Space to Create: A Writer’s View on the Housing CrisisShare
How the political ideologies and widespread social attitudes have stripped millions of creative, young people of the right to settle down in a place they can call their own.
Ben Irvine’s new book Space to Create: A Writer’s View on the Housing Crisis is now available to buy from Amazon. Kindle and paperback versions are available.
Part memoir, part in-depth report, Space to Create charts the hilarious and heartbreaking journey of one young writer trying to live – and make a living – in the midst of Britain’s housing crisis. Reflecting on his own chaotic course from one dodgy dwelling to another – including stressful shared houses, a bed in a shed, a barn in the middle of nowhere, and his childhood home – Ben Irvine examines the political ideologies and widespread social attitudes that have stripped millions of young people of the right to settle down in a place they can call their own. His conclusion – that socialist policies, peddled by Labour and Conservative governments alike, are responsible for the housing crisis – sheds new light on a dark time in Britain’s economic and social history, and offers a path forward for anyone liberal enough to want to take it.
Here is an essay from the book:
A few months ago I purchased a house – with a great sense of relief. Britain is in the grip of an unrelenting housing crisis, and I’ve spent the last decade caught up in it. Before I become complacent, I want to reflect on what it has been like being a young person in a developed country where one of life’s necessities has become a scarce resource. I hope that this book, which is a sort of memoir of the housing crisis, will open a few people’s eyes.
Young people are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the crisis. Many have been priced out of owning or even renting their own home. Recent statistics show that the proportion of young adults living with their parents in the UK is larger than ever; one in four adults aged 18 to 34 still lives under the same roof as mum and dad. That’s a rise from 2.7 million to 3.4 million in two decades. A study by the homelessness charity Shelter has suggested that, based on current trends, the proportion of young adults living with their parents will exceed 50% within a generation. And, of course, homelessness is a growing problem in the UK. There are currently more than 300,000 homeless people in Britain. One in five young people report having stayed temporarily with friends or relatives – ‘sofa surfing’, as it’s called – because of a lack of permanent accommodation. Nearly one in ten young people report having sofa surfed for more than a month.
Admittedly, in some ways I’m not a standard example of a young person. Though I attended a state school in a working-class area of North East London, I ended up completing a PhD in Philosophy at Cambridge University, and now I’m an internationally published writer. (And – ahem – I’m not very young anymore). If I had wanted to sail clear of the housing crisis by cashing in on my education and climbing through the ranks of a professional career, I suppose I could have done. Instead, I chose to prioritise my writing career. For almost ten years, I have supported myself through various low-paid evening jobs, and I continue to do so. In that sense, you could argue I’ve been something of a housing crisis tourist: I have made life hard for myself voluntarily. But actually I think stories like mine are an overlooked aspect of the crisis. Almost all aspiring artists – writers, painters, illustrators, musicians, magicians, actors, dancers, comedians, or whatever – will have to ‘slum it’ at some point in their careers, especially early on. The same goes for aspiring entrepreneurs, or any other creative type of person. For creative people, keeping costs down is part of the process of success. Unfortunately, with housing costs skyrocketing, keeping costs down isn’t as easy as it used to be. The housing crisis has made it harder for young people to pursue creative careers.
Another reason the housing crisis has been particularly hard on artists and entrepreneurs is that creative people are notorious for needing their ‘space’. In the physical sense, space has become increasingly hard to come by. Recent statistics reveal a ‘surge’ in overcrowded homes; in England and Wales more than three million people now live in a house with at least five other individuals. Granted, some people enjoy communal living. But creative people often prefer to live alone, because physical space is a precondition of the ‘mental space’ they need; pursuing a creative project requires a lot of deep thinking, imagining, planning and organising. Alas, mental space is obliterated by distraction and disturbance, and, in a shared house, distractions and disturbances abound. Whether it’s housemates talking on their mobile phones, housemates Skyping, housemates watching TV, housemates playing music or video games, housemates having loud sex, housemates getting up early in the morning, housemates coming home drunk late at night, or housemates just being there… shared living drags creative people down to the lowest common denominator of unfocusedness. When George Orwell wrote his masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four, he took himself off to a cottage on the remote Scottish island of Jura. He wanted, he said, to become ‘ungetatable’. Any creative person will know exactly what Orwell meant.
If this all sounds like middle-class moaning, let me explain that there is another aspect to my experience of being a writer during the housing crisis. Being chronically poor has given me an insight into many topics that I studiously avoided during my education. While I was studying philosophy, I never dreamed of what life is like for people outside of the so-called ‘elites’. But now I know what it’s like to survive on a low wage, and to live in cheap lodgings (as, indeed, Orwell himself knew). As a result, my sympathies have changed beyond recognition – mostly, but not always, in favour of the proverbial ‘man in the street’. I’ve become wary of intellectuals. The trouble with intellectuals is that, in their arrogance, one of the countless things they are ignorant of is how much damage their ideas can do. Bad ideas lead to bad social norms and bad governance. The housing crisis, I now believe, derives predominantly from bad ideas – ideas that urgently need to be challenged with a heavy dose of reality. Sometimes it takes a tourist like me to state the obvious.
Or, indeed, a refugee – of sorts. The house I bought is located in a former mining village in the North East of England, an economically deprived region that has remained on the periphery of the housing bubble that has engulfed the rest of the UK. My house cost me a twentieth of what a similar dwelling would have cost in London, where I grew up. I’m very fond of the North East – I did my undergraduate and Master’s degrees at Durham University – so my move back here hasn’t been too much of a wrench. But the fact is, I’m a housing crisis refugee. I’ve left my family down south, because living anywhere near London isn’t economically viable for me. In this, I’m far from alone. Most of my school friends have moved away from London, because even people with decent jobs are struggling in the capital. Native Londoners are abandoning their city in droves. I haven’t really escaped the housing crisis. I’m running away from it every day.
Sometimes I miss London. Well, I miss the London of my childhood. Since then, our capital city has turned into something I can’t relate to at all. Over the last decade, I’ve come to see London as an emblem of the conditions – economic, governmental, social, political and intellectual – that have caused the housing crisis. People say you should never look back in anger. I guess they’re right. But looking back in judgement is another thing entirely.
Ben Irvine is the author of Space to Create: A Writer’s View on the Housing Crisis, Einstein and the Art of Mindful Cycling, Scapegoated Capitalism, and Mindfulness and the Big Questions. Find out more at www.benirvine.co.uk.