The Housing Crisis is Driving People to Live in their Cars – Can Labour Fix It?
Jake Lynch examines whether Corbyn’s Green New Deal could provide solutions for those who are falling through the cracks.
Moving to leafy West Oxford could set you back as much as £1.3 million for a terrace overlooking the Thames. House prices in the city outstrip average local incomes by the highest ratio in Britain – nearly 11:1 – although this calculation omits London salaries earned by commuters.
Just up the road, John hunkers down for the night. Morning will bring a view of the trading estate across the road. His sole possession of any note is an old Audi estate car. But it will not be taking him to London, or anywhere else, any time soon – because it is now John’s home.
Reflective screens line the windows, plastic boxes attached to the sunroof give a little headroom, and a canvas tunnel connects the driver’s door to a wooden fence. It’s a rare unrestricted parking space so, for the moment, there he stays.
Now in his 60s, John lost his £40,000-a-year job as an engineer when the firm relocated overseas. He split up with his girlfriend and moved out of the flat they had shared, thus making himself “intentionally homeless” – an official designation relieving the local authority of its duty to provide him with accommodation.
The city council works with charities and community groups in an “Oxford Homeless Movement”, set up to coordinate services with the aim of ending rough sleeping. Before making his car his home, John had tried getting a hostel bed at O’Halloran House, run by the Homeless Oxfordshire trust.
“I got shown into a room with bunk beds,” he said. “I couldn’t have the bottom bunk because someone else had got there before me. I asked them – this person I’m sharing a room with, is he an alcoholic or on drugs? Of course they wouldn’t tell me – medical confidentiality… So when I climb down the ladder to go to the toilet in the middle of the night, I don’t know if I’m going to be stepping on an infected needle”.
The weekly £30 service charge John paid, supposed to cover meals, stayed the same even when cooked breakfasts was stopped.
A good outcome for O’Halloran House residents is a transfer east to a shared house in the cheaper end of town, amid student haunts. But, in John’s experience, this brought similar problems. “There could be anyone sharing those houses,” he said. “What if they get drunk, or take drugs, and start a fire? Who’s going to look after my safety, my security? There’s no one to call after six o’clock.”
So, in search of privacy, he set up home in his car.
The ideal for John, as for many rough sleepers, is to get his own one-bedroom flat.
A search through local letting agent websites for a property available to rent at anywhere near the £700-a-month maximum housing benefit, draws a blank, however. A report last week by the property website Zoopla found that a typical Oxford tenant spends 59% of their income on rent – nearly twice the national average.
The welcome progress being made in helping rough sleepers off the streets should not obscure the far greater numbers of the “hidden homeless”, according to Alex Hollingsworth, Oxford City Council’s cabinet member with responsibility for housing. They include “people still living in the bedroom they shared with siblings when they were growing up, even though they’ve now got kids of their own”.
They would be among the main beneficiaries, he said, of an ambitious local plan to build 28,000 new homes by 2036. Because of stringent planning restrictions in a small city with a world heritage-listed medieval centre, only 11,000 are to be built in Oxford itself, with the rest earmarked for surrounding districts. All have given their approval except South Oxfordshire, where the land is classified as green-belt.
Established in the post-war years to limit urban sprawl, green-belt protection can only be lifted in exceptional circumstances. This aspect of the plan is likely to prove most controversial when public hearings on it are opened in early December.
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Cllr Hollingsworth was speaking at a public meeting organised by Momentum – the movement within the Labour Party created to support Jeremy Corbyn – together with the Oxford University professor Danny Dorling. The city needed to grow, Prof Dorling said, or risk becoming “fossilised”. The only alternative was to “take something out of Oxford” – he mentioned re-siting a large teaching hospital – “because at the moment 40,000 people commute in to work every day”.
Some Labour MPs seem to view the party’s housing plans as a trump card in a forthcoming general election – one of several Tory crises which need solutions.
The Shadow Housing Secretary John Healey has pledged to create a Sovereign Land Trust to buy up land on the edge of cities and parcel it out for development to councils and housing associations. Landowners would receive ‘agricultural prices’ – that is, with no compensation for planning permission, which would only be granted once the land is in public hands.
The mere prospect of this change, Prof Dorling said, has caused Oxford University colleges to join a pre-emptive “building race”. A leaflet handed out at the Momentum meeting criticised efforts by St John’s College to wring extra millions out of its land being used for a “northern gateway” development – with the loss of 72 of the affordable homes originally promised. The price of land is what keeps new housing so expensive and out of the reach of homeless people.
Signs of unease were displayed at the meeting, which was called to discuss the local implications of Labour’s commitment to a Green New Deal.
Corbyn had proposed the successful parliamentary motion back in May, to declare a climate emergency, which also called on the government to “outline urgent proposals to restore the UK’s natural environment”.
Some Momentum members drew attention to the crises of biodiversity loss and biomass depletion – both linked to development pressure on green spaces. “It is one thing to accurately assess and meet the level of housing need in Oxford,” one said, in an email circulated to the group. “It is another to be committed to constant growth which damages the environment”. If a New Deal includes building around the edges of cities – replacing natural habitats with built, human ones – then how Green can it be?
In a detailed submission to the upcoming consultation on the Oxford Local Plan, the Campaign to Protect Rural England recommends re-purposing brownfield sites within the city away from employment to provide housing, and to reduce the commuting pressure. This, together with increasing housing density, and revising estimates of population growth, would obviate the need for urban sprawl in general, they argue, and violation of the green-belt in particular.
The housing charity Shelter, which is campaigning for three million new homes to be built in 20 years, is agnostic on the issue. Its campaign director Greg Beales said: “There are many sites across the country that could be used to deliver new homes without using green-belt land. But some land is currently classified as green-belt even though it is, in fact, scrub land or brownfield. Some of these areas are close to existing transport links, so they could be used to build more homes without putting pressure on roads or creating urban sprawl.”
If there is a potential fracture in Labour over housing and the environment, the immediate political ramifications are likely to prove modest. The party holds an ultra-safe seat in the east, while a Tory-Lib Dem marginal – including rural hinterland – lies to the west.
Coventry might be a different story. Two long-serving Labour MPs in marginal constituencies are standing down amid rows over candidate selection. Coventry’s heavy Leave vote in the 2016 referendum puts both firmly in Boris Johnson’s sights. And the Labour-led city council is under fire for its own local plan for thousands of houses in cherished countryside including one slice, bordering the pretty River Sherbourne, that lost green-belt protection some years ago.
The Office for National Statistics’ prediction is for Coventry’s population to grow by a third in the next 12 years, but opponents of the plan point to an analysis presented last month to the British Society of Population Studies, arguing that the estimate is miscalculated. Conservative councillors have taken a leading role in petitioning to have the developments scaled down. If, as the saying goes, all politics is local, then Labour’s proposals at a General Election could see the party cast in some areas as an agent of environmental vandalism.
Within a couple of hundred metres of John’s ‘home’, large retail units – formerly used by Argos, Toys ‘R’ Us and other companies hit by the switch to online shopping – lie empty. In the other direction, spaces vacated by a former Kwik Fit garage, a stationery superstore and other businesses are sliding into dereliction.
Labour may have to re-focus its push to expand house-building on redundant commercial sites left behind within cities, rather than around them, if it is to reconcile its social conscience with its green credentials. And, if the party gets the chance to implement its plans, that might even see John, finally, in a flat of his own.