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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”