Opinion: Why the slums of the 1960s may rise again

Let me take you back to Christmas 1966, six weeks after the first showing of Cathy Come Home and four weeks after the coincidental launch of Shelter. This is what it was like:

● Three million families in the UK were living in “slums, near slums, or severely overcrowded conditions”, as a government white paper put it.

● Families literally on the streets were “catered” for by council hostels, but the father would usually be turned away, and often they were only admitted at 10pm and had to be out by 10am.

● The words “slums” and “severe overcrowding” meant whole families in one room, cold and damp, sharing a shabby bathroom with 30 or 40 others, often the only cold water tap on the landing, mice…

The Wilson government of 1964-70 responded well. Twice in that time it built more than 400,000 new homes a year. It created incentives for refurbishing older property and introduced security of tenure for unfurnished tenants. No longer would families be split up in hostels.

A lot of good work was done after 1970 too. To pretend otherwise would be unfair, not only to the politicians but to Shelter, for it cannot be a coincidence that so much happened after the campaign started.

So why are we looking at an increasingly serious housing problem today? Because, make no mistake, we are.

In England alone, the number of homeless households in temporary accommodation has more than doubled over the past 10 years. More than one million children in the UK today are suffering in emergency, cramped or unfit housing, damaging their health and education and robbing them of a fair chance in life. It is estimated that children in official, temporary accommodation lose a quarter of their schooling.  And, of course, they are most vulnerable to getting into delinquency and crime.

Social workers, in particular, should care passionately about this: what chance do they have when their clients are spending their lives in conditions that make it almost impossible for them to contribute to the community or reach their potential?

How can the progress since the late 1960s have culminated in the problems we have today? Presumably, an element of complacency developed as the slums were cleared and the problem appeared to be under control. Also the emphasis on NHS and education spending grew.

The removal from local authorities of nearly all responsibility for directly providing social housing hasn’t helped. It’s not that we didn’t need some change. But did we have to scrap the council house building programme and with it so much local political responsibility for provision?

In the late 1960s, about 50 per cent of the 400,000 new homes a year were social housing (that is, council-built) – this year it will be 26,000 and twice that number will be sold under right to buy. Does anyone seriously believe that we need just 26,000 new social rented homes built each year? We need twice as many.

Another problem is that we have never put in place an effective system of regulating the private rented sector to maintain standards and prevent overcrowding. Be in no doubt: as scarcity grows, so it will be reflected in exploitation and poorer  conditions for the worst off.

So this Christmas the good news is there are fewer slums, shorter council waiting lists and most people live in decent housing. But the wheel is turning backwards because we’re not building enough low-cost homes, we’re letting the numbers in crisis accommodation rise and we’re re-creating the circumstances where overcrowding creates slums and scarcity breeds  exploitation.

No profession will be more affected than social workers by all this. That is why your voice should be heard in support of Shelter’s campaign for renewed priority for housing.

Des Wilson was the first director of Shelter from 1966 to 1971

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