It sounds preposterous: three million new homes in England alone by 2020. My instinct is to fight this project. It threatens Britain’s countryside, the character of our towns, our water supplies and carbon targets. Today the Housing and Regeneration Bill, which will help to implement this building programme, has its second reading in the House of Commons(1). Where should we stand?
Is the housing crisis as acute as some people have claimed? Or has it been whipped up by the House Builders’ Federation, hoping to get their claws into the countryside? To find out whether these homes are really needed, I asked the charity Shelter to take me to meet some of the people it works with in London. I had no idea. I simply had no idea.
Wendy Castle moved into her flat in the Trellick Tower in west London when her eldest child was a baby. He’s now 16, and she has three others between 13 and 2. But her flat has only two bedrooms. She sleeps in one of them with her two youngest children. The room is completely filled by beds. On one side they are jammed against the window, which no longer shuts properly. On the other they are pressed against the heater, which can’t be used because of the fire risk. Her two oldest boys share an even smaller room.
She keeps her flat in a state of Japanese minimalism, but in the tiny living room the children were sitting on each other’s laps to watch the television. Like all the women I met that day, Wendy – tough as she has become – cried when she told me how this crowding was affecting her children. Her oldest boy is falling behind at school because "he physically does not have space to do his homework. He can’t do anything till the other kids go to bed."
But the real shock came when she explained why she was stuck. Kensington and Chelsea, like several London boroughs, operates a points system, reflecting people’s level of deprivation(2). Every Monday morning it posts up the flats available for social tenants (those who pay less than the market rate). People with enough points can bid for them. Wendy has 40. She has been able to bid on only one occasion. Though her family is officially "severely overcrowded", she came 87th out of 92. Eighty-six households, bidding for the same flat, were deemed to be in greater need than hers. "I’ve tried everything. But when I ring them they say ‘I don’t know why you bother – you ain’t got the points’."
In a block across the road from the tower I visited Aisha and Abdul Omarzaiy. They have 280 points, but they have also been told they are wasting their time. Aisha and Abdul received asylum from Afghanistan in 1992. They were given this flat five months after they arrived and promised that after 6 months they’d be moved to a bigger place. They now have four children between 19 and 2, in a tiny two-bedroomed flat. (Remember this, next time someone claims that people granted asylum get priority(3)). The oldest boy and girl share a room, a desk and a homework rota. The youngest girl sleeps in bed with her mother. Abdul and the 10 year-old sleep on the living room floor. The 19 year-old has dyslexia and needs peace to concentrate: he is now re-sitting his A-levels for the second time. He can’t bring friends home, as there is nowhere for them to speak privately, and he’s embarrassed about sharing a room with his sister. Like Wendy, Aisha keeps the flat neat and sparse. But prison cells are more spacious.
Now suffering from severe depression, Aisha has lobbied the council and written to her MP. "When I had three children they told me I’d be moved straight away if had another one. I didn’t want another one. But after 7 years the fourth came along. They still won’t move us." The council did offer a solution: to put the oldest boy in a hostel. ""They told us straight," Abdul said. "They don’t have big properties. One comes in once a year and they give it to the highest priority."
Kensington and Chelsea, as the diligent ward councillor Emma Dent Coad told me, has a poor record on social housing: a kind of economic cleansing seems to be taking place(4). But there are similar backlogs all over London. Shelter took me to meet Jacqueline Pennant, who lives with her children in a tiny maisonette in south Wandsworth. She has osteoarthritis and a hairline fracture in the spine, a prolapsed disc and sciatica in both legs. She should be confined to a wheelchair, but it won’t fit in the house. She dragged herself from one piece of furniture to the next, then up the narrow stairs, clutching at the bannisters, her face gnarled up in pain. I saw this in Britain, in November 2007.
Jacqueline and her three children have been in this two-bedroomed house for 13 years. In 1996, she thought she was about to be moved and packed her stuff into boxes. Eleven years later they are still shutting out the light as she waits like Miss Haversham for the date that never comes. Her oldest boy has severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and finds the crowding unbearable. The middle one is routinely hospitalised with asthma, exacerbated by sleeping in a tiny slot between his mother’s bed and the wall. In the kitchen you can touch both walls with your palms. "If I can’t use my wheelchair I don’t have a life," Jacqueline told me. "The strain on my back has made my problems a lot worse. I’m so depressed and frustrated."
This is a small sample, but it’s indicative of a quiet social catastrophe. Over half a million households are officially overcrowded(5), 85,000 are in temporary accomodation(6), 1.6m are on the social housing waiting list(7). Even before you consider the backlog, the newly-arising need for homes is projected to run at some 220,000 a year(8). Shelter’s surveys tell the same story over and over: children struggling with their schoolwork, parents crushed by depression and stress, families living in conditions familiar to Dickens and Engels.
Part of this crisis arises from the Labour government’s shocking failure to build social homes. Though she was the first to allow council houses to be sold, so undermining long-term provision, during Margaret Thatcher’s tenure social homes were built at an average rate of 46,600 a year(9). Under Blair, it fell to 17,300(10), while almost half a million council houses were sold off, at an average rate of 48,300 a year(11). In this respect at least, new Labour has been as Thatcherite as Thatcher.
It is true that much more could be done to mobilise empty houses(12), help elderly people to move into smaller flats and stamp out Britain’s ugliest inequality: second homes(13). It is disappointing to see how little of this there is in the bill. But even if all such measures were used, they would release perhaps half a million homes. I find myself, to my intense discomfort, supporting the preposterous housing target. There’s a legitimate debate to be had about where and how these homes are built. But – though it hooks in my green guts to admit it – built they must be.
3. The claim that people from ethnic minorities get preference is also false. The government points out that "Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) households are disproportionately found in overcrowded households. As the chart below shows, in London, nearly 30% of children in BME households and over 10% of children in white households live in overcrowded conditions." Department for Communities and Local Government, July 2007. Homes for the future: more affordable, more sustainable, p58.
4. She cites government figures showing that only 27% of new homes built in Kensington and Chelsea are affordable (social or low cost market homes). In Hammersmith and Fulham, the best-performing borough, the proportion is 82%.
8. ibid, p17.
12. Using government figures, Shelter says there were 676,000 empty properties in England in 2006.
13. There are 260,000 in England, according to DCLG, 2006. Housing Statistics Summary, Number 26. Survey of English Housing Provisional Results: 2005/06, p25.