Google is lovingly creating a time-capsule of Britain’s homelessness crisis

Great work, everyone. Image: Google.

Images guide our historical memory. It’s not the Blitz we remember, but the picture of St Paul’s unharmed. It’s not 19th century Britain we recall, but photographs of stern-faced Victorians and impoverished street urchins. No one remembers the goals any more – but we can all picture Bobby Moore holding the World Cup in 1966. Forget history books, images tell the stories people really remember.

So what about us? What judgement will our grandchildren pass on our legacy, and which images will guide them?

Those of us living in Britain’s towns and cities see homelessness daily. We’ve watched with alarm at the spiraling numbers of rough sleepers slumped in doorways, outside tube stations and on park benches. The figures have almost lost their ability to shock. Since 2010, they record homelessness increasing over 169 per cent and rough sleeping by 98 per cent.

Our failure to tackle the issue will be remembered – because it’s being archived on a mass scale, entirely accidentally.

Today, everything leaves a digital trail. Data is hoovered up and monetised faster than you can say GDPR, and Google is the proud owner of the world’s largest mapping empire. Its network of image-capturing kit – mounted on cars, boats, snowmobiles and even submarines – stitches together the world around us.

But as with all leaps in technology, it’s had some unforeseen consequences: unintentionally documenting the homelessness crisis with surprising intimacy.

The stirring images show Dickensian poverty colliding with our smart contemporary cities. EV charging points gleam next to torn sleeping bags. Tents are pitched on paving slabs alongside gutters of slushy snow. “Happy new year,” reads a cardboard sign held aloft by one rough sleeper as pedestrians walk by. Google has inadvertently created a time-capsule of homelessness, free and digitally accessible to all.

We now face a choice: let these images embarrass us, as future generations pass judgement on our inertia. Or seize on them as a call to action.


To end the homeless crisis we need to upturn our thinking. The Conservatives still believe that work sets us free – that employment prevents homelessness – but charities Crisis and Shelter argue this is false. One in three families are just one monthly pay check away from losing their homes, a study found this year. Shelter blame the Coalition’s housing benefit freeze from 2010 to 2015, despite the fact private rent, for a two-bedroom flat in London, have risen 34 per cent since 2011. As rents escalate and housing benefit remains frozen, Shelter argues working families are “hurtling towards homelessness”. It’s time we leave blaming working families for their poverty where it belongs, in the 1930s.

Last year’s harsh winter took the lives of 78 homeless people. This figure should make policymakers ashamed, but apparently doesn’t. The DWP’s botched rollout of Universal Credit is making things worse, accelerating foodbank use 13 per cent year-on-year and putting working families at risk. Amber Rudd, appointed Work and Pensions Secretary in November, is ploughing on with the policy regardless.

So what can be done? Labour’s approach centres housing. An extra 8,000 new homes are pledged for rough sleepers, alongside building 100,000 affordable homes a year to address the private rental crisis.

This plan is welcome, but incomplete. People are driven to sleep rough by a cocktail of factors, including structural and personal issues: unemployment, poverty, and lack of affordable housing; trauma, addiction, and the breakdown of relationships. Just as doctors must treat both cause and symptom of disease, we too need a multifaceted strategy.

Eradicating homelessness demands a ‘public health’ approach. We must go beyond the housing ministry to encompass the health, social care and employment authorities and mobilise them in the prevention of rough sleeping. It takes a village to raise a child, and it’ll take a whole government – not a single ministry – to end homelessness.

“How a society treats its most vulnerable is always the measure of its humanity,” wrote Mahatma Ghandi. How do we want to be remembered? A cold concrete doorway is not a bed. Rough sleeping should be banished from 21st century cities, and a public health strategy is how to get there. Let’s eradicate homelessness, or Google’s images will haunt us in the eyes of posterity.

All images taken from Google Streetview.

 
 
 
 

What does the Greater Manchester Spatial Plan mean for the region’s housing supply and green belt?

Manchester. Image: Getty.

We’re not even halfway through January and we’ve already seen one of the biggest urban stories of the year – the release of Greater Manchester’s new spatial plan for the city-region. The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) sets an ambitious target to build more than 200,000 homes over the next 18 years.

Despite previous statements indicating greenbelt development was off the table, the plan allows for some moderate easing of greenbelt, combined with denser city centre development. This is sensible, pragmatic and to be welcomed but a question remains: will it be enough to keep Manchester affordable over the long-term?

First, some history on Manchester’s housing strategy: This is not the first iteration of the controversial GMSF. The first draft was released by Greater Manchester’s council leaders back in October 2016 (before Andy Burnham was in post), and aimed to build 227,000 houses by 2037. Originally, it proposed releasing 8.2 per cent of the green belt to provide land for housing. Many campaigners opposed this, and the newly elected mayor, Andy Burnham, sent the plan back to the drawing board in 2017.

The latest draft published this week contains two important changes. First, it releases slightly less greenbelt land than the original plan, 4.1 per cent of the total, but more than Andy Burnham previously indicated he would. Second, while the latest document is still ambitious, it plans for 26,000 fewer homes over the same period than the original.

To build up or to build out?

In many cities, the housing supply challenge is often painted as a battle-ground between building high-density homes in the city centre or encroaching on the green belt. Greater Manchester is fortunate in that it lacks the density of cities such as London – suggesting less of a confrontation between people who what to build up and people who want to build out.

Prioritising building on Greater Manchester’s plentiful high-density city centre brownfield land first is right and will further incentivise investment in public transport to reduce the dependence of the city on cars. It makes the goal in the mayor’s new transport plan of 50 per cent of all journeys in Greater Manchester be made on foot, bikes or public transport by 2040 easier to realise.

However, unlike Greater London’s greenbelt which surrounds the capital, Greater Manchester’s green belt extends deep into the city-region, making development on large amounts of land between already urbanised parts of the city-region more difficult. This limits the options to build more housing in parts of Greater Manchester close to the city centre and transport nodes. The worry is that without medium-term reform to the shape of Manchester’s green belt, it may tighten housing supply in Manchester even more than the green belt already does in places such as London and York. In the future, when looking to undertake moderate development on greenbelt land, the mayor should look to develop in these areas of ‘interior greenbelt’ first.

Greater Manchester’s Green Belt and Local Authority Boundaries, 2019.

Despite the scale of its ambition, the GMSF cannot avoid the sheer size of the green belt forever: it covers 47 per cent of the total metropolitan area). In all likelihood, plans to reduce the size of the green belt by 2 per cent will need to be looked at again once the existing supply of brownfield land runs low – particularly if housing demand over the next 18 years is higher than the GMSF expects, which should be the case if the city region’s economy continues to grow.

An example of a successful political collaboration

The GMSF was a politically pragmatic compromise achieved through the cooperation of the metropolitan councils and the mayoral authority to boost the supply of homes. It happened because Greater Manchester’s mayor has an elected mandate to implement and integrate the GMSF and the new transport plan.

Other cities and the government should learn from this. The other metro mayors currently lacking spatial planning powers, in Tees Valley and the West Midlands, should be gifted Greater Manchester-style planning powers by the government so they too can plan and deliver the housing and transport their city-regions need.

Long-term housing strategies that are both sustainable and achievable need to build both up and out. In the short-term Greater Manchester has achieved this, but in the future, if its economic success is maintained, it will need to be bolder on the green belt than the proposals in the current plan. By 2037 Manchester will not face a trade-off between high-density flats in the city centre or green belt reform – it will need to do both.  If the city region is to avoid the housing problems that bedevil London and other successful cities, policy makers need to be ready for this.

Anthony Breach is an economic analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.