How the creative industries could offer a way out of the dangerous property guardianship trend

You, too, could be the lucky inhabitant of an unpleasant abandoned building like this one. Image: Steve Richards.

It was the hip new housing trend that nobody really wanted.

Property guardianship, with its unregulated, exploitative system, should have been a short-lived phase that had ended by 2017, a phase that had been brought to attention so regularly that some sort of intervention had already forced it to end.

But of course this isn’t the case and the ongoing housing crisis means that tenants, though they must technically be called ‘guardians’, have essentially bargained away any rights in order to afford housing which is often unsafe and uninhabitable, with little or no security.

A recent government housing survey brought to light the continuing problems of overcrowding in the rental sector, and the trend of younger people continuing to live in unaffordable rental properties, unable to save money to buy their own home.

The figures are even more surprising than you’d expect.

In 2005-06, 24 per cent of those aged 25-34 lived in the private rented sector and by 2015-16 this had almost doubled, to 46 per cent.

It is many of these young people, forced to rent and thus unable to afford sky-rocketing payments, that have turned to what has been referred to as ‘legal squatting’.

The question as to whether it should even be legal – with practically no regulation, the power to evict a ‘guardian’ without prior warning, and the ability to ban any visitors – is a pertinent one. There is a very high price to pay for such cheap rent.

And, as rent is now often reaching near market-level, whether the rent can even be called cheap is also questionable.

Sian Berry, the Green Party London Assembly Member, recently researched the use of property guardianship by local authorities in London along with activist Samir Jeraj, and found that in 2016 over 200 local authority buildings were being used.

Sian Berry AM, pictured at a protest in 2016. Image: Garry Knight.

The pair also discovered that over 1,000 ‘property guardians’ are being charged to live in what they deemed ‘precarious conditions in empty public buildings owned by councils across London’.

The findings are pretty bleak, and demonstrate that even property guardian companies considered to be ‘better’ treat their guardians as what Samir describes as ‘essentially unpaid security guards’.

He said: ‘Councils should not become second-class landlords by allowing their properties to be used to exploit people let down by the housing crisis.

‘Property guardians should be treated like any other tenant, with proper health and safety rules, notice periods and protection from exploitation.’

Berry and Jeraj’s research clearly points to an exploitative and unsafe system, and they both call on London councils to step up and put an end to it.

What is interesting, however, is the suggestion they make for the use of the public buildings.

They argue that councils should put the buildings to more creative use, where community or cultural organisations in need of short-term spaces for projects could take on the care of these buildings.

With councils rejecting proposals for art studios or creative spaces in favour of luxury apartments or retail spaces, this could be a solution to both ending exploitative housing, and creating opportunity for space where there is currently very little.

Especially now, with our looming exit from the EU likely to threaten the creative industries – as described at length in this concerning House of Lords debate, these buildings could provide the essential space for creatives in the city. 

London’s councils must stand up to the dangers of property guardianship and commit to making better use of our under-loved public spaces: a utilisation of the space which does not perpetuate the exploitative and dangerous housing for those most affected by the housing crisis. 

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.