After the Deluge

Margaret Thatcher believed in small government. She sold off much of the public sector, including millions of council houses. Her vision of the ideal local authority was just a committee handing out private sector contracts for the whole gamut of services.

How times change! The party of Margaret Thatcher has now become the party of big government. It has nationalised half of the UK economy, shut the other half and kept us locked up for the past seven weeks, at peril of being fined or arrested. The homeless have been swept off the streets, and millions of people are stuck at home on the government payroll. Has government ever been bigger or more powerful? Continue reading

A Curfew chronicle

I find it hard to write about anything other than Covid-19 and the lockdown at present. I am sure there will come a time when some form of normal life returns and housing becomes important again, but for now it seems to me it’s a case of “ All changed, changed utterly”.

As I wrote in my last blog, your experience of the curfew will depend upon your wealth, your work, your housing situation and your personality. To misquote Tolstoy, “The lockdown is alike for all of us, but we all experience it in our own way.” Some people I know have been busier than ever, others are bored witless. Some people, mostly introverts, enjoy it. Extroverts are finding it hard. Continue reading

Housing, class and Coronavirus

When the Prime Minister and the heir to the throne were struck down by Coronavirus there was a lot of guff in the media about this being a democratic disease that can strike everyone, be they high or low. Yet it is quite clear that those who are badly housed and those who occupy the lower ends of the social scale are hardest hit by the disease and its wider impact.

“Front-line” workers – like nurses and bus drivers – are suffering the most, and all the evidence shows that the most densely populated places – London, New York –  have been hit hardest by the virus, and within those cities it is the overcrowded who are also most affected.

The World Health Organisation says that, “..inadequate shelter and overcrowding are major factors in the transmission of diseases with epidemic potential such as acute respiratory infections, meningitis, typhus, cholera, scabies, etc. Outbreaks of disease are more frequent and more severe when the population density is high.” This is exactly the same message delivered by Sir Edwin Chadwick in his 1842 “Report on The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain”, which led to the 1848 Public Health Act. Chadwick  concluded that, “…the various forms of epidemic, endemic, and other disease caused, or aggravated, or propagated chiefly amongst the labouring classes by atmospheric impurities produced by decomposing animal and vegetable substances, by damp and filth, and close and overcrowded dwellings prevail amongst the population in every part of the kingdom…disease, wherever its attacks are frequent, is always found in connexion with the physical circumstances above specified…” Some things have changed little in the past 180 years.

The latest English Housing Survey says that just over 1 percent of owner-occupied housing was overcrowded compared to 8 percent in the social housing sector and 6.2 percent for private renting. By contrast, around 52 percent of owners had more space than they needed compared to only 9 percent of social renters. Cambridge virologist Dr Chris Smith estimates that over 80 percent of Coronavirus cases are transmitted within the household, so the more cramped you are the more at risk you are.

There is also growing evidence from here and the USA that BAME folk are disproportionately affected by the disease. My hunch is that this is less likely to be a genetic predisposition, but due to the fact that BAME households are more likely to be multi- generational and overcrowded, and so a fertile breeding ground for the virus.

Imagine if you live in a cramped flat in east London with four children, or in one of the micro-flats of 15 square metres that I wrote about in this recent Intergenerational Foundation report. Perhaps you are living in one of the tiny flats created under Permitted Development Rights, surrounded by arterial roads and business parks and with single aspect windows facing north?  Imagine the hell of daily life. You go out for your daily exercise and finally arrive at the park (if there is one) and sit down to enjoy the fresh air, and you are harassed by the police, or called a traitor by Piers Morgan, even though that fresh air and rest might be the only thing between you and violence.

The space outside your front door is critical for mental and physical wellbeing during this crisis, yet the poor have less of it. In London there are almost ten million people occupying the space that held only 6.4 million in the 1980s. Is it any wonder that it is hard to keep two metres away from other people?  A Guardian/LSE  analysis shows that Londoners in deprived areas and those from BAME backgrounds have less public space and  less access to private gardens. A third of all land in the wealthiest 10 percent of London wards was private gardens and just over a third of the land was parks, compared to a fifth of land in the poorest 10 percent of wards being gardens and only a quarter being parks.

That is why the decision by Tower Hamlets and Lambeth Councils to close Victoria Park and Brockwell Park, forcing pedestrians and cyclists onto narrow (and thus more dangerous) streets and canal towpaths was a criminal decision, and  could only have been made by people with houses and gardens. That is also why we need to open the golf courses to the public!

It is this housing and class divide –  the inability of the well-housed to understand how the badly-housed live – that has been one of the most shocking aspects of this crisis, to me at least. On social media a Stasi-like pitchfork mob has appeared, calling for anyone who has the temerity to sit down in a public place to be named and shamed, or worse. I would bet that all of these keyboard warriors live in houses with gardens.

And what of the wider impacts of this crisis? All commentators agree that there will be added deaths and misery caused by cancelled operations, collapsing businesses, rising domestic violence and child abuse, alcoholism, obesity or malnutrition (yes both), mental health problems, not to mention the community discord caused by snitching on neighbours. Yet ministers have not yet received a report from civil servants about the wider impact of the most draconian curfew since the war. Incredible. Surely any competent government would require daily reports on the impact of their decision, in order to balance the health emergency outcomes against the wider damage to society and our civil structures?

It was ever thus. The poor will always suffer the most during any pandemic. In 1665 the plague killed a quarter of London’s population, but it was mostly the poor who died – the rich decamped to the countryside. Nothing has changed: today the well-off can  scuttle away to their second or holiday homes (even our Minister has done it) or hunker down at home with plenty of indoor and outdoor space and their Ocado deliveries, while the flat-dwelling poor are left with empty shelves and barricaded or over-policed parks.

After this crisis is over, perhaps we can have a reasoned debate about the health and other inequalities caused by bad and overcrowded housing? I will hold my breath.

(This blog was first published by the Housing Quality Network. See here)

Coping with the crisis

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”

A health warning to begin with. This blog is a series of unrelated musings about the crisis. There’s so much to take in that it’s hard to construct a tidy narrative. I take the Jürgen Norbert Klopp line that this is something for the experts to comment upon, but I’ve just written a briefing for HQN on how housing providers should respond so I think I can write a little about the impact upon our sector.

Things are changing hour by hour, so everything we write can be out of date fairly quickly. That’s why it’s important that you keep your eye on official advice on the, Public Health England and NHS websites, as well as information from your professional and trade bodies. It’s also crucial to ignore all the waffle and hysteria on social media, including all the anecdotes presented as evidence (“A friend of a friend is a doctor and he says blah blah blah”). What we’re learning is that this crisis is bringing out the very best and the very worst in people – but the worst, as ever, are a tiny minority. Most people are good.
To start with, how are you coping? Are you cooped up in a tiny flat with kids or do you have a spacious house and garden with online deliveries of food? Do you have a network of friends and relatives that can offer help, or are you alone? Do you have Netflix and a supply of books? This will be a real test of our fortitude and the quality of our homes.
My partner is in Germany and I have no idea when I might see her again. They are ahead of us in terms of their lockdown (they closed schools and non- food shops two weeks ago and have the same rules about distancing and being outside). I’m in small flat in a small town but I’m making trips to the allotment (exercise and food production combined, not seeing anyone or touching anything on the way). But I spent seven years in a military boarding school and she grew up in the GDR, so we can cope. Others are not so lucky.

I’m also collecting prescriptions and shopping and posting parcels for old folk around here. One of them has offered German lessons in return. The BBC has produced some useful tips on looking after your mental health and wellbeing and Sport England has produced a guide on how to exercise at home. I’ve also registered on the NHS volunteer scheme, see here for details.
I’m finding that friends and family are coming together like never before. Even the most IT illiterate are signing up for WhatsApp, Zoom and HouseParty and seeking regular conferences. So much so that it’s hard to get on with other things! All positive but it makes you wonder why people didn’t do this before. Perhaps we’re so bound up in our lives that we forget that the only three things that matter in life are health, friends and family.
I’ve a number of friends who feel they’ve had the virus and haven’t been tested or reported. My gut feeling is that the number of cases will be five or ten times higher than the official figures. This seems obvious given that the mortality rate appears to vary from 0.3% in Germany to over 8% in Italy. So perhaps the actual mortality rate is closer to influenza – but there’s no vaccine and no indication of when it might appear. But surely we need testing? And tracing.  If so many people are asymptomatic we need to test the population so that people who have had it can be free to circulate, without infecting anyone or being infected (assuming re- infection is unlikely). But, as I said at the beginning, I’m no expert, so what do I know?
The virus is awful, but there are silver linings. We’ve a government that’s intervened in the state in unprecedented ways, in peacetime. The magic money tree has been found and the government finally recognises that profit-driven businesses aren’t always the best. Rail franchises have been nationalised. The NHS is being pumped with money. Surely things can never be the same again? We cannot go back to the levels of greed, consumption, inequality and self-absorption that existed before, can we?
In addition, we have cleaner air and fewer deaths from air pollution and road traffic accidents. The climate can recover for a while (“The virus that saved the planet”). On the downside there will be a spike in suicides, domestic violence and child abuse. Criminals will have a free rein to rob and plunder. At some point the negative impacts of lockdown might outweigh its medical benefits, but that time isn’t now. But think how much has changed in just a couple of weeks. This is a long haul and, well, “Events, dear boy, events”.
My final thoughts are about housing. This is a stressful time for everyone but even more so if you live in bad housing. This will be a severe test of the quality, durability and adaptability of our homes. We have some of the smallest in Europe and they’re going to be stress tested to the extreme. The wear and tear will be enormous and repair requests will rise at a time when many contractors are disappearing. Domestic abusers and child abusers will be able to operate with impunity. Neighbour disputes are likely to escalate and providers need to keep an eye on this and to protect their most vulnerable residents. You’ll need clear policies and protocols on entering homes where people are self-isolating or shielding. There’s plenty of advice on the website. These are testing times but I’m sure everyone can face the challenge head on. It will pass.

Keep busy. Learn a language. Read. Exercise. Stay safe.


This blog was first published by HQN on the 26th March 2020.