Homeless spikes: a symptom of the housing crisis

Instead of whining about this petty measure against rough sleepers, we should be building more houses for all.

This week, news broke that developers and local authorities in London have been filling in doorways to residential developments with steel or concrete spikes to stop homeless people from bedding down for the night.

This deeply inhumane initiative is part of a process of ‘designing out’ social problems, like crime or rough sleeping, that local authorities have been pursuing since the 1990s. The Secured by Design strategy, developed for local authorities by urban design firm Conran and Partners, forms a big part of this effort. By arranging communities, buildings and public spaces in a certain way, the strategy aims to manage people’s perceptions of disorder and crime in a particular area. The idea behind it is that if you let things slip and allow windows to remain smashed or allow rough sleepers to move into an area, then people will begin to consider an area as derelict and petty criminality will rise. The Secured by Design strategy came from the ‘New Urbanist’ school of town planning, which argued you could ‘design out’ crime and disorder rather than resort to authoritarian or zero-tolerance measures.

The main problem with New Urbanism is that it focuses on making the most of urban housing developments rather than building new ones. The Urban Taskforce that advised on London’s housing-development projects in the late 1990s worked to concentrate more building in the city. Its mantra was to ‘build up, not out’, and refurbish older buildings in the city rather than building new greenfield developments in the suburbs. Instead of trying to anticipate the growing housing demand, local authorities restricted their ambitions to managing the existing stock. The ‘predict and provide’ model of development was thrown out in favour of a ‘small footprint’. At the city limits, ‘green belts’ were extended, limiting new development. This has led to a massive shortfall in house building, which led first to overcrowding and then to a sharp rise in the numbers of people sleeping rough.

When resources are in short supply, people tend to fight over them. Until now, that contest has been conducted through the use of purchasing power – those with the money bidding up the price of houses and pushing up rents to secure a dwindling resource. People with hundreds of thousands of pounds invested in their property are, of course, unhappy to be confronted with rough sleepers in their doorways and local parks. This makes them all too open to authoritarian solutions to the problem. But, like good liberals, they prefer the process of ‘designing out’ the problem than having policemen cracking heads.

The concrete and metal spikes that have been installed around businesses and residential developments are a grotesque symptom of the housing shortage. Of course, they should be removed – but even Boris Johnson knows that. We have to do more than just make the streets more comfortable for rough sleepers; we need to build the homes the capital and the country needs.

James Heartfield is author of Let’s Build! Why We Need Five Million New Homes in the Next 10 Years. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) He is also the author most recently of The European Union and the End of Politics, published by ZER0 Books. Visit his website here.

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