I once interviewed the formidable and humane and amazing (but now sadly departed) Sheila McCechnie of Shelter. We were discussing one of the many instances that Tories had suggested relocating homeless people from the South of England, perhaps forcibly, to the North.
She worried about the effects of this, as do we all, where jobs and opportunities are found in the South, whereas the North has space and housing (a vast over-simplification of course). The situation was not as harsh then as it is now, and Sheila came up with a stark phrase to describe the possible consequences.
The South will become a concrete hell, I said, with people crammed into increasingly small homes. And the North? ‘Vast Bantustans of poverty,’ Sheila suggested, whip-smart and accurate.
You might not know what a Bantustan is. In apartheid South Africa, semi-independent states were formed, where people were kept deliberately poor and powerless, but lived under the lie that they were empowered by being dislocated from the state. Most foreign governments saw through the lie, and did not recognise these Bantustans as sovereign states.
Back in the present day, Housing Benefit changes are making life impossible for impoverished and jobless occupants of Southland. Unemployment is disproportionately high in Northland. Buy-to-let chancers even invested in The North, buying three flats in Rochdale, rather than stumping up for much needed homes in London, because investing in London and surrounding satellites was too dear, for all the good it did them when they went bankrupt.
An impossible situation is emerging. Are you vulnerable, and employed but still effectively homeless, due to precarious housing either through overcrowding or expense? Well, meet jobless but housed. Shake hands and say hello, as you might be compelled to swap places any day soon. It’s ridiculous. Where, if you are poor, are you supposed to live? What are you supposed to do?
Perhaps employers will start providing homes, or deposits. Maybe people will again live on site, like they used in Victorian times, with apprentices permitted a futon in the larder. Maybe homes in the North will come with jobs attached. Then we get to the state of tied housing as suffered by agricultural workers, where dismissal and redundancy means the loss of your roof as well as an income: back you go up North young fellow-me-lad. Another can of worms, and another battle fought and won heroically in the olden days, soon to be fought again and lost.
And what about family and neighbourhood ties, or the Condems and their beloved BS (big society)? How will a stable community run libraries and youth centres competently and for nothing, or summon sufficient spare concern to care for incomers, or organise their neighbours, when every so often everybody ups and moves in either direction?
Did you know the North of Britain, especially Scotland is, geologically speaking, rising up, while the South is sinking. Facile and flat-earthy to suggest it’s all those extra people moving in or vacating, but a tempting parallel to draw nonetheless.