Let me explain... Using a group of volunteers, the BBC recreated life in an East End slum covering the period from 1860 to 1914. The building they used is derelict, originally part of a fire station. It was the closest they could get to a Victorian "court house", the original type of slum dwelling. Court houses wrap around a courtyard, hugging the perimeter of the land, with shops and workshops on the ground floor and living spaces on the upper floors. (There is a surviving example in Liverpool which has been preserved as part of the Museum of Liverpool.)
In Victorian times, families were lucky if they could afford one room to call home. Housing costs consumed two-thirds of the average weekly wage, with food taking up the other third. Everyone worked: the man tramping down to the docks or to the factories, hoping he'd get picked for a day's hard labour; the wife and children doing piecework at home, often making matchboxes or artificial flowers. Piecework brought with it a double burden since not only did you have to make enough units of sufficient quality to get paid, but you frequently had to purchase the raw materials first. Heaven help you if you were a widow or a single mum, since there were few jobs for women and having children automatically disqualified you from those. Life was hard. People frequently went hungry because the first priority was paying the rent. You were only ever a few days hard work from being out on the street.
The series caught my imagination for a few reasons. This was the life lived by my great-grandparents and where my grandmother spent part of her childhood. (My great-aunt was born in the East End.)
The second reason is more telling. In today's "zero hour contract" world, many people are back to that same hand-to-mouth existence. The Guardian recently highlighted that there are thousands living in the UK who are technically "in work" so cannot claim benefit but without a guaranteed income who cannot afford to pay for housing. Worse, they are not alone. I turned on BBC2 a month ago, catching the tail end of a documentary about the current generation of hidden homeless - the small part of the documentary I watched showed a young mum "sofa surfing" with the father of her child. She is a student teacher, desperately trying to finish her degree and get a proper job. He works in maintenance on the London Underground but his monthly take home pay isn't enough to pay for even a modest home and they do not qualify for any state assistance, so rely on the goodwill of family and friends to home them for a few days at a time.
How can this be happening now, fifty years after Cathy Come Home and fifty years after the founding of the housing charity, Shelter? This should not be happening now! These stories are not unique. In London, the demand for housing has passed breaking point and property prices are obscene - the average price of a flat is10 times the average salary, while rents have doubled in the 27 years I've been in London. (Rents were always obscenely high but haven't risen as fast, with a studio flat in Ealing going for £650 per month in 1999. Now, it'd be around £900 to £1000.). I cannot find the article to link to, but I remember reading that five out of six recipients of housing benefit is employed.
Salaries have not kept pace with inflation, especially house-price inflation so people cannot afford to buy nor can they now afford to rent. As far as I can tell, the causes are three fold:-
- House building failing to keep up with demand. This is partially due to difficulties with planning laws/green belt legislation and partially due to nimbyism.
- The Right-to-Buy legislation which penalised councils replacing the housing stock they sold with new properties. The penalties were horrendous. They were also "encouraged" to pass their remaining council properties to Housing Associations.
- When new properties are built, they are often sold off-plan to foreign buyers who are not purchasing them to live in or rent out, but as "investments" to sell later.