thamesmead

For most of the last thirty years we have been told by the government that we should maintain close family ties and support our parents and grandparents in their old age rather than allowing them to become a burden on the state. This, along with stable (heterosexual of course) marriage, is usually referred to as “traditional family values”. At the same time governments have told us that if we can’t find a job we should move to where we can; assuming we have the skills of course. For many of us these two aspirations are contradictory. If we do one, we can’t do the other. 

As of April 1st, those council and housing association tenants claiming housing benefit from the state for their living accommodation are subject to what is now commonly known as the “bedroom tax”. Actually it’s not a tax at all; it’s a benefit cut, but to those affected the result is the same. Tenants will lose money for every spare room that their council deems them to have. Each adult or couple is entitled to one room but children under sixteen must share if they are of the same sex (don’t get me started on gender expression at this point!) and those under ten whatever their sex. Separated parents will not be allowed to keep a room for their child to visit; nor will it be possible to keep a room for a child who is away studying. 

Of course, as with so much in this country, the “bedroom tax” was dreamt up by political advisers who live and work in London. Down here there are huge numbers of one-bedroom properties and ample public transport connecting them together. Unfortunately this situation does not extend much beyond the M25. In most provincial towns and cities one bedroom properties are few and far between. Land is cheaper and there was never any need to build them in such large amounts. Now people will be priced out of larger houses as incomes outside London are much lower, yet there are less one-bedroom properties for them to move into. The result will be increased homelessness, empty houses, dispersed families and overcrowding as children share rooms and make way for lodgers; as a consequence of all this there will be a likely increase in domestic violence and child abuse as well as an increased birth rate. This has all happened before during the industrial revolution. 

Through the late twentieth century we’ve lost sight of the risks that serious, widespread overcrowding brings as we’d largely eradicated it. It is not just a problem for those who have the misfortune to live in those conditions; it’s a problem for all of us. Infections and diseases spread like wildfire in cold, damp and overcrowded conditions. The prevalence of air-conditioning in our modern trains and buildings will ensure that the overall health of the nation will take a tumble with consequent effects on the wider economy through sickness absence and reduced productivity. 

Meanwhile in London; more and more studios and one-bedroom properties are springing up and they’re getting smaller and smaller. Often they are marketed as “executive” or “luxury” but to me they look like the sink estates of the future. These properties also inevitably lack storage space; few new flats inside the M25 have any storage areas – a luxury you may think – but fairly crucial if you want such basics as an ironing board, a mop and bucket, a broomstick and a clothes horse. These usually have to live in the bathroom and kitchen where they become dangerous obstacles. Most flats do not have a garden so there is no drying space for clothes leading to damp within the building (especially in winter) or the need for a washer-dryer; either way heating and electricity bills will increase accordingly and as we all know electricity is expensive. In these conditions mould and condensation become problematic and have a negative effect on our health. 

The result of the bedroom tax here will see older people living in the cold, damp upstairs flats that they had to move to when their children left, struggling to store the necessary items to keep themselves clean and safe. They won’t be able to have family members to stay so the NHS/DSS will have to step in and help. People of all ages will need to relocate to unfamiliar areas away from friends, families and the social networks that they rely on. 

Besides the bedroom tax, there is a clear need now to set stringent standards in housing quality. It would be good to see the reintroduction of a reasonably generous minimum floor area and designated bedrooms should also have a minimum size suitable to accommodate a king size double bed, wardrobe and chest of drawers with sufficient space to walk around them. Every new property should come with a storage cupboard of sufficient size to accommodate the household necessities; and if no drying space is available then there ought to be sufficient space to have a proper electric dryer alongside the other necessary appliances. Dividing walls between neighbouring flats should be solid and sound proofed; and all rooms, particularly bathrooms and kitchens should have an opening external window. 

Provision of housing should also be more carefully planned. Market forces are not necessarily best in this area; instead social housing ought to be specified according to need and then built by private firms within the prescribed guidelines. One, two and three bed properties need to be constructed in numbers proportionate to existing projected demographic requirements rather than endless executive studio apartments with high maintenance fees which will never see an executive within their design life. With these rules in place and a commitment to demolish older properties which don’t conform I believe that overall standards of living will be improved immeasurably.

 

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