Posted by: Colin Wiles31/08/2011
I think Grant Shapps is on to something with his latest plan to encourage people to live on boats.
Here in Cambridge we have hundreds of people living on boats along the river. Some of them are a bit ramshackle and lack decent sanitation but the occupants seem to like them and they are affordable and close to the centre of town.
On a similar theme, I listened to a recent Radio 4 programme that re-assessed the world’s slums and shanty towns and found that they are actually very useful in providing low cost housing for workers who need to live close to the centre of cities. I fully accept that conditions in the shanty towns are often awful but their inhabitants have a good sense of community and high levels of social capital. We could follow this model in London, pick a couple of the big vacant sites like Chelsea Barracks or Battersea power station, or even a corner of Hyde Park, and allow people to move in and build their own shacks.
It could be really popular with eastern Europeans who work in nearby hotels and restaurants. We could follow this model elsewhere in the country by relaxing the planning rules to allow people to build habitable sheds in their gardens and on allotments. These measures alone could produce thousands of new homes.
I’ve also been reading Orlando Figes’ book The Whisperers, a brilliant account of private life under Stalin. As the populations of Russia’s cities grew the regime responded not by building new houses and flats but by forcing people to share apartments. Families often lived in a single room and shared bathrooms, kitchens and toilets. Admittedly there was the odd argument about space and some petty squabbling over the use of shared facilities, but many children recalled how much they enjoyed the sense of community and companionship as they grew up. We could adopt this model in some of the big apartment blocks in Belgravia and Knightsbridge. Some of the rich, older residents may appreciate having someone billeted upon them. It would bring back memories of the war and the privations of rationing and they would have someone to talk to.
I think all of these ideas taken together could solve our housing crisis at a stroke and we wouldn’t have to build any new homes.
From Inside out
An independent look at the housing sector and beyond from Colin Wiles