How can children thrive when they are squeezed into cramped homes? | Barbara Ellen

Shipping containers meant as a quick fix for the housing crisis have become a trap

Personal space is a political issue. Analysing data from the English Housing Survey, supplemented by a Comres poll of families in overcrowded housing, the National Housing Federation (NHF) reports that 130,000 families are living in one-bedroom homes. An estimated 1.3 million children live in overcrowded homes, defined as children sleeping in the same room as two or more siblings, their parents or a teenager of the opposite sex.

Just 6,000 homes were built in 2018 for social rent, despite at least 145,000 being needed. Some children are sleeping three to a bed, with adults sleeping in kitchens, halls and bathrooms to free up space. There are 96,000 more children living like this than a decade ago. An estimated 92,000 children are thought to be sofa-surfing with their families and not even registering in the figures.

In some areas, emergency accommodation, made from shipping containers, has been erected in response to the housing crisis and homelessness. In my time, I’ve lived in everything from council housing to squats to a caravan in someone’s front garden, but there’s something disturbing about these converted containers. They actually look quite groovy – you can see why they’d be considered a step up from squalid bed and breakfasts – but my first thought was that they must overheat in the summer.

It seems they do: tenants say they’re unable to breathe during heatwaves and some resort to sleeping on the walkways with their children. There’s no wifi for job hunting or benefit claims. And although they’re classed as emergency accommodation, people end up feeling “dumped” there. It goes without saying that they’re tiny and cramped, with barely any room for belongings. As with all overcrowding scenarios, size is everything.

Labour’s shadow housing secretary, John Healey, made the point that the country is building 30,000 fewer social rented homes a year than in 2010, with more than a million households on waiting lists. The NHF’s chief executive, Kate Henderson, says that the only solution is a radical public spending programme (£12.8bn) to build more social housing.

Clearly, something must be done to rectify a situation that has gone from unacceptable to dehumanising. Families are jammed in like sardines, having to work out how and where to sleep, with stress and mental health issues for adults and children. It would be interesting to know what proportion of the children celebrating great GCSE results last week had their own bedrooms, or a quiet, private space to do homework and revise, and how many lived in one-bedroom flats, bed and breakfasts, shipping containers or converted office blocks.

Under such conditions, it’s not even a debate about how families are living – they are merely existing. Maybe that’s what’s so disturbing about measures such as the converted shipping containers. They may work as an emergency fix, but not if people get stuck there. Then they become exposed for what they are – nothing short of British shanty towns, with whole families crammed into tin boxes.

For Jade Goody, reality TV was her best escape route

Jade Goody
Jade Goody: prepared to live her life on camera. Photograph: Lynn Hilton/REX/Shutterstock

Speaking to an audience of programme-makers at the Edinburgh TV festival, the presenter Jeff Brazier wondered if the new duty of care regulations for reality TV meant that someone such as Jade Goody, his former partner and mother of his children, would now make it on to the shows.

The three-part Channel 4 documentary Jade: The Reality Star Who Changed Britain has been harrowing viewing. While Goody was prepared to live on camera, she couldn’t have envisaged practically dying on it too, though in her defence, she was trying to raise money for her children to the end.

As for the idea of vulnerable characters such as Goody not making it through the audition process, I’m not so sure. She was bubbly and outgoing, rather than introverted and nervous. Her troubled family background was probably not that different from many young viewers, meaning she’d still be highly “relatable”. Nor did Goody fracture under the pressure of “normal” fame – the Celebrity Big Brother race row and her terminal cancer were exceptional circumstances.

It’s time that reality TV put its house in order – the people they feature deserve more than to be treated like televisual cannon fodder. However, Goody didn’t slip through the net – she jumped into the net, seeing it as the best chance she’d ever get. Despite how it all ended, she was right.

Rod Stewart wears it well with extended ex-wives club

Rod Stewart and Penny Lancaster
Rod with the present Mrs Stewart, Penny Lancaster. Photograph: Broadimage/REX/Shutterstock

There’s a rather charming photograph of Rod Stewart at his daughter Kimberly’s birthday party, hanging out with four of the five mothers of his children – Alana Stewart, Rachel Hunter, Kelly Emberg and his wife, Penny Lancaster.

Stewart is plonked in the middle, wearing a gold-embossed waistcoat and leopardskin shoes, for all his millions, resembling a bingo caller on a budget ferry. To his credit, he isn’t looking even slightly terrified that the women are about to go off in a huddle to “compare and contrast”. He says he’s proud to be on friendly terms with them and so he should be, considering the black holes many former couples fall down after a split, even when children are involved.

Four out of five amicable serious exes is impressive (though the fifth, who had to give up the baby for adoption, remains estranged). Could he have beaten Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow to be the greatest of all “conscious-uncouplers” – or was he just before his time?

Time was, splitting (without kids) was simple. You had an unseemly row, momentarily forgetting to be your best selves, stuck pins in voodoo effigies for a bit, then forgot about them. Forever! It was ugly, it verged on Sicilian (“You’re dead to me!”) but at least it was simple. Modern couples are supposed to be hyper-mindful of complex post-couple consequences, not least the impact a bitter split could have on their increasingly vital social circles. Thus, the post-relationship friendship has become a “thing”.

In Stewart’s case, there’s the more obvious glue of children. He’s also rich, so the financial pressure is off, though Rod, bless him, is reputed to be tighter than a sealed pistachio. Still, it’s an achievement for all concerned that they’ve remained on good terms – and for him to have the sense to be proud of that.

• Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist


Barbara Ellen

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