It’s starting to look a lot like Christmas as I write this article, but not for everyone. Many are struggling on the breadline, or they would be if they could afford bread. While the tinsel and bright lights of Christmas encourage us to spend more, consume more, and eat and drink more, there will be many among us who face the Christmas period with despair at the rising cost of living. What I want to examine in this article is inequalities in living conditions in the UK today.
In the midst of shopping for presents and preparations for family celebrations, of getting into the Christmas spirit, the media also often replays the popular Victorian classic “A Christmas Carol”. The most memorable character in this is Mr Scrooge, the dour employer who refuses to celebrate Christmas and even grudges his overworked clerk an extra day off. He represents the ultra-capitalist who values individual wealth-getting above the values of family and community.
In our office when I asked the others what their favourite Christmas film was, the reply I received was “Die Hard” (I know! It’s a male thing!). On that basis “Ice Station Zebra”, “Bear Island” and “Scott of the Antarctic” would also be in the running, as all these films feature lots of snow in them and blokes in cold weather gear.
However, my own favourite is Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful life”, starring James Stewart as George Bailey, who constantly gives up his personal ambitions to support his family and the local community of Bedford Falls located somewhere on the east coast of the US.
In Christmas 1945, George’s knuckle-headed uncle manages to lose a considerable sum of money when banking the takings of Bailey’s Savings + Loans mutual, which George has worked hard to make prosperous, even through the great depression and the 2nd World war. The money has instead been snaffled by the egregious Henry F Potter, an avaricious and unpleasant capitalist of the worst hue. He has been seeking the destruction of Bailey’s, so that his empire of rack-rent properties, and loan sharking businesses can prosper. Under his rule, the town becomes Pottersville.
George is in despair because he believes that his business will fail, and that he will be arrested and thrown into jail for fraud. He contemplates suicide, but is dissuaded from doing so, by the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody, who shows him what life would be like had he not lived. Having seen that dystopian version of the past, where his beloved Bedford Falls becomes Pottersville, he begs Clarence to return things as they were, and gratefully returns to hearth and home to face the worst, but finds instead, that the community has rallied round and saved the day. The only thing I find unsatisfactory with the film, is that nothing appears to happen to the repulsive Potter.
A Wonderful Life was written as a version of the Christmas Carol. George Bailey is the Bob Cratchit figure, Henry Potter is Scrooge, and Clarence Odbody is the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future all wrapped up into a trinity of goodness.
What I want to examine in this article is whether present day Britain is more Pottersville, than Bedford Falls. In Pottersville, the homely small butcher, baker and candlestick makers, have been supplanted by dens of iniquity (in the film they are all bars and clubs, something that post prohibition USA still abhorred.) In our own Pottersvilles we see empty run-down shops, vape shops, nail bars, barbers and charity shops, which, while not being dens of iniquity, have themselves inadvertently cutaway the fabric of community life in many towns both large and small.
The BBC carried out a survey of the nation’s high streets entitled ‘Tattooists and Beauty salons replace Banks on High Streets’
The results are as follows:
On this evidence, the high streets of the UK are merely changing the offer rather than becoming Pottersvilles, though of course there are many who would prefer the Bedford Falls version of the High Street and there are traditional High Streets surviving, some in Kent.
These tend to be in the wealthier parts of the UK, places where there is sufficient community action and money to deliver the Bedford Falls street scene. Frome, Stroud, Bridgenorth, Whitstable, and Deal might be suitable examples. Even Pottersville has a library, which is very much under threat in the austerity 2.0 economic regime of today. Pottersville, also has a bus service, which is of course owned by Potter, whereas here in the UK the bus will probably be owned by overseas interests.
Henry Potter would feel at home
Henry Potter would fit right in with the current climate of property-owning magnates and businessmen who seek a dividend from even the poorest in society. Pottersville is of course, a high crime area, where the police struggle to maintain law and order just like many deprived areas today in the UK.
Housing might be a factor in deciding where if anywhere, latter day Pottersvilles may exist in the UK.
Figures extracted from the English housing survey December 2021
Current state of UK housing
OK, so what does all this mean for the Pottersville assessment?
Here is the state of the UK housing sector:
- 18% of homes are rented privately. That’s more than doubled since 1979.
- Only 7% of the housing stock is local authority housing compared to just over 30% in 1979. (Some housing was sold under the right to buy, and the balance transferred into housing association or ALMO ownership or control.)
- The predominant tenure in pre-war housing is privately owned, and these are the dwellings which are most difficult to insulate and will have increased maintenance requirements.
- Energy ratings: A is most efficient; G is least efficient. On balance, the private rented housing is the least efficient, and social housing is the most efficient.
- Decency: The privately rented housing stock has the most category 1 hazards and most problems with damp, and social housing has the least.
Social housing in retreat
Since 1979 social housing has been in retreat because of a continual squeeze on local government finances and unhelpful and somewhat biased allegations about ‘Sink estates’, which were in fact extrapolations from a term called Behavioural sink which was noted in experiments on rats by John Calhoun and others in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and who suggested its applicability to human beings living in close proximity to each other.
This was challenged in later years, but politicians such as Tony Blair used the term carelessly, rather like the late Victorian social classifications of Charles Booth, who used pejorative terms, “vicious and semi-criminal” to describe his lowest class category in terms of the late Victorian moral code.
Seebohm Rowntree’s social study of York gave a context to poverty, in which he described poverty and poor housing with some factual basis by pointing out that, no matter how decent an individual was, if their dwelling is defective, and their circumstances are poor, they will struggle to live a decent, respectable life.
Death of a toddler
The idea of rectitude and the deserving and non-deserving poor was brought to prominence by the death of Awaab Ishak who died because housing repairs were not carried out by the Rochdale ALMO, and as a result, damp and mould affected his breathing. The Rochdale Coroner described a situation so grimly Victorian, that it was almost as if Ebenezer Scrooge had killed Tiny Tim, with his bare hands.
On this basis, I am afraid to say that the spirit of Henry Potter lives on in the worst areas of private and social housing. The indifference, callousness, and complacency, meted out to the weakest and poorest in society in housing provision, is indeed fully reminiscent of Henry Potter’s outlook on life and his fellow man.
It does seem that those of us who are relatively wealthy can aspire to live in Bedford Falls or communities like it, whereas the poorest in society are still condemned to live in Pottersvilles. If we want to see a levelled-up society and an end to Dickensian housing practices, we need to change tack.
Rising cost of housing
In January 2022, the House of Lords Built Environment Committee estimated that the budget for housing benefit at £23.4Bn.
Since then, inflation in private rents which was 3.7% has increased to 3.8% (source ONS) and is paid to 3m people (source DWP). With inflation on the increase, it must be a reasonable supposition to suggest that the housing benefit budget will increase. To put this into context, it is the cost of a nuclear power station or around 60% of the cost of HS2 (£40.3Bn).
What are we getting for all this money? Since 1979 we have reverted to some extent to mass market housing tenures described by Seebohm Rowntree at York in 1900, with some of the same faults. In fact, some of the buildings that were extant in 1900 in York are still standing, because the UK housing stock contains many buildings of that era.
Back to the future
Could we now see a reversion to social housing and prefabrication? Both have received a bad press, but perhaps we really have learned lessons. Regular maintenance and good building practices would seem key to providing good housing.
So, to sum up then, we can overcome ‘Potterism’. We have the resources: all we need to do is shift them from subsidising rentier lifestyles to delivering homes that are genuinely homely and affordable.