We can't let 'generation rent' turn into 'generation tent'

Howard Williamson
Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A shortage of temporary accommodation has seen a major rise in the number of young people who are sleeping rough. Picture: Alex Deverill
A shortage of temporary accommodation has seen a major rise in the number of young people who are sleeping rough. Picture: Alex Deverill

Almost 20 years ago, as I embarked on the first of many Council of Europe international reviews of national youth policies, I discovered that the average age of leaving home in Spain was approaching 32. I registered the information as being all the more significant because housing issues were rarely, if ever, discussed on the youth policy agenda. There was apparently no issue.

But there was, and 20 years on, throughout Europe, the housing crisis for the young is biting hard. In the UK, hardly a week goes by without some new fact about the decreasing likelihood of the young ever being able to afford their own home, escalating rental costs or the resurfacing of horrendous levels of youth homelessness. Not long ago, there was a report of a young homeless care leaver living in a tent, but we only heard about her because she was murdered on the streets. In September, it was announced there were 100,000 children who were officially homeless, largely from families whose tenancies had ended and who were unable to find another affordable place to live.

In the context of youth justice, I recall commenting on many an occasion that the legislation that established youth offending teams, requiring statutory partnerships between education, health, social services, police and probation, had missed a trick by not including housing. As a result, despite the development of housing strategies for young offenders and the appointment of accommodation officers in many youth offending teams, housing often remained a weak link in the chain of prevention, supervision and resettlement. Without somewhere safe to live in, older young offenders found themselves in living conditions that predisposed them to the possibility of further offending - contrary to the core objective of the youth justice reforms of the late 1990s. Unsupervised bed and breakfast, or worse, is hardly the launch pad for personal stability, holding down a job, desistance from crime and the prospect of a less precarious future.

But you can't accommodate anyone if there is nowhere available to live. The crisis is often pitched in terms of insufficient new buildings, that the stock of housing is not enough. It has also been argued that there is plenty of accommodation: it is just in the wrong place, of the wrong kind or at an inappropriate price.

There has been a range of imaginative, though fragmented responses to what is becoming an overwhelming challenge. Like the rest of British society, the divisions between those who are included and the growing numbers on the edge is palpable. A wealthy friend of mine resolved his children's housing need simply by buying them a couple of apartments in London. We read of student accommodation for the better off that has all mod cons - at a considerable price. Quite a contrast to my own place as a student - no hot water, a broken window and a settee held up with a paint tin - but at least it was cheap. After graduating, I bought a small house in a rather undesirable area on the basis of my postgraduate studentship. How different the story is today.

At least Centrepoint, the London charity concerned with homeless young people, continues to find last-ditch pragmatic solutions when all other possibilities, even emergency hostel places, have been exhausted. The latest is to provide tickets and travel routes for all-night London buses, with breakfast and a shower the following day. Perhaps some radical benefactor should follow that example, distributing free tickets to encourage every homeless young person to occupy every night bus seat as a way of drawing attention to their plight.

But it is not just about the homeless. It is about the generations. The new "right to buy" legislation for those in housing association provision is likely to be something of a myth. The Thatcher model was accessible to many working people, on account of heavy discounts and regular wages. Today, the offer is likely to be out of reach for many similar people.

There needs to be a stretch of imaginations to consider housing options for the young. One idea has been to divide the large homes of the elderly to provide affordable and autonomous space for young people, with some "rent" paid through the offer of a watching eye and the occasional conversation over a cup of tea. But youth policy has to embrace and address this range of housing issues before the crisis becomes a catastrophe. Whether or not David Cameron's proclamation at the Conservative Party conference - that he will oversee a national crusade to get homes built, to turn "generation rent" into "generation buy" - will benefit the young remains to be seen. Arguably, there are equal odds that generation rent may have to become generation tent.

Howard Williamson is professor of European youth policy at the University of South Wales

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