew out the sitting-room window and left a hole in a ground floor wall – was caused by methane that had accumulated underneath the property. The two men who rented it were in the kitchen. In October, Ireland’s Health Service Executive said that Gleann Riada was ‘unsafe’ and called for ‘necessary and immediate remedial work’. Residents were told not to light fires and to keep their windows open.
The home secretary last week criticised the ‘uncontrolled mass immigration’ that took place before 2010 for its effects on housing and public services. The latest census data show that half the population growth in the decade after 2001 was due to immigration. Theresa May is certainly right to say immigration affects housing demand, but the question is how much. According to May, ‘more than one third of all new housing demand in Britain is caused by immigration’. Nick Boles, a minister under pressure because of his plans to build on the countryside, told the Daily Mail that ‘100,000 new homes a year will be needed to accommodate’ migrants.
On 29 November, forty students entered and occupied a room at University College London in protest against the college’s plan to build a new campus in East London. UCL Stratford will see the demolition of the Carpenters council estate to make way for a new 23-acre campus costing £1 billion. After a year’s negotiations the plans were given the green light by Newham Council in late October. All of the housing on the site will be flattened and the 700 residents ‘decanted’. Their ‘right to return’ promised in the residents’ charter published by the council ‘will remain subject to availability’.
Policy Exchange, a right-wing think-tank, is calling on councils and housing associations to sell off their most valuable housing stock. Policy Exchange has a variable record. It was an advocate of the government’s austerity programme, predicting in August 2010 that ‘if the Coalition stays the course on cutting spending’, then ‘growth through most of 2011’ should be the ‘strongest seen in the UK since the late 1980s’. It also made the odd prediction in 2010 that a stagnant housing market would lead to a fall in council housing waiting lists, which have since reached their highest levels for many years.
Octavia Hill is probably best remembered 100 years after her death as one of the founders of the National Trust. But her legacy as an enlightened landlord of working-class housing is perhaps more important. She was born in 1838 into a family of political activists. Her father founded a school in Wisbech run on principles established by Robert Owen in New Lanark. He famously rode 50 miles to secure the pardon of the last man sentenced to hang for stealing sheep. Her mother was manager of the Ladies’ Co-operative Guild. Octavia and her sisters were brought up as Christian Socialists. Once found sitting bolt upright in bed as a teenager and asked what she was doing, Octavia is said to have replied: ‘Praying for Poland.’
A few weeks ago I told the story of my friend Hussein, who had to advertise his flat under the pseudonym Rami in order to rent it out. The other day, my neighbor Yifat, who owns two flats in our block – she lives in one with her two children and rents the other out – told me about her attempt to raise the rent from 4000 to 4500 shekels a month. The tenant, she said, tried to haggle, offering her 4100 shekels. Yifat was willing to come down to 4400, arguing that many military bases are being relocated to the Negev, which would surely lead to a steep increase in rents. Indeed, an air-force pilot had already contacted her and was willing to pay 4500. The tenant didn't yield. She said she was willing to meet halfway, but no more.
The housing minister, Grant Shapps, has just finished consulting on a new set of rules, refining laws introduced in 2008, to give council tenants the right to take over the management of their estates and request that ownership ‘be transferred from the council to a local housing association’. ‘Nobody knows the needs of a neighbourhood better than the local community,’ Shapps says. ‘Now I want to see tenants use these powers to prove us right.’ One group of tenants who intend to take him at his word are the residents of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates, which belong to Tory-controlled Hammersmith and Fulham Council.
My friend’s wife was accepted to a PhD program at McGill University in Montreal. They decided to move to Canada with their two children at about the same time that I was offered a fellowship at Princeton and decided to move with my family to New Jersey for a year. Hoping to rent out our apartments while we're away, we both posted ads on the most popular website in Israel. I received about five calls a day and found a tenant within a couple of weeks. My friend received only three calls in four weeks, and none of the people who called came to look at his flat. A few days ago he removed his ad from the website and posted a new one, only this time he changed his name from Hussein to Rami. Rami is an ethnically indeterminate name – it can be either Jewish or Palestinian – but there are no Jews called Hussein.
It is increasingly clear that the UK housing crisis can only be addressed by building more social housing. Ross McKibbin wrote in the LRB last year that this should be a priority for a future Labour government, and even the coalition belatedly accepted the economic benefits of social housing construction in the run-up to the Autumn Statement. The problem is that they are actually doing the opposite. Social housing 'starts' fell to a miserable 454 in the last six months, and although they will start to increase soon, the new investment will have two very important downsides.
To get to Dale Farm you have to take a train to Wickford or Basildon and then try to get a taxi. ‘If your cab driver refuses to take you,’ the Dale Farm Solidarity website says, ‘tell them they’re being silly, then ask to get dropped off at the Belvedere Golf range.’ On Sunday I went to the Traveller site in Essex, where eighty or so families are waiting to be evicted from the green-belt land they own (it used to be a scrapyard, and hasn’t been ‘green’ for years), with Damian Le Bas, a journalist and Romani gypsy.
As part of the authoritarian crackdown following last week’s riots, David Cameron announced on Friday that rioters should be evicted from their council houses – even though the only thing that we know for sure about the connection between riots and where people live is that some of the disturbances happened in or near social housing estates like Pembury (which is owned not by Hackney Council but by the Peabody Trust; last Wednesday its chief executive said the estate, no longer under the scrutiny of the mass media, had almost returned to normal). Given that fewer than 10 per cent of people in England live in council houses, evicting council tenants who took part in the riots is going to be a very selective punishment – even if the proportion among rioters turns out to be higher.
When I was a student I lived over a shop, just off the Edgware Road. Four of us squeezed in, and the cobbler and his wife (no, this wasn’t the 19th century) kept a kindly eye on us before heading home in the evenings to Purley. These days, as I wander the high streets of towns, small, medium and large, with an eye cast upwards, alert to any signs of life, I rarely see anything more than mountains of cardboard boxes or clothes racks. A campaign, LOTS (Living Over the Shops), which might have been a lot shriller, for years tried to draw attention to this wasted space, accommodation that doesn’t appear in the national estimates of empty housing – written out in favour of ‘guesstimates’ of the soaring need for more housing ‘units’, especially in the south-east.
Perhaps one of the reasons (to be generous for a moment) the Tories are so unconcerned about all the job losses they're enacting is that they really do believe the private sector will take up the slack. And for anyone who can't find work at Marks and Spencer or Vodafone, the housing minister Grant Shapps has come up with a perfect solution: they can run their own businesses from home! He's disappointingly vague, though, about what such 'home enterprise' might actually involve. It sometimes seems as if the Tory front bench view of 'running your own business' – or indeed 'finding work' – is that it's a bit like having a trust fund.
When I started working as a housing officer in Westminster in 2006, I finished my first week of visits feeling relieved. There were few signs of antisocial behaviour, no gangs of youths intimidating residents in dark corridors, no evidence of overwhelming deprivation. Which isn’t to say that the tenants’ lives were easy: most were living on low incomes, some had mental or physical health problems, others had learning difficulties, some were addicted to drugs or alcohol, others were simply struggling to bring up their children in small flats with poor sound insulation and tired neighbours complaining about the noise. But they were, for the most part, getting by. And with tenancy for life, low rents and housing benefit, as long as they kept to the terms of their tenancy agreement they had a secure home in an area where they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to live. That security has now gone.