Waters of Wales – WoW is campaigning, along with Welsh Fell Runners Association – WFRA and other outdoor enthusiasts, for Welsh Government to “Establish Statutory Public Rights of Access to Land and Water for Recreational and Other Purposes”, by passing legislation similar to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003.
We have a petition gathering signatures on the Welsh Assembly site, which will be submitted to the new Welsh Government shortly after the election.
Its official name was Navigation Street, and a glance at a 19th century map suggests its origin: an isolated row of terraced houses leading down to the canal that runs through the middle of my hometown.
Canals were originally called “navigations” and the people who dug them “navvies”. This term – still in use in the 1960s – was code for poor, itinerant, Irish manual workers. So we called it “Navvy Street”: it was where the poorest people in the town lived and probably served that function from when it was built to when it was knocked down and turned into a “close”.
Navigation Street was the place I thought of when the housing charity Shelterreissued documentary photographs from the 1960s to mark its 50th anniversary. If you flick through Nick Hedges’ photos now, you could be forgiven for thinking they depict some kind of uniform, northern industrial bleakness at of the time. But you’d be wrong.
Shelter was born because people realised dwindling number of classic slum streets were not the only problem: there was widespread hidden homelessness expressed through overcrowding. The private rented sector was utterly insecure and housing costs were devouring the incomes of the poor.
Skip forward 50 years and we too have rising homelessness – 54,000 families in England last year, up 36% since the financial crisis began. Housing charities record rising overcrowding, precarious tenancies, predatory landlords and unaffordable rents. The difference is it’s not only the poor who suffer.
The shared student house has been reincarnated as the shared young professional’s house, with some even forced to share rooms. According to Crisis, there are 3.5m households containing a “concealed” adult or couple in England.
If you wanted to photograph the modern housing problem you’d go to the coffee shops where young people perch over laptops, late into the night, rather than endure their overcrowded flat. You would photograph the sofa-surfers; the migrants forced to live in converted garages; the families packing their bags as rent hikes and benefit cuts in the private rented sector force them to move to the periphery of towns and cities, or throw themselves at the local council for help.
The root of this problem is not one of policy – though the row over social housing and housing supply will probably shape this parliament – the deeper problem is the financialisation of home ownership.
At one point, rising home ownership solved many of the problems identified the 1960s. The predictably steady rise in house prices over time, like predictable inflation, created an escalator for the working class. If you combined that with vigorous social housebuilding, as practised by both Labour and Conservative councils in the 1970s, you created affordability at both ends of the scale.
To economists who study financial frenzy, the British housing market has followed the classic curve: the certainty of rising prices and short supply draws more and more people into the market, knowing a crash cannot wipe them out – because when confronted with falling house prices, governments have used taxpayers’ money and micromanagement of the banks to halt a spiral of repossessions and falling prices.
We don’t know what Britain would look like if the same levels of explicit subsidy and implicit preference had been pumped into the social rented sector. All we know is that the current situation is not tenable.
But we can ask ourselves the following questions:
First: how much space are people entitled to live in? The market sets no limits; even such formal rules as they still exist (they are being weakened) are flouted by the young salariat.
Second: what is the optimal balance between the private, social and state-owned rented housing and the owner-occupied sector? This cannot be hard to fathom since many cities in the 1980s and early 1990s achieved housing markets that “cleared” in economic terms: in Leicester in the 1980s I had no problem finding a secure private tenancy; no problem getting the council to hound my landlord to maintain it properly; very little problem moving from there to a housing association flat; very little problem transferring, as a key worker, from there to a council flat in London. Yes, London.
Third: what do we mean by “affordable”– when it comes to either rents or prices on state-specified newbuild homes? Under both Labour, Coalition and the Conservatives the concept of affordability has become delinked from incomes and attached to a percentage of the market rate. The same state that decided nobody should be repossessed during the 2008-11 housing slump could decide that nobody has to pay more than a fixed percentage of their incomes on housing costs.
Maybe we need to start with principles: that everyone has a right to a home; that every person has a right to a minimum amount of space in that home; and that those who claim the right to own houses nobody lives in should pay a hefty, disincentivising penalty.
Yes, that’s an infringement of the market – but housing in Britain has never been a free market: it is being created and re-created through regulation and deregulation – on benefits, on affordability, on building standards, on right to buy. The point is to shape the market towards smart outcomes.
Thousands of footpaths, alleys and bridleways across the UK face being lost forever within a decade under a clause in right-to-roam legislation, campaigners have warned.
From 1 January, walkers, horseriders – and even those taking regular shortcuts to the shops in towns – will have 10 years to apply to save any rights of way that existed before 1949 but do not appear on official maps.
Experts on land access rights say the clock is ticking to save routes that many people take for granted as public highways but that do not appear on official records.
The consequences of failing to act could be far-reaching, said Dr Phil Wadey, a space satellite scientist and vice-chair of the conservation body Open Spaces Society. Gathering the evidence and applying for paths to be recorded was “a painstaking and lengthy” business, warned Wadey, who raised the prospect of farmers taking down stiles and putting up fences, and field gates being locked.
He said urban alleyways were of greatest concern, with shortcuts behind houses under threat from homeowners extending their gardens, or fencing off paths that have existed for decades.
A clause in right-to-roam legislation introduced by the Labour government in 2000 stated that any pre-1949 paths must be recorded by 2026 to continue to carry public rights. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act contained a provision that will extinguish those rights if the paths have not been properly recorded.
This could affect popular shortcuts on many housing developments; even if the homes were built after 1949, the path around which they were constructed could have existed for longer and so be at risk. The same applies to “desire lines”, or well-worn informal direct routes.
Given these are unrecorded paths, numbers are unknown, but campaigners believe potentially thousands are at risk. Wadey has made some 400 applications, called definitive map modification orders, or DMMOs, in Hertfordshire alone, including 30 for unrecorded urban alleyways in one district of Bushey.
Time was of the essence, he said, as cash-strapped local authorities faced huge backlogs in processing applications. “We have a rights of way network which is really historic and has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years,” he said. “We do take an awful lot for granted.”
Ferwins said it was essential to legally protect that network of routes to preserve “history, culture, heritage, convenience, and a way of making your life happier and healthier”.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs confirmed it was working on secondary legislation and guidance to ensure applications for routes would still be considered if an application were pending after the 2026 cut-off.
Wadey said: “The real worry is [about] rights of way that people are using every day – suddenly they will stop having that right, which means the landowner could close it at any instant. Some old roads, typically unmetalled green lanes, might disappear, as well as your urban alleyways.”
There were lots of instances where the basic route was recorded, but because of changes or inconsistent records, there might be a 20ft gap where a footpath should join a road, Wadey said. “And if you lose that gap, somebody can put a fence across it, quite lawfully.”