Joe Smith
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Running for the hills: young people can’t afford to buy or rent, so they are building their own houses

We meet members of Generation Rent who have given up on the housing market and private rental sector and are living illegally off-grid.

With real earnings falling, house prices rising and more young adults living with their parents, it seems like the only way anybody under 30 will ever be able to own their own home is to sneak off into the woods and build it for themselves. I speak to a couple of members of Generation Rent who have done exactly that.

Young people are screwed. We’re just never going to own houses. Here are some numbers. This year’s economic review by the ONS shows that, while in 1987 just 9 per cent of those aged 26 to 30 were private renters, that number had risen to 39 per cent by 2014. In the 1980s, less than 20 per cent of 21-25-year-olds lived in private rents, now it is more than 60 per cent. In 1996, over half of 25-29-year-olds owned their own home, now it’s less than one third.

Young adults (aged 20 to 34) are now more likely to be living with their parents than at any time since 1996. And to cap it all, in 2013 the real earnings (adjusted for inflation) of people in their 20s were 12 per cent lower on average than those in their 20s in 2009.

When faced with the prospect of living with your folks well into your 30s it’s no wonder that some young people have got creative about finding an affordable place to live.

Jamie’s house sits on the green, southern slopes of an Oxfordshire valley under the spreading branches of a giant oak tree. It is a cosy wooden structure, completely off the grid with solar panels, a wood burner, rainwater collector and a composting toilet.

Jamie has spent five years living on this piece of land. Although it’s not much bigger than a large garden shed, Jamie is proud of his tiny home. He should be; he designed and built it himself. The only problem is, he isn’t allowed to be there.

 At the bottom of the valley sits a sweet little village, the kind of place people retire to. Jamie tries to stay hidden from his neighbours – he feels his unlicensed cabin might not go down too well in the village where the average house price is over £371,000, according to property website Rightmove.

Jamie, who is 28, works as a musician, photographer and carpenter. He says he likes the challenge of living without the on-tap amenities most of us are used to:

“Living off-grid you start with the most important things. So to begin with that’s staying dry, staying warm, being able to cook food – then afterwards come things like being able to use your electronics and stuff. These are all necessities which at some point you’re going to have to address. You have to work it out yourself, which can be pretty difficult when it doesn’t work but it does mean that once these systems are set up you know them inside out because you’ve made them yourself. I think that engenders a lot of resilience in your living situation.”

Jamie’s decision to live this way is in part an environmental one. He wants to live as lightly on the land as possible. But there are other reasons too. “From my point of view, rents are unaffordable and mortgages are unaffordable. I think it’s an inflated cost that doesn’t truly reflect the real value of these things, so purely on an economic level it makes a lot of sense,” he says. That’s something that informed my decision to live off the grid and to do something for myself.”

Photos: provided by Joe Smith

There isn't a lot data about young people building their own abodes, but Jamie says he knows others who are living similar lives to him. “Lots of people can’t afford rent and mortgages. In my lifetime I’ve seen more people turn to this way of living; I’ve got several friends who live like this and I know many more who want to so I think it’s something which is a big issue, obviously.”

Jamie tells me he loves living in nature; he loves the space and the independence. And although it can be very cold in the mornings, his new wool insulation should help with that. However, there is another big drawback to his lifestyle. “The fact that it’s not legal,” he tells me. “It’s not something which is endorsed by the government or the council, so there’s that aspect of insecurity – not knowing you’re safe, that your living space is always going to be there for you.

But I think all the pros outweigh that and ultimately if you’re not doing any harm to anyone else then you’ve got to live with your own conscience. I can live easier with my conscience knowing that I’m living sustainably and if I have to accept that there’s a risk that I might get a snotty letter from the council then so be it. It’s part of the deal, you know?”

Rose is 24, studying for a masters, and lives in a windmill in Dorset. “It was built in the Seventies,” she tells me, “for generating electricity. It’s not an old building although it looks like an old building – it was build in the vernacular style, I guess. I think it was lived in by someone for a while about 10 years ago, after that it just sat getting gradually more and more derelict until I saw it.”

She adds: “Last year my student loan didn't even cover my rent for the year. I had to work three nights a week plus weekends to have money to live on. I was just sick of having to work all the time, and my studies were suffering a lot, so I looked into other options.”

Rose spied the derelict windmill while visiting a friend who lived nearby and fell in love with it. “You know when you have a pipe dream?” she asks me. “I was aware that it was really unrealistic and that it needed loads of work but I was just like ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if...’”

So she got in touch with the owner of the windmill, a retired building contractor, and he agreed to provide the expertise and let Rose live there rent-free while she did the work to make it inhabitable.

Rose worked on the windmill for four months straight. She patched the roof, rebuilt the floors, filled and weatherproofed the outside, installed a kitchen and a wood burner, created a bedroom and installed the electrics – all while studying for her masters degree and working a part-time job. But she says it was all worth it. “I never dreamed of being able to afford to live in the countryside in my own house at 24,” Rose tells me. “You pay all your money for these awful houses and you know the people who own them are just rolling in it. You have no control over your surroundings. If the walls are magnolia then the walls are magnolia.”

Being able to have a space of her own has been very important for Rose: “I decided where the bed went, how deep the shelves, how to put in the sink, exactly how I wanted to live in my house – because I did all the work. Now I can be so proud of it.”

Like Jamie, Rose sees her decision to live outside the law as a response to the economic pressures facing young people. “I think it's very important for young people to take this crisis into our own hands, find our own solutions,” she says.

“Obviously, it's not legal for me to live there,” Rose admits. “If the council found out I’d be out. I have an outside compost toilet, no running water, a ladder rather than stairs, a wood-burning stove – I think the council would have a heart attack.

“I'll never own my own home the traditional way. Where would I get the deposit? I don't want one or both of my parents to have to die for me to own a home – that seems so morbid. They don't have money to give me and why should they?” she asks. I suppose I could try to get a salary job and save up but what would be the point of my whole education then? I want to have the space to be an artist like I trained to do, and not compromise that. The housing situation in the UK is criminal; it's no surprise that young people are turning to more illicit means to provide a proper home for themselves.”

Names and locations have been changed.

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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