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.

Credit: Getty
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“Grooming rings are the biggest recruiter for the far right”: Rochdale and Telford prosecutor

Senior lawyer Nazir Afzal warns the government, and communities implicated in street grooming, to do more – or the situation will get worse.

Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor who led prosecutions against a child sex abuse ring in Telford, and oversaw similar street grooming cases in Rochdale, tells Anoosh Chakelian why these crimes go under the radar, and how to tackle them.

How widespread are these street grooming cases?

My involvement started with Operation Span, which is the Rochdale prosecution, in 2011. And prior to that, when I was in London as chief prosecutor, I was aware it was an issue bubbling but wasn’t getting any attention.

Obviously we’ve now got Telford, Newcastle, Peterborough, Sheffield, Rotherham, Oxford, Bristol. If anybody watched the BBC’s film Three Girls, at the very end, they list I think 16 towns and cities where prosecution had taken place.

We know that it is extraordinarily widespread. Wherever you look, if you turn over the stone, you’ll find this kind of behaviour. 

What do each of these cases have in common?

What we discovered, ten years ago nearly, were groups of men working invariably in the night-time economy, either in taxi services or takeaways or that kind of business, hiding amongst whom were these predators. They’re not gangs in the way organised crime gangs are. They’re very loose networks.

There are vulnerable young girls in so many parts of this country, who nobody else seems to care about. And what these victims need is warmth, transport, mind-numbing substances, food. And where are they going to find that? You’re invariably going to find that in the night-time economy.

I used to describe them as easy prey for evil men. They’re easy to identify, and what tends to happen is that once they’ve identified one victim, through her networks very often they’ll find others.

These men are just taking advantage of the dysfunctional nature of children’s services and young people’s services that have existed now for some time. If anything, it’s got worse, because while there is tremendous learning, the resources have been reduced.

So really good practices – like one council would have a van that would go round fast food premises in the evening to identify young girls at risk and talk to them – are cancelled because they don’t have the money to do it anymore.

People work in silence. Information was available and wasn’t shared. That style of working is part of the problem. So time and again, people are just keeping things to themselves. It’s a lack of competence on their part. It’s competence, it’s not conspiracy. Easier to blame a conspiracy than say “you were rubbish at your job”. And that is constantly something that I have come across.

The victims don’t even see themselves as victims very often. Because of the poverty of relationship education and sex education in schools, these men make them believe that they love them. I remember in the Rochdale case, one of the girls kept calling one of the defendants throughout the trial her “boyfriend”. She doesn’t know any different; nobody has taught her what’s a good relationship, what’s a bad relationship.

Time and time again, survivors have the answers. What the authorities should be doing is listening to their local survivors, and building their response and their interventions on what the survivors tell them: “This is a journey I took, this is where you could’ve intervened. This is where you could’ve prevented my abuse or somebody else’s abuse.”

There are some very, very courageous, extraordinarily strong women now more than willing to share their experiences. And we do so little of that [talking to them].

How can the situation be improved for victims and potential victims?

A lot of these victims have criminal records as a result of behaviours they were made to do – we should be erasing those criminal records. That’s the way we can rehabilitate them. I think victims need compensation for what they’ve been through. And they also need lifelong support, and that’s not being produced.

Taxi drivers in Coventry are trained in local signs of abuse; it’s part of their licensing arrangement and I work with them actually on delivering that. Why is that not happening everywhere else in the country? Why are we not licensing and training takeaway establishments in the same way?

I discovered recently that in Newcastle, they’re delivering this kind of training. Sadly, it’s voluntary. The people you need to engage with are not coming. So unless you have mandatory training for people working in the night-time economy, it’s not going to happen.

Additionally in the hotel trade, one or two large chains are doing some good work in identifying young people at risk, and sharing intelligence. Why is that not everywhere? We know that predators use cheap hotels and places like that for the abuse they carry out.

The intelligence is there, it’s just not being used. And we’re not using community intelligence either. The vast majority of victims in this type of sex offending are white girls. There are Asian girl victims too.

When I prosecuted the Rochdale gang, immediately afterwards, I prosecuted the ringleader again for his abuse of a girl of the same ethnicity as him. That didn’t get any publicity and he got 21 years for that. So there are victims from the Asian community but because of issues such as honour, shame, and the fact that very often they’re told by their families that it’s “your fault”, they’re not coming forward.

So we need to understand that there are victims out there who are even less likely to report their concerns because of familial and community pressures.

We are scratching the surface, and it really irks me that each and every time it gets in the news, it’s two things.

Number one is that it’s the biggest recruiter for the far right in this country. If you go on any far right website, they use the grooming gangs more so than Isis or terror attacks as the means by which they recruit far right activists.

So we should be tackling this, and by “we” I mean everybody, including the communities most impacted, and most implicated.

Number two is we need to intervene much earlier, but we also need to do some perpetrator programmes. There are perpetrators involved who are still in denial about their activities. There are still people out there who think “well, it’s fair game”.

How can it be prevented from happening in future?

Much more work has to happen in terms of the perpetrators and perpetrators of the future – and that, of course, involves early education.

Too often, we wait until high school to start talking about gender equality and relationship education. We should be starting to talk to them about these types of behaviours and what they should be looking out for when they’re five, six and seven. We’re just building up a problem for the future by not doing any of this.

We should have mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse. If you see someone being abused, or you perceive to be being abused, then it should be your duty to report. What the government has said recently is that social workers have come out against it. And my response would be: “Well they would, wouldn’t they?”

NGOs are doing phenomenal work in its field, so there are lots of charities and groups up and down the country trying to identify victims and potential perpetrators. They don’t get enough funding. They’re working on a shoestring.

What do you say to those suggesting ethnicity plays a part?

The vast majority of children and young people are abused within the family. We must not lose sight of that. The second largest group of victims are online. Today, you can pay pennies to watch a child being abused in real-time, somewhere in the world. The third largest group is institutional; we know about places of worship – churches, mosques – we also know about the FA and football and judo and sporting clubs, and the BBC.

Street grooming is the smallest – significant nonetheless, we’re still talking about thousands of victims. It’s smallest comparatively to the other three areas.

More than 80 per cent of child sexual offenders are British white men.

When I’ve prosecuted Stuart Hall or Max Clifford, or whatever, people never said “oh, his religion, his ethnicity”, as if that was important. It wasn’t in their cases, and they remain the vast majority of offenders.

I’ve always said the ethnicity of street groomers is an issue. We can’t pretend that’s not what’s happening.

The night-time economy is one issue. But it’s not the issue.The issue is the availability and vulnerability of young girls. The issue is the fact that they are unwanted and unloved. They get no support: the NGOs that support them aren’t properly funded, neither are children’s services. That is the issue.

But ethnicity is an issue, and I don’t think the community is doing enough. I was really pleased to see, some months ago, I was invited to the launch of the Greater Manchester Muslim community organisation, and one of their four priorities is tackling grooming. And that is rare. Most communities would rather not talk about the subject, would beat me up [verbally] quite regularly for mentioning it, and unless we tackle it, bigots don’t need an excuse to hate you, so why do we give them an excuse? Why are we not tackling an issue that can be tackled?

You can’t just generalise about what it is that might be driving these men. We need to do a great deal more research into background, why perpetrators become perpetrators, in the same way we’re trying to identify why victims become victims.

Authorities are often accused of being scared to act because of political correctness. How do you feel about that?

I’ve not come across anybody who’s scared. I get bored of this going unchallenged. These are difficult cases to prosecute. Very often, the victim treats the prosecutor or the investigator as the bad guy for trying to destroy their “relationships”. Competence was the issue – people not understanding how to bring these cases. They had to leave their tick-boxes and their normal pro formas aside.

Some people, no doubt, may not want to offend a certain community, but I would imagine they’re in the minority. The large majority fail to engage because it’s really difficult.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.