John Moss, the Conservative candidate for the City & East London Assembly constituency and a property professional with over 20 years experience in housing and regeneration, says families should live in houses
A lot has been written and said in the last few days about the effect of family breakdown in creating the circumstances which led to the violence and looting of the past week. I believe it is probably the single most significant factor in creating an underclass of young people with few morals and little respect for the society they live in. But there is a “chicken and egg” situation here.
Why do families breakdown? Why do they not even form in the first place? What led to this pattern of behaviour in the less well off parts of London and the inner city areas of Birmingham and Manchester which were worst affected by the riots? I suspect the answer lies in the massive “slum clearances” and council house building programmes of the 1950s and 60s.
As the Parliamentary candidate in Hackney South in 2005 and as the London Assembly Candidate for 2012 in City & East, (covering Barking & Dagenham, Newham and Tower Hamlets as well as The City of London), I have spent most of my campaigning time on social housing estates and there is one feature
which is striking. At first you don’t see it, because it isn’t there, but look closely and you will see what is missing. Families.
Inspect an electoral register and you will perhaps see an Ethel and an Arthur living together or an immigrant household with a “Begum” indicating a wife living with her husband, but in most cases, you see random adult names and when you knock on the doors, you find that Jane and John are mother and son, or that Frank and Judy are father and daughter. The reason for this is simple. The homes are not conducive to family life. They may have the same floor area as a three bedroom Victorian terraced house or a Barratt built semi, but somehow, it doesn’t work.
The other thing that happened when the “slums” were cleared after WW2 is that extended families were destroyed. Before the war, like as not, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins lived close by and provided informal support networks, taking children in after school, making sure they did their homework, giving them their tea while mum or dad came home from work. They also provided a wider moral reference pint and an adult environment for children to grow up into.
But as the “slums” came down, grandparents got shipped out to the outer suburbs to live in “bungalow land”. Their kids were allocated flats in high-rise blocks and when their kids grew up, they had to cope with no gardens, play spaces dominated by older youths and the over-crowding which is such a feature of social housing. This was recognised by the two housing experts, Malpas and Murray – who interestingly had helped write the housing section of the post-war Labour manifesto – when they returned to the re-built East End and discovered just how much damage they had done by pursuing mass demolition and rebuilding.
Human beings great skill is their ability to adapt. We’re still on this planet because we don’t simply rely on evolving to keep moving forward. So what did adaptable Homo Sapiens do when faced with living in homes unsuitable for family life? Simple, we stopped living as families.
I believe we need to completely re-think how we live in urban areas and challenge the architects and planners who demand that we live in high-rise, high-density apartments. We have to re-learn how to build houses with gardens for families in urban areas and learn how to create and manage communal areas, semi-private and fully private space to meet the needs of families. Tax breaks and changes to benefits will make little tangible difference if the machines for living in to which we place the poorest households do not support them starting a family and staying together as a family.
We certainly need to move away from the segregation by class that is caused by the separate designation of “private” and “social” housing. We need to end the funding of social house-building and instead transfer those resources to fund households in need with cash subsidies, just like we do with food. We don’t have social supermarkets, we give poor families cash and nobody starves. We do have social housing and we have waiting lists and over-crowding. There is a link there!
This might mean building on more Greenfield sites. It might mean new suburbs on the green outskirts of existing towns or even a return to the “New Town” concept of the 60s. But we have only managed to build on 12% of the landmass of the UK to date – and that includes all the roads and railways – and I suspect it will be far easier to sell the idea of a new development of houses with gardens for families, than yet another 30 storey tower of one and two-bedroom flats.
I know which will produce far fewer social problems in the future.
By the way, one area which was going to be cleared of its “slums” in the mid 60s was Notting Hill. Sadly, the Government ran out of money so it never happened. Funny that!