Australia abolished its slums a hundred years ago. They might be coming back

Sydney. Not the slum part. Image: Getty.

Truth be told, most Australians live in good housing: this is good news for all of us because our housing is a major determinant of our health and wellbeing. But the lessons of history, and our recent research findings, published in August in the Journal of Prevention and Intervention in the Community, tell us this good news story is at risk.

Ideally, housing provides us with the secure, comfortable shelter that people and their families need to live healthy, productive lives. In general, Australia has modern housing stock with good heating and cooling, few major structural problems and few problems with damp and mould. By contrast, bad housing makes it much more likely you will get sick and stay sick once ill.

In Australia’s early years, much of the housing stock was of poor quality, often overcrowded, and posed real risks to people’s health. Slums were common in the inner parts of the major cities and in many country towns.

Scenes from the Fitzroy slums in Melbourne in the early 20th century.

As late as 1915 bubonic plague was a reality in the poorer parts of our cities and other contagious diseases remained an ever-present risk. Numerous letters to the editor documented a real social concern with the housing standards of the poor.

Government intervention, economic prosperity and tenancy laws all improved housing conditions across Australia. Within a century Australia was defined by good housing and high rates of home ownership. The nation saw off the last of its slums in the late 1940s.

Now the same conditions that gave rise to substandard housing in the 19th century are returning in the 21st, with a likely similar outcome. Recently, the Reserve Bank governor acknowledged young Australians need their parents' help to buy a home in Sydney. But most Australians don’t have a wealthy and doting parent to fund them into the house of their dreams.

The alternative is to live in lower-quality housing and to make do with a home that is relatively inaccessible, fundamentally unaffordable or both.

A million Australians on the housing brink

The confronting reality is that poor housing conditions are more prevalent in Australia than we think. We have a sizeable “hidden fraction” of Australians living in poor-quality housing. In particular, many of our most vulnerable have the double disadvantage of also having housing conditions that we might deem as falling below an unacceptable standard.

In one of the few contemporary analyses of this issue, we used the Household Income and Labour Dynamics (HILDA) Survey, a national longitudinal dataset, and find compelling evidence of a substantial stock of poor-quality housing in Australia.

The scale of our findings is somewhat surprising: we found almost a million Australians are living in poor or very-poor-quality housing. Within this total, more than 100,000 are residing in dwellings regarded as very poor or derelict.

These simple findings are important. They show the existence of a significant (and currently little known) population of individuals living in very poor conditions. At the very least, we need to monitor Australian housing conditions in a systematic way if we are to avoid this problem worsening.


Harms of poor housing multiply

Poor-quality housing makes the already disadvantaged even worse off. Younger people, people with disabilities and ill health, those with low incomes, those without full-time (or any) employment, Indigenous people and renters are much more likely to be found in the emerging slums of 21st-century Australia.

Importantly, many of these groups are already disadvantaged and (most probably) have a pressing need for housing that improves or supports their health and wellbeing. People with an existing illness or disability, for example, are almost twice as likely to live in dwellings in very poor condition as people without a disability or illness.

These findings about the size and uneven distribution of the problem should force us to ask what effects poor-quality housing has on people – on their mental, physical and general health? It is clear from our analysis that such housing has measurable impacts on mental, physical and general health. This impact is large enough to be statistically significant.

Given the time it takes to reform policy and plan for our cities and regions, Australia urgently needs to face up to the dismal reality that once again many Australians are living in housing not fit for habitation.

Governments must take steps to ensure the supply of affordable housing of reasonable quality. Otherwise, we are destined to become a nation scarred once again by slums, reduced life chances and shortened lives.The Conversation

Emma Baker is associate professor in the School of Architecture & Built Environment at the University of AdelaideAndrew Beer is dean of research & innovation at the University of South AustraliaRebecca Bentley is associate professor in the Centre for Health Equity, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

It’s not all cool bridges and very real concerns: In defence of Teesside

Just one of the many interesting bridges you’ll find in Teesside. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

The latest entry in our ‘In Defence Of’ series...

I have to start this with a disclaimer: I’m not writing this from anywhere in Teesside. I’m writing this from Germany, where I live and work. Some of you may remember being told by Norman Tebbit, that instead of complaining that we can’t find jobs, we should get on our bikes (or, more recently, by IDS to get on a bus), and I did. I’m paid well here, to do a job that doesn’t really exist in Teesside. And yet, every time I go home to visit my family, I almost wish I’d stayed.

This isn’t going to be a very straightforward take – I’m hoping to pay my respects to Stockton, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool as well as my native Billingham – but Teesside isn’t a very straightforward place. What county is it in? Cleveland, Stockton-on-Tees, Durham or North Yorkshire depending on how old you are and where you’re standing. I always had great fun ordering online and trying to guess which of the unfamiliar options on the dropdown menu would get my parcel to me.

But regardless of where you draw the lines, Teesside is still there.

Our accent is similarly hard to pin down: Geordie, Mackem, Yorkshire, even Scouse, depending on who’s imitating us. I’ve been pegged as Irish, American and South African by determined people in the past. Our slang is stolen from Scotland, Northumberland, Newcastle and Yorkshire, and, not satisfied, some words are purely our own. Hoy, shan, howay, dinner nanny. We have as many words for classless people as the Romans did for murder.

But regardless of how it sounds to you, Teesside still talks.


On a map of the UK, Teesside sits as an isolated blob of civilisation between the Dales and the sea. Half-urban, half-rural, half-seaside, half-inland, half industrial estate and half nature reserve. A Labour heartland with a Tory mayor. Places that sprang up fully formed in the ICI rush of the 1950s, but that still have Viking place names.

We’ve been portrayed in fiction by Richard Milward, in song by Maximo Park, in statistics by Lady Florence Bell and in cinema by Sir Ridley Scott (our chemical works and power plants inspired the look of Blade Runner). More recently, we’re being portrayed in documentary in The Mighty Redcar, and in the media as an area of left-behind, white working class racists who all voted Leave. But while most of the area is whiter than the average, Middlesbrough mirrors the UK average for racial diversity and has been assigned to resettle more refugees than any other town in the UK – and more than its cut-back council can look after.

And when you look at the numbers, the proportion of the population of Teesside who voted to leave the EU is much less than many other areas. (And yes, of course I voted Remain from my now slightly more precarious home in Frankfurt, joining 100,000 other Teesside Remainers.)

We’re pitied for the loss of the Teesside steelworks and derided for blaming the EU for it (when of course it was our own government’s sabotaging of EU attempts to block Chinese steel dumping that drove that knife in). Even the people who profess to be on our side take our angry, uneducated racism as fact, baking it into the premises of their arguments, which consist of addressing our “racist but real concerns”, and how to reach us.

But whether you understand us or not, whether you miss the point or not, we’ll continue to exist, long after we’ve been forgotten again.

Billingham town centre. One of the first pedestrianised town centres in the UK. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Still, while we’re in the spotlight, why not see what we have to offer? Come to see our rather wonderful collection of interesting bridges. See where the first public steam train ran, from Stockton to Darlington. Visit Mima, the modern art gallery in Middlesbrough and the 1960s utopia of Billingham’s pedestrianised town centre. Feel slightly uncomfortable around all the things that are named for Captain Cook (though the replica of the Endeavour at Stockton riverside is impressive regardless on your thoughts on its captain – and it’s the best you’ll see until they work out whether they’ve found the real one yet). Wander Middlesbrough’s thriving student/hipster district on Linthorpe RoadD – despite being a punchline during my youth, Teesside University has become a respected institution. Visit Billingham’s Folklore Festival in August, where as schoolchildren we’d watch troupes of folk dancers from across the world open-mouthed, and get their autographs afterwards as though they were celebrities.

Fried chicken, white sauce and cheese make the Teesside parmo. Perfect. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Try a parmo. Try the Billingham Catholic Club’s real ale, and stay for the bingo, which is called by a man with the most acrobatic mental arithmetic skills I’ve ever seen. Try a lemon top ice cream from Pacitto’s in Redcar and wonder why no one else has ever done this before. Lemon sorbet and vanilla ice cream! Together at last!

While you’re at the beach, take a ride on the Saltburn Cliff Lift, the oldest operating water-balance cliff lift in the UK. Pretend Saltburn is sort of in Teesside while you’re enjoying the view. Look out on beaches black with sea coal, washed up from undersea seams and nearby coal mines. Visit the golf course by Seaton Carew to catch a glimpse of a curlew or two, and watch the young seagulls pick up golf balls to crack them open by dropping them from a great height. Visit Seal Sands, whose owners can be observed lazing on the estuary banks whenever the tide is out. Or visit Saltholme, the RSPB nature reserve, where you can see avocets, Britain’s weirdest-looking and most beloved seabird.

Nature coexists with industry on Teesside. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Go white water rafting, bell boating or paddleboarding at the Tees Barrage, where there are so many seals that they’ve had to put up guards to keep them out of the way. The Tees used to be too polluted even to support salmon and trout, and now we have too many of one of Britain’s largest native mammals. The return of the seals to the Tees was the first documented case of seals returning to an industrial area. You’d be surprised at how well nature can thrive in the shadow of industry, colonising the quiet fields and marshy ponds on private land that are never disturbed, haunted by sika deer and shelducks, redshanks, knots, stonechats.

Teesside has plenty to offer. What it doesn’t have is the jobs to keep its younger generations from having to get on their bikes and leave. We aren’t aliens, or Jacob Rees-Mogg’s army of goblin henchbrexiteers. We’re just like you, but with more seals and fewer employment opportunities.