Seventy-five years ago George Orwell exposed terrible living conditions in the north. Today the same areas still face huge problems
‘When you walk through the smoke-dim slums of Manchester you think that nothing is needed except to tear down these abominations and build decent houses in their place,’ George Orwell wrote in Road To Wigan Pier, published 75 years ago.
His Manchester was noisy, smoky and crowded, showered in soot and grime, with miles of two-up two-down terraced houses, families crammed into rooms - the classic slum.
Following his route today, things are better - in Salford, only 200 homes don’t have an indoor toilet - but Amanda, who I spoke to, doesn’t feel better off. She lives on the Bideford estate in Baguley, on the eleventh floor of a high-rise, with two lifts that keep breaking down. She has no heating, the flats stink and she’s scared of the kids who haunt the stairwells.
Sarah, 19, who I met in the Direct Action women’s homelessness hostel, was three months pregnant, had been abused as a kid, gone into care… a life of misery but she was always smiling. The day after I met her, she was sanctioned off benefits for missing a Job Centre interview and was living on £28 per week crisis loan, £10 of which went to the hostel. So she accepted an offer from two strange men to live with them - colour TV and warm showers proved tempting. When I went back up three weeks later her best friend told me she’d tried to talk her out of it, but she was living on £2.50 per day so… what was she going to do? Sarah wasn’t seen again.
Private landlords exploit the poor as much as ever before. Kirstie, from Macclesfield, moved into a flat with her partner and six-month-old son to find damp and mould spreading to cover the walls, clothes and even the mattress in her son’s cot. When she complained all she got was abuse.
The regeneration that Orwell called for had mixed results. Speke, in Liverpool, pulled families from inner-city slums into a garden suburb with roads leading into the Ford factory. Once the factories closed the place became a poverty trap - your lifespan is 10 years less in Speke than across the road that skirts its borders.
The readers of Inside Housing don’t need another arriviste hack to bemoan the passing of the Welfare Reform Act - but every community centre, Salvation Army hostel and Citizens Advice Bureau I spoke to are dreading its measures. And the majority of the government’s cuts are yet to hit - 94 per cent of public service cuts, 90 per cent of welfare cuts and 27 per cent of tax increases are still to come.
When Orwell travelled the road to Wigan pier, unemployment was actually falling, inequality was decreasing and people were building houses. Sorry George, you want to say, we did go forward but now we’re heading back the other way.
Stephen Armstrong is the author of The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited, published by Constable & Robinson