Getting on the ladder, buy-to-let, Help to Buy, Right to Buy, social housing, housing benefits. Was there ever a time when housing dominated conversation like it does today? Society has been taken over by a collective lunacy when it comes to housing. It drives the economy, it drives social status and, most worryingly of all, it drives division. As a consequence, a generation of schoolchildren are growing up with some of the most hostile housing conditions of modern times.
Simon Elliott, the headteacher of my school, Forest Gate Community School, is celebrating. The East London school has just had its best ever results; it is the highest-performing community school in the borough. But Elliott is only too aware that many pupils performed well despite horrific housing situations and many more, borough-wide, were unable to overcome the hardships of their housing. He is also aware of the impact that changes in the sector are having on the local community.
“It is a complex issue and not one that fits a particular narrative,” he tells me. “We are seeing a movement of pupils away from the area due to gentrification but also seeing families forced from boroughs like Westminster into [our borough] Newham.”
Huge rise in homelessness
Newham is undergoing a period of transformation. Parts are gentrifying rapidly – the borough experienced the biggest percentage rise in property values in the UK in 2015. Newham is the latest victim of this familiar problem in the capital. Such a situation forces the working poor out of the area, largely because of housing costs – an economically driven migration that has led to London transforming itself over the past decade.
Although the capital is the epicentre of this housing crisis, similar situations exist in Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester and many other areas. Within all of these boundaries, there are large areas that are quickly becoming enclaves of abject poverty.
Those who stay in such areas can be forced into desperate situations. If people are made homeless – particularly if they have children – then the council has a duty to house them. Yet, with housing stock in short supply, temporary accommodation is often used.
According to homelessness charity Shelter, this isn’t a minor problem: in the past year alone, 15,000 more children became homeless; 11,000 of them in the capital. This has led to a 30 per cent increase in the number of children living in temporary housing. The charity’s research reveals that as many as half have reported their rooms as unsecure. To add to that, councils, with budgets stretched to breaking point, cannot always guarantee who the other residents will be.
Cynthia Quarshie, a home support worker at my school, paints a bleak picture. “I’ve been working with schools and parents for 10 years and I have never seen anything like this. It’s dire,” she says.
Of the plethora of issues that Quarshie tackles on a daily basis, housing is by far the most common. In the summer term of 2015, she dealt with 63 separate housing issues. She tells horror stories, each more gut-wrenching than the last: the girl who shares a room with her father and brother in a house with 11 other adults; the family of six in a one bedroom flat; the pupils who have been provided temporary accommodation in Tilbury, 20 miles from the school. “How can they possibly read at night or complete their homework in those conditions?” an exasperated Quarshie asks me. I have no answer.
Why not refuse such horrendous properties? The truth is that people can’t. Refusal of housing provision might mean a council, with a shortage of resources, decides to discharge their duty to house the family, apart from in specific cases of need, such as disability. This is a risk that many are not willing to take.
These stories may sound Victorian, but they are the result of a very modern desire. The boom in the housing market, when combined with the government’s austerity agenda, is a poisonous cocktail for the most vulnerable pupils. The Treasury is using the market as a means to drive growth with little concern for the consequences. Interest rates are low, changes to stamp duty and schemes including Help to Buy and Funding for Lending have overstimulated the housing market. Both values and rent have increased. The shortfall for families on benefits is increasing (a huge proportion of housing benefit is now paid to private landlords) and they need to find the cash or move on.
As well the impact on pupils, Elliott is equally concerned about staff recruitment and retention. “I cannot see how teachers can afford to live in London these days. Recruitment in the fringe is becoming a nightmare.”
The “fringe” is the most vulnerable to these changes. For teachers in London, facing ever-spiralling housing costs, the financial disincentive is becoming a real factor in career choice. Combine this with a teacher recruitment crisis and schools are becoming further victims of the property boom.
Until policymakers begin to see that housing inequality is one of the great diseases of modern Britain, they will continue to compound poverty. Houses currently resemble an investment currency rather than nurturing homes. Councils have been hamstrung by politicians seeking short-term political capital from the UK housing market. Continuing in this way will leave pockets of deprivation in our cities that become ignored and, in the hardest-hit areas, a shortage of teachers to help them overcome the situation.
It is time we acknowledged that poor housing is fast becoming the single greatest enemy of aspiration in Britain.
Joseph Bispham teaches at Forest Gate Community School, and starred in Educating the East End. He worked in politics before moving into teaching @MrBispham