A growing number are being priced out of private renting, with some living as van dwellers in converted vehicles
Beccy, a 36 year-old from Bristol, works part time as a sustainable travel officer. She is really passionate about her work but chooses not to do it full-time so she can also dedicate time to climate crisis action group Extinction Rebellion.
All of this, she says, is possible because for the last three years she has reduced her cost of living. Previously a private renter paying £580 a month, she now lives in a converted 1990 horsebox lorry. She paid £2,500 for it and estimates spending a total of £7,000 converting it.
She says it costs her £255 a month to run including rent for her park-up, water, insurance, gas, vehicle tax, wifi, fuel and trips to the laundrette as she doesn’t have a washing machine on board. “In terms of what I’m saving on rent, it pays for itself,” she tells i.
These monthly savings enable Beccy to do more of what she loves, which also includes volunteering with the Land Justice Network – a campaign group that argues for fairer distribution of land in Britain.
What’s more, it feels like home. “My ex-boyfriend and I spent about six months converting the lorry. It’s like a log cabin now, we used lots of reclaimed wood. It feels very homely. We were keen to avoid the plastic fantastic feeling of so many motorhomes.”
The catalyst for Beccy’s lifestyle change was the constant, claustrophobic awareness of rising house prices in Bristol.
“Back in 2014, my ex-boyfriend and I started talking about other ways to live,” she explains. “We wanted to escape the rental/mortgage trap but still have our own home. We would really have struggled to buy a house in the UK and didn’t want to sign up to 30 or 40 years of financial pressure to pay it off regardless. For our generation and younger generations a mortgage is either inaccessible or incarcerating. As people who value our freedom and a good work-life balance, we needed to find a more affordable way to have our own home.”
The housing situation is, at Bristol City Council’s own admission, particularly bad in this part of the south west. As they noted in a report last year: “The average house price in Bristol was £282,624, some 21.4 per cent higher than the UK average.” The latest figures forecast house and rental prices will continue to increase here.
With younger generations today buying homes later than their parents and grandparents did and often at a higher price in relation to their wages, Beccy’s concerns are very real.
“We have a culture in the UK where you aspire to buy your own home whatever the cost,” she adds, “but many people can’t get past paying their rent every month to save up for a house. It just seems like a complete waste of money to handover so much of your earnings to pay for someone else’s house.”
Living in a van wasn’t necessarily her first choice, though. She also looked at shipping containers but ruled that option out “due to the issue of obtaining planning permission and the cost of land”. She couldn’t afford to buy a boat, another obvious alternative, and so she settled on converting a lorry.
Of course, for some communities, a nomadic life on the road is nothing new. The UK’s Gypsy and Traveller communities have a long heritage and according to the latest Government data, they make up 22,662 caravans in England alone.
Beccy and others like her who have looked to van dwelling more recently in search of a more affordable way of life are part of what is sometimes referred to as the “new traveller” movement by sociologists like Rhiannon Craft at Cardiff University.
Beccy says she has everything she needs, down to a compost toilet and “a small shower which also doubles up as coat storage when its not in use”. The only snag is that every night, she must think about where to park her home.
“I have a semi permanent park-up which is quite public but on private land. I have been really lucky to find it as it’s incredibly hard to find places to park off the street,” she explains. She is very careful not to reveal the exact location because Bristol’s van dwellers are currently at loggerheads with Bristol City Council. Earlier this month, the council announced a new policy for moving on what they call these “encampments”.
Over the last year, according to a council report, it has moved what it calls “encampments” of 200 converted vans on from more than 12 locations on residential streets around the city because of concerns they were having “a significant impact on public health and safety”. As such, the council now has a policy in partnership with Avon and Somerset Police of intervening when they believe an encampment is “unauthorised”, a danger to health and safety or causing problems for the local community.
“The City has experienced a relatively high level of encampments including those of vehicle dwellers and gypsies and travellers – some of these have caused considerable social tensions and environmental impact which needs effective management,” the report reads. “Between January 2016 and November 2017 Bristol City Council had approximately 100 vehicle dwellers living on the highway at any one time. There were also 21 Gypsy, Roma and Traveller encampments across the City. The number of occupied vehicles on the highway is currently estimated to be 200.”
In response, to this Craft has put together a petition with more than 1,000 signatures arguing that the council’s policies were “discriminatory”. She thinks van dwellers need permanent sites.
“The public has been quite divided on the issue,” she tells i. “Many wanted to see better accommodation of van dwellers via site provision, which echoes calls what people have been saying for decades since that was repealed under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (CJPOA). However, others wanted authorities to get tougher.”
Craft says the housing crisis in Bristol is “unusually pronounced” and as a result, “many people have been providing for themselves via van dwelling in the absence of adequate state intervention.”
“If we actually consider van dwelling a kind of housing – which it is and has been for many communities for a long time – we can see that this is a housing crisis in itself. There is a real shortage of sites and authorised stopping places, and many travellers have been forced into bricks and mortar against their will,” she adds.
Mark* is a 37-year-old truck driver from Bristol. He has also been living in a converted lorry with his wife for three years. He tells i that it was poor standards in the private rented sector that pushed them to make the move.
“The biggest reason was that our rented flat, which we had lived in for about five years, was in really bad condition. There was a huge mould problem. There was black mould everywhere and the landlord didn’t do anything to sort it out – he didn’t want to spend the money to sort it out. There was also rising damp.”
The final straw came, Mark says, when their landlord said he was going to put the rent up. “We just thought, why are we being asked to pay more money for a flat which isn’t up to being lived in? We started looking at other flats in the area but in the five year period that we had been renting our flat, prices had skyrocketed. We were paying about £550 a month and prices had almost doubled. We were looking at £900 a month for a one bedroom flat which we couldn’t afford at all.”
Mark had some money saved and he and his wife calculated that it would be cheaper over the long term to buy a lorry and convert it than to continue private renting. He says their physical and mental health has now improved, and he questions the council’s argument that van dwelling that van dwelling is not a safe, long term option.
“I’ve never been healthier in my life,” Mark adds, “I’m not working 50 or 60 hours a week to pay for a rented flat. I’ve actually even joined the gym since I stopped renting because I’ve got the money to do it. Living in a mouldy flat is not healthy.”
Beccy agrees. “The housing market has changed,” she concludes. “We need new innovative solutions which allow people to choose alternative lifestyles and are affordable.” She thinks those who choose to live in vans in Bristol should have the right to permanent or semi-permanent places to park them.
“The best thing about living in a vehicle is having a cosy little home that is my own,” she says. “People often think it would be the freedom to move around but for me, the freedom comes not with the ability to move my home but to limit the financial pressures and have more time to volunteer and pursue other things.”
A Bristol City Council spokesperson told i: “Earlier this month, we adopted a new policy for dealing with different types of encampments, which takes into account the fact that rough sleeping and living in a vehicle can be very different circumstances, and for some people, vehicle dwelling is a lifestyle choice.”
“We have considered providing a permanent site for vehicle dwellers; however, we have a duty of care to everyone in the city and don’t believe that sleeping in a vehicle is necessarily a safe, long term option. However, where vehicle dwellers are not causing problems for their neighbours, then we will respect their choices and allow them to stay where they are in the short term. Ultimately, we are committed to helping people find more sustainable housing options and where people are living in vehicles due to the housing crisis we will ensure that they are aware of their rights to apply for housing.”