Wall of silence: abandoned terraced housing in Doncaster. Photo: Rex Features
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Empty nests: All That is Solid by Danny Dorling

The sad disappearance of the British “average neighbourhood”.

All That is Solid: the Great Housing Disaster
Danny Dorling
Allen Lane, 400pp, £20

“When a great disaster looms in housing,” writes Danny Dorling at the start of his new book, “so, potentially, does a disastrous loss of freedom.” Recently appointed professor of geography at Oxford, Dorling used his inaugural lecture to state his opposition to the politically generated fiscal trends of the past 35 years: the concentration of wealth and privilege that has allowed a few to hoard money, land, bedrooms, social capital and political power at the expense of others.

As a geographer, Dorling’s chief obsession is with spatial inequality and the ways in which neighbourhoods have become more unequal over time. The freedom of individuals has become restricted: fewer can live broadly where they wish, or have a degree of disposable income after paying for their housing and associated costs. Social housing provision has receded and owner-occupation has become impossible for those squeezed by declining real wages and inflated property prices.

Compared with 30 years ago, there are fewer households of “average means”, meaning more poor households – whose incomes do not match the needs of the time and who live in areas of lower rent and poorer services – and more rich households concentrated in “exclusive” areas of new-build detached houses and mini-mansions. As the various areas become less alike in character, so the people living in those areas become less known to each other and the more people will pay a premium to get away from places and people deemed to be undesirable.

It is important to note that, in the late 1970s, to be “average” meant you were almost as likely to live in council housing as to be an owner-occupier. Dorling patiently and consistently draws attention to how it was political will that managed to get most of Britain housed better than it had ever been by the mid-1970s. By the same token, it is a deliberate lack of political commitment to the idea of good housing as a basic right that has led us into the present situation.

He quotes the UN special rapporteur Raquel Rolnik’s statement that the coalition’s housing benefit cap has harmed “the most vulnerable, the most fragile, the people on the fringes of coping with everyday life”. He shows a society that, though never coming close to perfect, had a discrete period of trying to include everyone in its broad aims for dignity and prosperity. The misapplication of political will and the collusion of just enough voters whose house values are at stake have put paid to those goals.

When Dorling writes about the disappearance of the average household, and with it the average neighbourhood, he is referring not so much to the squeezed middle as to the hollowed-out north. Cities such as Liverpool and Stoke are dealing with the legacy of the Housing Market Renewal, a Labour initiative that knocked down street upon street of terraced accommodation in poor areas. In the same places, a surfeit of minimum-wage, short-term work prevents people from saving and forces them on to the social housing list even when there is plenty of inexpensive property to rent privately.

The book is illustrated throughout with photographs of housing in Sheffield, where Dorling lived and worked before his own southward migration. Sheffield has the longest waiting list for social housing in the UK, as well having some of the wealthiest neighbourhoods. A single teacher can buy a three-bedroom former council flat in the city for his sole use because he is “into” the architecture. A beautiful neo-Georgian cottage in Sheffield, which would be worth millions in London, lies boarded up and derelict because there aren’t enough people in the neighbourhood with the income to fill it. Meanwhile, the London Evening Standard reported that there were “at least” 740 houses worth £5m or more lying empty in the capital, bought as investments rather than homes.

This brings Dorling to his main argument: that the solution to Britain’s housing crisis is not necessarily to build more homes. The average inhabited dwelling has never had so many spare rooms, most of which lie empty most nights. Owner-occupied family homes are swollen with extensions, loft conversions, study areas and games rooms, while older couples and widows find themselves living alone in four-bedroom houses.

He does not argue that elderly people should be herded out of the home they have lived in for 50 years to make way for young, poor families; he merely notes that the current government is pushing out and punishing those who are worst placed to bear the burden. It goes without saying that the bedroom tax applies only if you have the temerity to rely on social housing. The social housing stock has been depleted systematically, yet most private housing has never been so replete, if not with space, then at least with habitable rooms.

Dorling advocates rent control legislation, a tax on land values and a curtailing of the period for which properties are allowed to remain vacant before the local authority pressurises their owners to find tenants. A renewed push to create decent, self-sustaining, private-sector jobs outside the south-east would aid the redistribution of people to places where they can find good housing and infrastructure.

All That Is Solid is repetitive in places, but that is more a sign of rapid-fire editing than poor writing. This is an urgent book about an urgent topic and it couldn’t have come out soon enough.

Lynsey Hanley is the author of “Estates: an Intimate History” (Granta Books, £8.99) 

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage