Some time ago, I watched a documentary about deprivation in our seaside towns.
I say “documentary”, but this was presented by Grant from Eastenders, so we’re not exactly talking high-minded stuff here.
Video: British Sky Broadcasting Limited – Fair Use
I’m hoping other cast members follow suit, and we get Dot Cotton reporting from a Detroit crack den or Sharon embedded with the Taliban.
One striking aspect was how much the rows of former guest houses are used as low cost social housing – bedsits. The living conditions in these tiny places, in the fifth richest economy in the world, is shocking. Or it should be anyway. In my case I’ve seen so many examples of extreme social inequality in the UK, that it inspires a reaction more akin to weary acceptance than shock these days; a shrugging sigh. It should, however, be considered unacceptable.
Image: robert wade – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
The reality isn’t so much that the country can’t afford to provide these people with a separate kitchen, living room and bedroom, it’s that we won’t. Please feel free to rail against that all you wish; I’ll be right behind you. I’ve said since the age of about 15 that I have the answer to all the country’s ills – it consists of a large number of pitchforks and burning torches, and getting National Express to lay on free passage to Westminster.
But in the socio-political and economic system we’re currently stuck with, the necessary money isn’t going to be diverted to these people’s needs any time soon.
So in the meantime, I’ve had an idea that I think could be viable, and make a big difference to the experience of people living in these places. I’m curious to know what others think of it. Whilst not staggeringly stupid, I’m neither the greatest genius of our times and assume I’m not the first to come up with this concept. So where are the gaping holes in my vision that I’ve overlooked? Let me know in the comments.
To start with, we take a row of former guest houses on the seafront, in a coastal town in economic decline. Each has been taken over by social housing. The former guest rooms have had a basic kitchen arrangement stuck in, and are now the home addresses of adults who are reliant for whatever reason on the welfare state. There’s no room to have guests over, so they’re either walled up in there on their own, or have to find other (free) places to meet up if they’re to have any social contact at all. Places that are safe, out of the rain, and where the police won’t harass them and tell them to disperse. Such places are few and far between.
I spent three months living in a windowless box room in Leith once, before the area was gentrified. I swear I started going mad with the confinement; I can’t imagine what it must feel like to call somewhere like that ‘home’ on a semi-permanent basis.
Close your eyes, and picture that seafront row of former guest houses, all currently divided up into these brutishly substandard bedsits.
Now, take a sledgehammer and knock a few walls down. Connect up all the houses with a wide corridor down the length of the ground floor.
Pick out the middle house on the row, and knock a few more walls down. Turn each floor into a set of shared spaces.
Set up a Not-For-Profit to run the whole shebang, and appoint a few ‘wardens’ to oversee the day to day running of the facilities on a 24/7 basis. Nab any grants and charitable contributions that may be up for grabs. EU funding, unfortunately, is not available. But at least we can have curved bananas.
Provide a cost-price cafeteria in one of those spaces. Run free healthy-cooking-on-a-budget classes. Make another one a shared common room. Create a space for health and social care. Using others, have regular ‘surgeries’ scheduled by the local MP, Councillors, JobCentre advisors, Taxidermists and so on. Seek out volunteers to run workshops of all shapes and sizes – CV writing, yoga, Excel & Word training, art, squirrel charming, music, anything and everything that the local community can offer. Invite AA and NA to use one of the spaces for a weekly meeting. If there are gardens at the back, then join them up and get some allotments going. Once you have the shared spaces, the possibilities just keep coming.
Take a sheet of A2 paper, and set out some clear rules regarding what times outside visitors are allowed on the premises, whether food and drink are allowed in the common areas, and other pertinent items. Spend a good deal of time considering all eventualities, and what restrictions need to be put in place to cover them. Make sure to format it clearly, and word the rules in a manner that leaves no room for doubt or evasion.
Hold that sheet of paper by your fingertips, and set fire to one corner. Use the burning sheet of paper as kindling to light a huge bonfire. Throw yourself on top. Now set up a governance structure that puts decisions into the hands of the residents rather than a paternalistic approach of other people deciding what’s best for them. Make it theirs.
Through this, you give residents the opportunity to connect, to form their own little micro-community. To feel like they belong somewhere, and are part of something. Something that’s theirs, and that they control.
There would be a cost, sure – but in relative terms I doubt it would be prohibitively expensive. What’s more, by providing those services on people’s doorsteps, inside their own collective horizontal urban homestead, a lot of problems will be prevented or managed before they reach crisis point. Over the longer term, that will be saving money for the system as a whole.
And you give people somewhere to live, rather than just be.
What am I missing? Why can’t we do this? Tell me why I’m an idiot by clicking the ‘Leave a Comment’ link.