HOMES UNDER THE PLANNER

There are times when that most basic human necessity – to have a roof over one’s head – becomes a crisis that demands action. The years following the devastation of housing stock during WWII air raids was one such time, even if many of the dwellings destroyed by the Luftwaffe were poor, insanitary slum residences that had already been condemned. Those homes of similar quality to survive the Blitz staggered on through the 1950s and into the 60s, however unfit for human habitation they might have been; unsurprisingly, most were situated in high-density urban areas and were home to people on low (or no) incomes – the kind of dilapidated hovels often captured on campaigning documentaries of the era, the kind infested by bugs, vermin and rising damp, boasting inadequate facilities, outdoor privies and tin baths in front of the fire.

Whilst the big money went on designing New Towns, the rest of the urgent housing needs were solved by ‘Large Panel System Building’, the revolutionary production line process whereby the components for (primarily) tower blocks were cast off-site and then assembled on-site like Meccano. It was a fast and – more importantly – cheap method of re-housing that those re-housed from Victorian slums understandably regarded as luxurious, suddenly finding themselves in shiny new flats with all mod cons. This was the last gasp of the great – and, on paper, laudable – social housing project spanning the first quarter-century after the War, and it took a disaster to curtail it.

In May 1968, Ronan Point, a 22-storey tower block in Newham, East London hit the headlines when a gas explosion provoked the collapse of one side of the building. Because the block had been open for just a couple of months, only a tiny handful of its apartments were occupied and the death toll was restricted to four people. But the shocking image of the damage done I would imagine sent a collective shiver down the spine of those living in identical flats comparable to the impact the Grenfell inferno had on those whose streets in the sky had also been redecorated in flammable cladding. Ironically, the planning regulations that eventually came into force as a result of Ronan Point have been stated by some as saving Grenfell Tower (opened in 1974) from collapse when it was ablaze. While Ronan Point may have effectively ended the era of the tower block as a solution to a housing crisis, many of those erected prior to 1968 – and those built immediately afterwards, which had been given the go-ahead beforehand – were also riddled with defects reflecting the speediness of their construction and the poor quality materials used.

As a child, I had an auntie who lived on a huge housing estate comprising interconnected low-level blocks of around half-a-dozen storeys; virtually isolated on an island surrounded by busy roads, the estate was nicknamed ‘Alcatraz’ and was a sprawling, aesthetically ugly concrete jungle of a home. It had only been built around the same time as Ronan Point, yet even in the early 70s I remember it seemed to be falling apart, plagued with all the problems that came with the LPS process. My auntie’s flat had the permanent unmistakable odour of damp flowing through it that was as pungent as the stench of piss in the lifts that carried visitors up to her floor. The whole rotten estate was demolished in the early 80s, after standing for no more than a decade. But the failure of such schemes, driven by ambition and destroyed by corner (and cost) cutting, seems to have led us to where we are now. Similar estates that survived were refashioned as a dumping ground for ‘problem families’ and antisocial tenants that nobody wanted living next-door. Social housing became a dirty word.

The news that the Government is to shake-up planning rules and regulations in order to fast-track the desperately-needed delivery of new houses has received a mixed response. Boris Johnson has attempted to alleviate the worries of those who cannot afford to own their own homes at a time when a post-lockdown ‘mini-boom’ has pushed house prices back up to their usual astronomical levels; he stated social housing would constitute a large part of his reforms. The lockdown has exposed not only the fears of homelessness amongst many renters whose landlords have not exactly been sympathetic to their furloughed tenants, but has also highlighted the cramped conditions families have had to endure in order to ‘stay alert’. The fact that the old ‘No Irish, no dogs, no blacks’ requirement is now rightly consigned to history doesn’t alter the fact that many contemporary renters on Housing Benefit already have enough to worry about, still confronted as they are by the ‘No DSS’ bar, which is just as antiquated a form of discrimination, especially considering the DSS hasn’t existed since 2001.

Of course, not all planning regulations were created to thwart and frustrate noble property developers; we’ve all seen the way some homeowners and landlords attempt to skirt around current rules, squeezing extensions into every available space, erecting endless dormers and converting garages into dwellings. Many are concerned any relaxation will be exploited by less benign builders and will push even more into miserable surroundings. A friend of mine rented a recently-built house on a shiny new estate around 20 years back and I remember being struck by the low ceilings and claustrophobic rooms; the small scale of the interior was as though it had been designed to house a family of Munchkins. That experience confirmed to me that the dimensions of new homes were undoubtedly smaller in the same way photographic evidence makes it clear how Mars Bars have shrunk over the years.

The Royal Institute of British Architects has expressed concerns that the reforms could lead to shoddy slum properties, whilst housing charity Shelter is worried social housing will be a casualty of what Labour has called a ‘property developer’s charter’; the proposed changes imply decisions over where to build will be taken out of local council hands and give more power to central government; and it goes without saying that central government will be less sensitive to local issues, risking provoking ‘Nimby’ protests, particularly when it comes to greenbelt land. However, the Local Government Association claims the housing crisis in this country is not due to the planning system but to the fact that nine out of ten approved planning applications given the green light end up not being built. What all this makes clear is that something needs to be done, but can we trust this Government to do it right?

The concerted effort to clear the streets of (and house) homeless rough-sleepers during the lockdown shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to instigate, but it equally shouldn’t take the eventual submission of Covid-19 before it becomes enshrined as official policy that no one should have to sleep in a shop doorway. At the same time, the place we know as home should also be a step up from a kennel. If the new planning regulations lead to a long-overdue building programme reminiscent of the ones that spanned the 50s to the 70s, great; but it is to be hoped the same mistakes made then can be avoided. Having somewhere to live needs to be recognised as a universal human right, but the quality of that living space matters too; the ministerial trumpeting that often accompanies ‘the creation of thousands of new jobs’ can come across as meaningless box-ticking if the nature of the work is deemed secondary to the simple fact the job has been created. We don’t need a housing version of Government coronavirus policy, whereby people are being kept alive whilst simultaneously being denied living.

© The Editor

CRISIS? WHAT CRISIS?

Around twenty years ago, a friend of mine who was a student at the time we met graduated from university; her degree enabled her to enter the profession she wanted to and within three or four years of doing so she bought a house. The timescale of this progression is inconceivable now, yet it happened to her when this very century was still in nappies (i.e. not that long ago). She was from an unremarkable working-class background – indeed, her family home was on the fringes of an estate you wouldn’t want to walk through on a dark night – and her parents were hardly ‘wealthy’ by today’s terms; they certainly didn’t play a part in her rise from student to homeowner; it was all down to her own endeavours. It struck me when I thought about it that her story is one we probably won’t be told again for a long time. It reads like a blast from a past that is now firmly out of reach.

Sobering statistics aired last week spell out how the climate has changed in such a short space of time. In London, over two-thirds of average earners’ income is now spent on rent. By the time the original scheduled date of the imminent General Election comes around (2020), it’s estimated that first-time buyers will need to be earning the best part of £60,000 a year in order to buy their own home; the current average annual UK wage is £27,271 – though David Cameron can set £25,000 aside to erect a shed in his back garden for the purpose of writing his memoirs; I’m pretty sure an estate agent could market that as a ‘micro bijou residence ideal for a small family’.

Another factor worthy of mentioning concerns the domicile status of many homeowners in this country. In the centre of the capital, 28% of buyers purchasing property don’t reside there, and almost 10% of this country’s entire housing stock is currently in the hands of foreign investors – those who view houses not as an essential roof over a homeless head, but as bargaining chips on the gaming tables of the international capitalist casino. Unlike many other countries around the world, there are no rules in place here to limit home ownership to tax-paying residents of this country. When so much of UKIP and Tory energies have been devoted to scapegoating foreign workers ‘coming over here and taking our jobs’ in recent years, it’s odd that rich overseas homeowners taking our houses without even coming over here have evaded attention for so long.

Amongst all the issues being bandied about as crucial to the Election – Brexit, the NHS, education etc. – for me personally, housing is the most pressing of them all; whilst much has been made of the fact nurses are using food banks, few are pointing out it’s probably because the majority of their income is going on rent. Yes, the Tories made a big announcement on housing over the weekend, but the Government has recently changed public investment in housing from social rent (falling much lower than the market level) to so-called ‘affordable rent’ and ownership schemes. It also intends to put pressure on local councils to sell upwards of a third of their empty homes to draw Housing Association tenants into the Right to Buy project. Currently, for every five council homes sold under Right to Buy, one solitary replacement council house is being built.

At the same time, local councils spent over £840 million on temporary accommodation for the homeless last year alone, which amounts to a 46% increase in just five years. Add the removal of Housing Benefit for unemployed 18-21 year-olds and the cap on the same benefit for those in sheltered housing and it’s plain to see how highly this issue really ranks on the list of priorities penned by the powers-that-be.

Despite a few vague promises, housing hasn’t been at the forefront of the electioneering so far. I suspect the fear of losing votes from homeowners paranoid that their investments will diminish in value should house prices drop has played its part in this criminal neglect by the leading parties, though that simply isn’t good enough. Maybe if the UK was on the same level as, say, Bangladesh, our housing crisis would be regarded as an improvement on past statistics; but as far as the world’s fifth richest economy is concerned, there’s no excuse. Compare then and now – then being the first twenty-five years after the end of the Second World War, when this country embarked upon the most radical programme of public building since the Roman occupation.

Whilst the creation of New Towns, the erection of sprawling council estates and the demolition of slum housing condemned before the war (many of which survived into the 50s and 60s) was a necessary response to the damage done by the Luftwaffe, this key policy of Attlee’s reforming administration nevertheless became a long-term project carried on by Tory Governments led by Churchill, Eden, Macmillan and Home before finally drawing to a close under Harold Wilson. In the space of a quarter-of-a century, a housing crisis was dealt with as consensus politics weren’t affected by a change of colour at the top. The common good was recognised by all. Yes, some of it may have been shoddy and some of it may have left an aesthetic blot on the nation’s landscape, but the motivation behind it was laudable. The housing crisis of the twenty-first century may be down to massively different circumstances, but the need to resolve it is no less urgent, even if few in public office dare to admit it to the electorate.

I know I’ve written about this topic on numerous past occasions, but I find it baffling how housing isn’t at the forefront of the party manifestoes, even if the fact it isn’t doesn’t really surprise me. Yes, it’s being mentioned now that the individual party policies are being unveiled as media events day-by-day, but it’s not exactly dominated conversation in the campaign to date. Other than ensuring British citizens – or subjects, if you prefer – have enough food in their bellies, I can’t think of anything else more important than the right of each and every one of us to have a roof over our heads. Or is it just me?

© The Editor

THE CURRY HOUSE

With this country’s housing currently in the kind of crisis it hasn’t reached since the aftermath of the Blitz, the lack of urgency and action on the part of government often beggars belief. One would imagine ensuring everyone has a roof over their head should be at the top of any administration’s agenda, but what is actually being done? A chronic absence of affordable homes; a pitifully low amount of new houses being built; purpose-built social housing virtually abolished; soaring rents also pricing people out of that market; mean-minded schemes such as depriving unemployed 18-21 year-olds of Housing Benefit – all paint a portrait of remarkable ineptitude and uncaring indifference on the part of our elected representatives.

And into this troubled arena returns the ominous, unwelcome spectre of the kind of landlord who gives landlords a bad name – not quite a throwback to either infamous property tycoon gangster Nicholas van Hoogstraten or the notorious slum tyrant of 50s Notting Hill, Peter Rachman; but certainly one bearing all the old ‘No Irish/No Dogs/No Blacks’ prejudices prevalent prior to the Rent Act of 1965.

Millionaire Fergus Wilson, often referred to as ‘Britain’s biggest landlord’ (having owned over a thousand properties at one point), has hit the headlines due to his attitudes towards certain types of potential tenants via a leaked list of his letting criteria supplied to the letting agents Evolution. This illuminating document reveals he and his company do not want tenants with children under 18, no single mums or single fathers, no tenants on Housing Benefits, no low-income workers and no single adults. That does narrow it down quite a bit; few with little choice but to seek rented accommodation don’t fall into any of those categories, after all. But Mr Wilson obviously has standards to maintain. He won’t accept victims of domestic abuse as tenants either; ‘battered wives’ are apparently more trouble than they’re worth.

As biased and bigoted as that list reveals Fergus Wilson to be, it is his antiquated racism that has made him a target for online abuse. According to this list, one of his other specifications regarding tenants is that he won’t let to – in his own words – ‘coloured people’ because of ‘the curry smell at the end of the tenancy’. Firstly, the assumption that what has long been the country’s No.1 dish of choice is only consumed by ‘coloured people’ is remarkably ill-informed; secondly, to attribute that particular dish as a main cause of damage to his properties when tenants move out suggests his judgement is severely impaired by his prejudices.

A friend of mine who rented out his former home when he couldn’t sell it experienced the unpleasant reality of trouble tenants, who left the property a tip when they did a runner, though they were neither ‘coloured’ nor used curry to reinforce their contempt for the tenancy agreement.

Fergus Wilson has reported the abuse he’s received to Kent Police, but has also been airing his opinions in the Sun, which make him sound like an even bigger idiot than the leaked list did. ‘It is a problem with certain types of coloured people – those who consume curry,’ he says. ‘It sticks to the carpet. You have to get some chemical thing that takes the smell out. In extreme cases you have to replace the carpet.’ He goes on to deny that which he has been accused of by saying: ‘My stance is that it is neither racist nor discrimination to refuse to take people from any ethnic background on the basis that there is a heightened risk of injury to the house.’

His denials are then contradicted by further statements such as: ‘To be honest, we’re getting overloaded with coloured people’ and ‘In a predominantly white English area, almost all landlords will not let to Indian or Pakistani tenants because of the smell of curry.’ He clearly has a problem with curry, that famed foodstuff favoured by those bloody ‘coloured people’. If only they stuck to fish and chips, how much easier Fergus Wilson’s life would be.

Evolution, recipients of Mr Wilson’s specifications, has distanced itself from his comments and has made it clear they do not endorse his attitudes. Other organisations dedicating to helping the homeless or representing the renting sector from both sides have followed suit. The online attacks he’s been subjected to since his criteria was made public are of an ilk that many who are nowhere near as bigoted, though have a habit of expressing unfashionable opinions, have suffered from recently; however, to hold up Fergus Wilson as some heroic beacon of anti-PC free speech misses the point.

As a landlord – and an extremely wealthy one – Mr Wilson is in a position where some of society’s most vulnerable citizens are forced to approach him for assistance. For him to discriminate on the grounds of social or racial status, rather than exclude the worst kind of tenants due to their lack of respect for the property, is lamentable at a time when so many are in such dire need, whether or not they have an appetite for curry. Desperation for a roof over one’s head doesn’t distinguish on any grounds. The tenancy agreement between landlord and tenant is a contract of mutual understanding; if both adhere to the terms, there’s no reason why the relationship cannot be a harmonious one.

Having lived in rented accommodation for over twenty years, I’ve experienced both bad landlords and good ones; I may have kept pets when I wasn’t supposed to, but I’ve always paid my rent on time and I’ve always left the properties as I found them when the time has come to move on. I even left a fridge freezer and a mattress behind at my last address, neither of which was there when I arrived, so I hope my successor made the most of them. Maybe it’s time Fergus Wilson retired to his inevitable yacht in Monaco and left his business in the hands of those who recognise that when so many in this country are so desperate for somewhere to live, landlords are uniquely qualified to do what government is so spectacularly failing to.

© The Editor

BROKEN CLOCK BRITAIN

poorWhen Iain Duncan Smith walked out of the Cabinet last year, his resignation letter seemed to confirm the suspicions many of us had long held regarding the old-school-tie cabal of Cameron and Osborne and the contempt with which they viewed outsiders – i.e. the majority of people in this country. But let us not attribute an abundance of heroic honesty to IDS; after all, he knew the EU Referendum was imminent and was already positioning himself towards his role in the campaign. Moreover, his post as Benefits Tsar in the Coalition had seen him inflict appallingly punitive punishments on those in society least capable of standing up to the regime he represented.

After justifiably carrying the can for a relentlessly visceral assault on the sick and the poor, IDS realised the shit that was poised to rain down on him following Osborne’s latest proposals to crush the same demographic and headed for the exit door before he could receive the blame for it. However, within a few months, Dave had fallen on his sword, Gideon had been banished to the backbenches, and Theresa May had moved into No.10, promising a Government that would cater for everybody with a compassion sorely absent from the administration of her predecessor.

The man who inherited the old IDS role in May’s team was Damian Green, which was something of an unenviable task considering how tarnished the job of Work and Pensions Secretary had become in the wake of the whole Atos affair. But despite an apparently promising start in which he appeared willing to address some of the worst crimes committed in the name of Austerity re the disabled, Green has reverted to Tory type by burying bad news when nobody was looking.

With Parliamentary business last week dominated by the ongoing Whitehall Farce between the Commons and the Lords on the subject of the Brexit Bill, Green sneaked through one of Gideon’s discredited proposals late Friday afternoon while the House wasn’t sitting; the proposal in question was the move to axe Housing Benefit for unemployed 18-21 year-olds, something initially unveiled in Osborne’s 2015 Budget and subsequently shelved due to vociferous opposition. How ingenious of the current Work and Pensions Secretary to announce this not in a grandstand press conference, but at a moment when he knew media attention was focused elsewhere in Westminster. Although the plan will be debated by MPs, the nature of the way in which the news was placed back on the agenda speaks volumes.

An estimated 11,000 under-22 year-olds will be affected by the move if it becomes official Government policy, no longer eligible for assistance with their rent should they require it. For all the Prime Minister’s hollow words about ‘a country that works for everyone’, this is a throwback to the worst elitist elements of the brief all-Conservative Cameron Government, whose appetite for reserving the sharpest edges of its scythe for those residing on the bottom rung of society’s ladder was no longer restricted by the Lib Dems. Not only does it have the potential to increase rather than reduce the plague of homelessness among the young, but it makes a mockery of any promised Government initiatives to tackle the problem.

As a pre-emptive strike, the DWP claims there will be exemptions to the new rules proposed – such as youngsters who cannot live in the family home due to the threat of domestic abuse, those with children, or those working at Minimum Wage level for at least 16 hours – but housing and homeless charities like Crisis and Shelter have condemned the move and labelled the exemptions inadequate, as has the National Landlords Association. Shadow Housing Minister John Healey says those targeted are ‘young people (who) are old enough to fight for their country, but in Theresa May’s Britain not old enough to get the same help with housing costs as everyone else.’

Yet again, it seems the coordinated demonisation of those who don’t slot into a favoured demographic such as the so-called ‘Jams’ is afoot, with a revival of that old chestnut, ‘preventing a life on benefits’ being tossed back into the ring as justification for the policy. It merely reinforces a lazy stereotype that fails to acknowledge the reality of needing a little leg-up in that tricky transitional phase between leaving home and making it on your own if you can’t raise a loan from the Bank of Mum and Dad. Few can afford to buy a house now, but this move even rules out renting.

Another exemption promised concerns any 18-21 year-old lucky enough to have been working six months prior to claiming Housing Benefit. Considering even the most soul-destroying of what are laughably called ‘careers’ – call-centre work, for example – are inundated with hundreds of applications from degree-heavy hopefuls when one poxy position becomes available, the likelihood of a youngster having found a job before applying for Housing Benefit is extremely limited, which is (of course) the point.

‘Vulnerable people will continue to be protected’ is the DWP’s response to criticism, but the phrase ‘will continue to be protected’ is troubling; it implies the DWP has already been protecting the vulnerable, which is debatable; and what does it define as protection – providing a sleeping-blanket for shop doorways during the winter months? And is not a jobless and potentially homeless teenager confronted by the consumer society and all its unattainable riches vulnerable? If so, this latest change to the benefits system will offer precious little protection to that particular class of the vulnerable.

Once more we are witness to the unnecessary punishment of individuals, each with their own unique set of circumstances, who are not in a position to fight their corner. The pavement and the food-bank – is that the legacy of the twenty-first century? Discarding so many members of society at such a young age is a short-sighted recipe for future disaster; today’s books may be balanced, but there seems to be little thought being given to tomorrow’s.

© The Editor

BEGGAR’S BANQUET

buskerAround five years ago I was approached in a local supermarket by an apparent stranger who asked me if I used to be in a band; I told him I was once, ‘a long time ago’. It turned out he already knew this, for he’d been in the band with me. As I took a closer look, I recognised somebody I’d jammed alongside and played onstage with, albeit somebody I hadn’t met since 1989. Actually, it wasn’t the first time our paths had crossed since then; I realised he’d been busking outside said supermarket for a few days; I just hadn’t noticed the identity of the busker because I hadn’t been looking.

Apologising for my accidental rudeness, I then got into a long chat with him and asked how his life had panned-out in the intervening twenty-odd years; it was an interesting and unexpected catch-up. Like many of those capable of producing a tune from a stringed instrument, he regularly busks to add a little to his limited income and he periodically returns to the same spot armed with his banjo, not making enough to live on, but enough to buy him a few bargain basement food items to see him through the next couple of days. He doesn’t live on the streets, but the musical talent that couldn’t provide him with a rock star lifestyle nevertheless comes to his rescue and saves him from the streets.

The busker is a beggar in clown’s clothing – and I don’t mean that in a nasty way; but the fact is that the principle is the same; it is only the method of ‘crowd-funding’ that differs. People will generally toss a few coins in the hat if they feel they their money is rewarding an effort to entertain them, whereas a hunched figure sat on the pavement doesn’t appear to be even trying. There is a mindset that sees giving money to a stranger as something that should amount to an exchange; it’s not unlike the Python sketch where the can-rattling Terry Jones tries to prise a donation to charity from John Cleese’s businessman, whose bemused attitude to the alien concept of receiving no financial incentive is ‘What’s in it for me?’

There’s one theory that reckons street beggars, whether the genuine homeless or the terminally helpless, exist as an example to the rest of us, much as the ominous spectre of the workhouse or debtor’s gaol did in the nineteenth century – a visual warning of the fate that awaits should we neglect to pull our socks up and contribute towards society in the accepted fashion, presumably by spending all our free time and money in the shops outside which the beggar begs and thus boosting the economy. To hand a fiver to the beggar instead of spending it on some useless piece of mass-produced tat is therefore an act of consumerist treason.

Then again, there’s another theory that beggars are vermin that need to be excised from our streets as though they were little more than unsightly graffiti. This appears to have gathered pace in recent years, with certain local authorities in London erecting ‘sloping’ park benches to dissuade the homeless from viewing them as impromptu beds and installing spikes in shop doorways to prevent the space being occupied when business closes for the evening. Down in Bath and Southampton, this punitive approach has been taken to another level altogether.

Southampton City Council has implemented what it calls Public Space Protection Orders, which ban begging from five city locations; a £100 fine is the penalty for breaking the PSPO, with failure to pay up within a fortnight guaranteeing a court appearance and a possible criminal record. Chelmsford City Council had tried a similar scheme before an online campaign persuaded them to drop such penalties for the destitute and amended their begging ban so that it only applied to ‘aggressive begging’. I’ve never been ‘aggressively begged’, but I have been aggressively set upon by unnaturally upbeat Greenpeace recruiters, giving me no choice but to cross the road to avoid them and to avoid verbally expressing my annoyance at them being in my face via colourful language.

In Bath, a homeless woman called Jenny Dinmore was last year sentenced to eight weeks in prison for begging on the streets, an activity from which she had been banned on account of ‘repeat offending’. Interestingly, when those ‘pretend coppers’ known as Police Community Support Officers grassed her up to a proper copper after apparently overhearing her asking passers-by for change, the professional woodentop asked Ms Dinmore if she was singing or whistling (which could be interpreted as busking); Ms Dinmore replied in the negative and was promptly arrested. If only she’d had a banjo on hand.

Jenny Dinmore had experienced severe drug problems in the past, but denied this was the motivation for begging; she would certainly have required more than the measly few pence she could expect from begging were she hoping to score a wrap of rocks. The drug aspect of her criminal history neatly fits the stereotype of the homeless beggar as a crack-head charlatan, but smack, crack or alcopops aren’t necessarily to blame for all the mental disturbances that many street-dwellers suffer from.

A small handful of shelters and centres staffed by volunteers and financed either by charities, the church or a limited number of local authorities do their bit, but the State has effectively absolved itself of intervention as the austerity axe has fallen on so many social services whilst simultaneously funding the far higher cost of court appearances and prison sentences. For some, the humiliating indignity of begging is the sole solution and the current approach doesn’t seem to be offering an alternative.

The fact that I had walked past a former band-mate busking on several occasions perhaps shows how conditioned society has become to acquiring a blind-spot where the visible needy are concerned; but at least I know the banjo-man isn’t in so deep a hole that he is forced to trade in his instrument in order that he can eat. He’s luckier than some.

© The Editor

A ROOF OF ONE’S OWN

yosserYesterday, it was both World Homeless Day and World Mental Health Day – coincidence? The two issues are often intertwined, though while giving both a ‘day’ might seem like altruistic recognition, what does such an event actually do other than briefly inspire a temporary conscience? At one time, whole years used to be devoted to the raising of awareness; I recall the Year of the Child and the Year of the Disabled in the late 70s/early 80s. But 24 hours? There was probably a lot of online trending, and no doubt wristbands would have been worn had they been made available, imbuing those who wore them whilst tweeting with a sense of entitlement to a compassionate pat on the back. Once the caring sharing interlude expired, however, there was probably a return to the topic of someone being voted off ‘The X Factor’ or speculating over the relationship between a wealthy, vacuous bint and a wealthy, vacant himbo.

Homelessness cuts across all age groups, though the young are joining the ranks at record rates. Statistics from youth homelessness charity Centrepoint claim there are an estimated 80,000 homeless people in the UK under the age of 40, with upwards of 30,000 denied local authority assistance due to slashed funding. Another statistic from the same source estimates a rise of 12,000 in the last couple of years amongst the young; they also reckon 88% have some form of mental illness, with many emanating from broken or abusive homes as well as limited local authority care.

The gradual closure of the children’s home system, along with that other institution with the blackened reputation, the mental home, has placed tremendous pressure upon foster carers and the public services that can no longer rely on the kind of government subsidies they desperately need. Several thousand homeless young people are currently applying for some form of assistance, but what becomes of the 30,000 who don’t receive it? Whereas many of the youngsters of no fixed abode regularly travel from one friend’s sofa to another, there are others for whom the pavement is the only option, not to mention all the dangers that can bring with it. Yet this is a country with 700,000 empty houses.

A couple of years ago, an investigation by the Guardian found that a third of the mansions on the so-called ‘Billionaire’s Row’ of The Bishops Avenue near Hampstead Heath were standing empty, some of which had been unoccupied for over a quarter-of-a century. Many were purchased by Saudi Sheiks decades ago, never inhabited and allowed to fall into disrepair, ironically creating the uniquely obscene juxtaposition of one of the country’s most expensive residential neighbourhoods being as derelict as a rundown council estate, both as awful a comment on the state of the nation as each other. This is a capital city where some boroughs boast houses priced at more than twenty times the average salary, and its streets remain home to thousands of people whose roof is a shop doorway.

Beyond London, the situation isn’t much better. An eye-witness to it in Northampton town centre early yesterday morning reported to me a Victorian level of street residents stirring from another night deprived of a roof over their heads, a scene straight out of Dickens transplanted to the twenty-first century. The invisible men and women who often only catch the eye if they have a canine companion were ones I first noticed upon my inaugural foray into (of all places) Westminster forty years ago; it was an uncomfortable encounter with a side of life new to me then, but one that has now become so depressingly familiar wherever in the country one happens to be that even our best intentions cannot always help but render the sight an accepted part of the urban wallpaper.

Homelessness and the chronic lack of affordable housing is arguably the biggest crisis facing today’s society, yet it remains relatively low on the list of priorities for either government or government-in-waiting if the recent party conferences are anything to go by. A good deal of talking is done when the subject raises its head, but no administration of any colour has put such talk into action for generations. And if a frontbench member of the ‘people’s party’ such as the appalling Emily Thornberry can sneer at the working-class with a white van tweet, God only knows what she must think of the homeless. Perhaps she also steps over them when exiting the opera, as Andrew Mitchell famously quipped.

The ageing gentleman of the highway was a traditional music-hall character and one that had remarkable longevity within popular culture, manufacturing an archaic archetype – usually Irish – of a meths-quaffing, shambling, bearded tramp with long, unkempt hair, a battered hat and a dirty overcoat that remained the popular image of homelessness for generations. It was probably only ever one example of the homeless population all along, but it is utterly irrelevant today. Spirits were once consumed to block out the misery, whereas other stimulants are more likely to provide the same service in 2016. The association of street beggars with illicit substances, and the conviction that every penny begged will contribute towards the next score, is rooted in a degree of truth where a minority are concerned, though the widespread belief that all are in the same game probably reflects a widespread ignorance of just how much ‘drugs’ cost, let alone actual awareness of why anyone would feel the need to indulge in the first place.

Something has to be done about this pressing problem, as it has for decades; but underfunded local authorities and charities cannot do it on their own, especially when the powers-that-be almost seem convinced the state of affairs is due to Providence rather than avoidable circumstance, just as their forebears did a couple of hundred years ago. There is no more shameful example of inequality within this country than the fact that so many of its citizens have nowhere to live. It’s just not good enough, Theresa and Jezza. Get your bloody fingers out.

© The Editor