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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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