21st Century Squatting

I live in a reasonably affluent area in a reasonably deprived county in a provincial bit of a reasonably wealthy country. That is, Whitley Bay, in North Tyneside, in the North-East of England, which itself is in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. You may have heard of at least part of that series of places. It’s the mixture of affluent, deprived and provincial which matters most here.

Most of my neighbourhood is residential, but flowing through the streets of houses like an artery is a long street of shops. A lot of shops in this street are closing; it is leaving a trail of empty buildings.

It’s the bigger ones, mostly, which are shutting their doors; the smaller ones are full of independent businesses, and tiny pubs. This is the affluence at play: we can sustain myriad little cafes or artisanal bakeries, but no large shops requiring huge footfall; we’d rather do the bulk of our shopping online, and then only pop out “for a few bits” or for a glass of wine and a perfectly wrought cupcake.

Tesco, Poundstretchers, a shop which has been empty so long I can’t remember what it used to be. I’m sure at one point it was a public art space. Several hundreds of metres of whitewashed windows.

There are other parts of the borough where this is not a problem: if a shop is vacant for more than three and a half minutes it becomes occupied by either a pound shop, a vape shop or a takeaway food establishment. This is deprivation at play: shops which can thrive in low income communities.

We have plenty of people, especially in these communities, who need homes, but cannot afford to get on the property ladder. Rents are expensive; mortgage deposits are extortionate; the bank of mum and dad is being squeezed again and again: hard working people desperately need homes.

It’s not homeless people I’m talking about here; current social housing stocks are being used up on people who rightfully should be able to afford housing, not those in dire need. While real wages are being squeezed, we are locking many hard working families out of the housing market altogether.

If there was a solution for communities of hard working people to gain residential independence, and work hard in doing so, then the resources we spend on housing them socially could be better used housing the truly desperate. That is my thesis, and that is our starting point for this here blog.

This is the section of the blog which I reserve for the concept of “Crisis” – the juncture at which the worst is happening and, after which, things can only get better. And to me that means giving in.

It is my view that we need to let empty shops be used as homes for those who need them: any kind of use is better than perpetual decay. If they can maintain them, they can live in them. That is all.

Giving in to the exodus away from the high street and on to the smartphone is, by some, seen as the absolute worst thing which could happen. My contention is that we are already there, and it is done.

Being custodians of otherwise empty properties, and barriers against a decline in their value should incur rent subsidy. They should not be exempt from council tax, just from life-crushingly huge rents.

I’d rather see a street full of families growing up than empty shops with white-washed windows. I understand that this is perhaps an idealised solution, but it is better than reversing our own history.

What of the owners? I’m not suggesting that the owners of land should have their property co-opted away from them. The economic conditions are not currently in their favour when it comes to finding new tenants. The owners of the buildings should receive large tax breaks for allowing people in.

Based on what I have witnessed, it is reasonably likely that some vacant properties remain empty in the long term: they do not accrue any rents, only increasing costs: this costs businesses a great deal of money. It is better to save money in taxes than it is to lose money on long term vacant shops.

Properties being maintained – their utilities being paid for by the occupants – means that they are less prone to the decay which befalls unoccupied buildings; which costs their owners a great deal of money to remedy. This cost is a barrier to getting properties out of dereliction in the first instance.

Many of these vacant properties, especially the largest ones, are owned by large businesses or by funds: they could roll the tax breaks from all of these empty properties in to a larger saving across the wider business, giving them the space to operate more freely. It’s not perfect, but it is workable.

But where does an idea like this get started? It’s great that a middle-class man in possession of a decent job and a suitably middle-class hobby should opine about ‘something needing to be done’, but how does it get going? It’s not a legislative priority. Businesses aren’t about to do it themselves.

Should it be housing associations? I think – in all honesty – that they are doing quite enough, and that they have a lot on their collective plates to deal with today. But I do think that they would be great in terms of providing the required advice to people wishing to get this particular ball rolling.

I’d offer my own services, but I’m as much use as any other writer, in that I am absolutely no use to anyone at all. I could write you a survey, or a play; I could whip you up a mean lasagne. Plus, I need to make a living somehow, and I don’t see the potential for earnings in this project; even idealised.

It needs to be the people themselves: people with the will to work hard to convert a space nobody else wants, in to a home for their families. They need to ask the landowners, and they need to show that the properties would be more profitable with them acting as custodians. It’s a start, I suppose.