30 Jun 2011

The shocking truth about Britain's housing crisis

I was 23, it was my first job – running a day centre for homeless and vulnerable teenagers underneath St Anne’s Church in London’s Soho. The New Horizon Youth Centre was an open door project, young people would wander in and out at will. I had lived a privileged life, what I saw of poverty and homelessness in London’s West End has informed my life ever since.

Yes, teenagers died in squats in those days. Many slept rough in theatre doorways. Others lived in substandard hostels, and still more were the victims of callous landlords.

Although I have remained engaged with the project in the years since, making Channel 4’s Dispatches – which goes out next Monday (8 July) at 8.00pm – has proved for me a shocking eye opener.

A homeless man sleeps outside a department store (Getty)Forty years after I gave up my job at New Horizon, I had no idea that such widespread abuse and exploitation still plays such a role in the private rented sector.

This month I have spent hours in flats and houses in which you would not leave a dog for an hour. I have smelt the dank fungi that leaches its way across the walls of a two-bedroom flat in Rochdale and wandered between rows of garden sheds to the West of London in which rafts of men live two, three, and four, to a shed. At night you hear the voices in the dark, see the chinks of light through the boards, hear the clank of cooking pots as they prepare supper at the end of a working day.

It perplexes me that society can be so consumed with the state of education and health provision in Britain, and yet turn so active a blind eye to the true state of where people actually live.

The housing charity Shelter estimates there is a shortage of a million homes in the UK. Shortages push better-off people further down the housing chain to squeeze the vulnerable out of the bottom onto the streets. Britain today has a housing crisis on a  level with that at the end of the Second World War and yet is building fewer homes than at any time since First World War.

Into this void have stepped the “Landlords from Hell” – the title of our Dispatches on Monday. It is a shocking and upsetting watch. But one I urge you to undertake. There is no register of landlords, no record kept of who is running all those buy-to-lets. Local authorities dare not inspect many establishment for fear that they will have to re-house those inside – they have nowhere to re-house anyone.

The Government’s own figures reveal that 40 per cent of ALL housing in the private sector is in “poor condition”.

And this is the 21st Century.

Watch Jon’s trail for Dispatches here – where you can also share you own housing horror stories with the programme.



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