A windowpane smashes. Then another. A chair is flung off a fourth floor balcony and shatters on the ground. A table follows. The place is an east London council estate and, to the residents, the scene is a familiar one. But the vandalism is not being carried out by bored local youths or feral squatters; the council is smashing up one of their own flats, which is set to stand empty for years.
The borough – Tower Hamlets – has a severe shortage of council housing, with 22,500 people on waiting lists for accommodation and thousands more families living in cramped, overcrowded conditions. And yet the newly destroyed flat will become one of more than 500 homes in the borough declared “void” - left empty in the long term, comprehensively destroyed on the inside to prevent anyone from moving in.
Tower Hamlets is not alone. At least 3,000 council flats across the capital have been empty for more than three months. In the UK as a whole, almost 100,000 publicly owned homes have been declared void according to estimates by the Empty Homes Agency.
I grew horribly familiar with the sight and sound of perfectly habitable flats being wrecked while living in a squat on a Tower Hamlets council estate. Several blocks on my estate were earmarked to be rebuilt – but although the plans had been mooted in 2001, the council still lacked money, contractors and planning permission to replace the buildings. Nevertheless, they began moving tenants out in anticipation of the works several years ago – and now, whenever a family leaves, a team of staff with bolt-cutters, hammers and crowbars arrives to ruin the flat on the inside, even though the buildings are likely to stand for several more years.
Empty flats are bad news for everyone. Quite apart from representing a huge wasted resource, they develop leaks, turn buildings into playgrounds for vandals and junkies, and provide breeding grounds for mice and mosquitoes.
I, like may other squatters, had decided that repairing the damage done by the council’s staff was worthwhile if the pay-off was free temporary accommodation. With my housemates, I installed a new fuse box and replaced the plug sockets that had been smashed with a hammer. We chiselled out the concrete that had been tipped down the sewage outflows and found a new toilet and kitchen sink in nearby skips. We painted over the smears of black anti-climb paint that had been daubed on the walls. Sympathetic council staff, sent to destroy a neighbouring flat, gave us the doors and carpets they had just ripped out to reinstall in our own – since the flats were all similar in layout, they fitted perfectly. We turned the place into a comfortable home which saw us through a whole year quite happily.
Squatters are not always great neighbours, but the huge majority of those squatting on the estate were getting by as best they could under difficult circumstances. Most were young people working for the minimum wage, who couldn’t afford to live in London without squatting – particularly not if they needed to send money home, pay off debts or save. But one father already living on the estate decided to open a squat to give his family some breathing room – before, three generations had been sharing a two bedroom flat. The squat allowed the parents to have a room to themselves for the first time in years.
There is no need for the flats to sit empty. The fact that squatters are prepared to make the considerable effort needed to refit them, even though they will only make temporary, insecure homes without most mod cons, is proof of the demand for housing. If the councils don’t want their buildings squatted, there is no need to trash them – a better option would be to put them into use.
Short life housing organisations are clamouring to borrow properties which may only be vacant for a year or two to house those who need it most. Westminster Housing Co-operative tried to negotiate the use of Tower Hamlets’ empty flats but were turned down. Perhaps using the flats for temporary accommodation would send the message that the redevelopment had been delayed once again, or put noses out of joint among those waiting on the housing list. Perhaps it was just too much hassle. So today flats continue to be wrecked on the inside, and continue to lie empty and year after year while locals struggle with inadequate or unaffordable accommodation.
Katharine Hibbert describes her experiences surviving for a year off food, clothes and accommodation that would otherwise go to waste in her book Free: Adventures on the Margins of a Wasteful Society (£7.79 from Amazon.co.uk)