Britain’s 21st-century housing catastrophe bears an eerie resemblance to my 1930s childhood


In the 1920s, Harry Leslie Smith was shunted from one cold, dirty, overcrowded hovel to the next, fleeing by night when his father could no longer pay the rent.

On my many recent trips across Britain, I’ve seen on a few occasions families being put into the street by a bailiff, which is not surprising because in 2015 there were 15,000 such occurrences.

When it comes to housing, we have moved beyond crisis in 21st-century Britain and snuggled up to catastrophe. Low wages, along with curtailed government benefits, have made more than 82,000 tenants two months in arrears on their rent. It’s worse for universal-credit tenants: three in four of them are in serious arrears for their lodgings.

The problem people face today was faced by their ancestors before the welfare state. I am living proof of this because I remember our flits. In January 1927, my family upped sticks in the freezing darkness because my dad just wasn’t able to pay our landlord his due. That first time we disappeared under dark clouds, my dad tapped my shoulder to wake me as I slept with my sister on a filthy mattress that stank of other people’s piss and sweat. My sister and I jumped from our bed, still dressed in shabby clothes provided by a local charity. We quietly shuffled downstairs in confused fright and into the night air.

All we took was what we could put into sacks and carry on our backs, like modern-day migrants. In an act of sentimentality or defiance against our fate, my dad brought with him an oil portrait of his father in an ornate gilded frame, which indicated that at one time our family had the luxury of adorning the walls of our home with painted mementoes of much-loved relatives. Along with the portrait, my father carried an eight-volume edition of the Harmsworth History of the World. I think he took those objects with us so that my sister Alberta and I would know that, even though he had been undone by an unequal economy, he once had greater ambitions and prospects for himself than fighting like an animal for scraps of food to keep his family fed.

Being homeless is in many ways like being orphaned because your moorings to love and security are cut and you are cast adrift into a torrent of uncertainty. As a child and teenager, I never felt secure in my housing or whether I’d be able to get a decent meal at the end of the day. The tenement we fled to in Barnsley in 1927 was smaller than the hovel we had left just one hurried step ahead of the bailiff. We had to share it with an elderly, childless couple. For the first few days, the fireplace grates were cold because our housemates were waiting for my parents to buy the fuel.

In truth, the house we moved into was no better than a stall for an animal in a poor farmer’s paddock. That we were forced to live this way in the past was unjust, but if you don’t think it is happening in today’s Britain, think again. Sky News reported in 2016 that one-third of private rented homes aren’t up to proper standards of health and safety. Moreover, three-quarters of a million homes are infested with rodents, are damp and have other problems that make them dangerous to dwell in. Yet the owners of these fleapits can earn a fortune in rent because 21st-century Britain is becoming as socially dystopian as it was in my boyhood.

Governments have encouraged both greed and the notion that housing is the best investment for those with disposable income, fuelling house-price and rent increases by speculation as well as a decline in affordable accommodation. Moreover, the Tory government in London, and Tory councils all across the country, have slashed regulations, making it easier to exploit those seeking affordable and safe housing.

As there were only two bedrooms in our new home, my family kipped together while our housemates slept in the other room. The four of us huddled on one small mattress under dirty blankets for warmth as if we were rabbits packed tight in a hutch being sold at Barnsley market.

Shortly after our arrival, the man who shared the house with us died and his widow moved out. She left carrying a cardboard suitcase and much later my mother told me she had made a vague promise, “like a bloody sailor”, to return and sort out her portion of the rent. Before she could make good on her word, my parents decided it was better for us to move on to an even less expensive and more inhospitable area. We never seemed to move far from where we started, and this time we ended up near the local tip. On most days, you could smell it festering from our stoop.

My sister would drag me to the tip in hope of finding lost treasure. There, we scampered through its ocean of rubbish looking for something to sell or barter like children now do in developing countries.

In the winter of early 1928, my family was undone by its greatest calamity when my dad was seriously injured in a mining accident. He was brought home to us on a barrow pulled by two mates. At first, my mother was relieved that he hadn’t been killed in a cave-in. For those who worked underground, death or injury at work was a normal occurrence.

Over time, my mum’s relief at my dad’s survival became clouded by her rage at being saddled with a man who couldn’t provide during an era when married women were not encouraged to work by the state, their families or potential employers.

My parents and the rest of the lower classes were being immersed in petty debt, lack of affordable housing and work shortages that were producing malnutrition, premature death and anxiety in epidemic quantity.

Sadly, not much has changed for many people since 1928 because 3.9 million British families are just one pay cheque away from insolvency, which means that should the breadwinners of households lose their income like my dad did, their prospects in Tory Britain may become as bleak as ours were almost a century ago. Many people just don’t know any more if they can keep their heads above water, and that’s a recipe for social disaster. Revolutions and civic unrest always develop after prolonged inequalities. Some, like the 1945 creation of our welfare state, are peaceful; others, like the Arab spring in 2010, are chaotic and brutal.

This is why everyone should be concerned by the 2016 presidential election in the US because, although it was a democratic vote that made Donald Trump president and gave power to his radical views on race, trade and diplomacy, it was also a revolution that upset the normal tide of government. The same has occurred in Britain with Brexit, and the question on everyone’s mind is: what will happen to our country once it is enacted? Will we see chaos, or progress?

Right now, the tipping point for our society might be the housing crisis. The threat of homelessness since the 2008 banking crisis has grown while the wages of the average worker have fallen. The Trades Union Congress, after analysing income data for the past nine years, has concluded that real income for average workers has declined by 1% each year since 2008: that is a 9% drop in earnings, whereas rent has increased over the same period by more than 2%, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Anyone who is an ordinary person in Britain is at risk of losing what little they’ve earned because, as the welfare state shrinks, housing becomes more expensive, dental care becomes unaffordable, higher education becomes out of reach. In fact, if you lose your job, or you or your loved ones get sick, you are at the mercy of a system that no longer empathises with your struggles because our Tory government is more concerned with preserving the entitlement of corporations to pay as little tax as possible to the state.

In seven years of government, the Tories have slashed corporate tax from 28% to 17%. In that same period of government, according to the Rowntree Foundation, the number of British people living in poverty has risen to 13.5 million. Moreover, the foundation has concluded that there are more than a million people in our country who are destitute and unable adequately to feed themselves or afford decent shelter.

It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to know that Britain isn’t walking into an egalitarian future under this Tory government. It is being frogmarched into an economic dystopia that has an eerie resemblance to the inequality I witnessed as a boy in the 1920s and 1930s, when poverty was the norm for working-class Britain. It’s why, despite all that is modern and beyond my aged grasp, I find the 21st century too familiar for my liking.

This is an edited extract from Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future by Harry Leslie Smith, published by Constable.


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