Homelessness in the UK is becoming an epidemic. Just last week, the government published statistics revealing that over 83,000 households were assessed as homeless or threatened with homelessness between January and March this year, while the number of children in temporary accommodation has reached record levels.
“We need to keep going because we want more people to realise the dream of owning their own home,” said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, a day before the report was released. “Our plan is to build the right homes where there is the most need and where there is local support, in the heart of Britain’s great cities.”
That’s all well and good. But as rent prices soar and activists such as Kwajo Tweneboa expose the shocking conditions of social housing in the UK, the government’s failures have become increasingly difficult to ignore.
32-year-old Ashley knows this better than most. An officer at Croydon Council, he works within the homelessness department, assessing legal challenges the local authority may face with regards to homelessness accommodation. He’s heard what MPs have to say about the housing crisis and he’s not impressed. “I view them as empty platitudes aimed to pacify a more radical approach to tackling the housing crisis,” he says. “I do not place much value in the words of MPs, especially when so many MPs are landlords or heavily invest in properties. It’s not in their class interests to advocate for better social housing, especially affordable housing that is in line with wages.”
It’s true: 87 MPs are landlords, which makes them four times more likely to be landlords than the general population. “We are told so much about the ‘free market’ and that the ‘market knows best’, but that isn’t true,” continues Ashley. “The market is maintained and regulated by the capitalist classes and their interests come before the masses. Landlords are a small minority that wield unbelievable amounts of power. They have the ability to lobby governments and subvert democracy. This is what we are up against.”
In March, Ashley’s job was made even harder when Croydon Council proposed a restructure, which if it goes ahead, will result in cuts to services and job losses. To make matters worse, they also made the decision to hike council tax by 15 per cent. “That will cripple most families in the borough in conjunction with the rise of living costs and rent,” says Ashley.
The bleak state of housing in the UK is an issue of political negligence, and local tenants and council workers are bearing the brunt of it. But they’re fighting back. Ashley and his fellow workers went on strike with the GMB union on the 24th and 28th of July to challenge the restructure, and fight to protect their job security and the future of Croydon Council’s housing department.
Here, Ashley takes us through a 35-hour week, detailing the challenges, stresses and frustrations he faces on a daily basis.
Monday mornings are always quite hectic. I login around 08:30am to a slew of emails – mostly challenges concerning the legality of temporary accommodation offered by the Council. By law, local authorities must maintain suitable temporary accommodation. Typically, these challenges are raised by residents, however it is not uncommon for them to seek legal representation or make a challenge via a counsellor, MP or charity.
I scroll through my emails picking out the most urgent matters, typically ones where a firm of solicitors are representing a Croydon resident. Most mornings I start with taking two steps backwards, as often I am playing catchup with enquiries coming in from the previous week. I am the only officer within my department that fulfils this role, so there is a lot of pressure to maintain a high level of professional standards. Fortunately, I am able to work from home most days of the week, so I do not have to deal with the drudgery of public transport, not to mention the cost.
By this point of the week, the dire conditions of housing within London and underfunding is reaffirmed once again. My role is centred around ensuring that the Council upholds its legal duty to ensure that temporary accommodation is suitable for residents to occupy. I also have to do administrative tasks; update my database; respond to complaints and MP enquiries, and complete ad hoc training for housing officers.
In my role, I don’t deal with homelessness applicants in the same way as more frontline staff do – for example, taking an application. However, there are points in my role when I visit a property to get a proper understanding of the conditions. One of my clients had a severely disabled child who required a wheelchair inside the property. On inspection, it was quite clear that the property was unsuitable. It’s disheartening to see this and hear the struggles people are faced with. The cost-of-living crisis is really exacerbating these issues. I can empathise with residents, as I am a parent who is also just trying to get by.
Since the pandemic, the pressures in housing are insurmountable. Rents are fuelling this and landlords are capitalising off of the lack of social housing. If the cuts to these services do occur, it will be impossible to meet the [housing] demand.
By the end of the week, I am exhausted and bewildered. It has been very stressful trying to navigate the legal minefield of housing. The constant cuts and lack of funding hampers providing a service to residents. Most of the time, I feel like we are being tasked with turning water into wine with the limited resources at our disposal. Much of my role relies upon other officers conducting repair works and investigations into property issues. They too are inundated with a backlog of cases and the lack of resources compound this issue.
By this point, I have sat in a multitude of meetings discussing the broader issues of housing within London. But the issue remains the same: the public sector is grossly underfunded and cuts play a huge part in the misery of housing in London. As a parent of two young children, I understand the longing for one’s own home to be a peaceful sanctuary for their children to grow up in a safe, loving environment.
I think about my job on a day-to-day basis, especially within the wider context of being a government employee and what this means as a worker. Capitalism is fuelled by scarcity. Under capitalism, we are engineered to believe that resources are finite. That isn’t true. As someone who works for the state, in effect I’m managing state resources – gatekeeping them, even. I know the issues are driven by the ineffective government and the outright reluctance to build suitable affordable homes. We live in a property owning democracy and social housing is the antithesis to this.
I do feel conflicted at times. But now, being part of the union at least presents me with the opportunity to advocate for more funding, and thus better resources for the residents of the borough. At the heart of our demands is care, hence why we are really strong on a rejection of the rise in council tax, especially in light of being underfunded in a cost of living crisis.
Why I'm striking
As a union rep, I am proud to advocate on the behalf of GMB members and stand in solidarity with my colleagues. Fundamentally, I believe in the public sector and its ability to address the material conditions of wider society. However, in order for the public sector to meet the needs of the public it must be funded properly. Croydon, over recent years, has been riddled with scandal after scandal, culminating in the council declaring bankruptcy several times. As a consequence of this, the workers and residents of the borough are being asked to weather the storm and pick up the pieces left by previous management.
Housing and homelessness are very contentious topics within society; successive governments have failed to build affordable housing, and outsourcing has eroded the ability to bolster the public sector. All of these problems are laid bare within Croydon, as our services are being stripped back to save money. As workers, we demand that conditions are not compromised, nor is our ability to provide a positive service to Croydon residents. Austerity has had a damning impact on society and, as workers, we reject this localised version.