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In a one-bedroom rented flat in Manchester, two miles from where Theresa May addressed the faithful at the Tory party conference, a family are showing me their home.
The walls are dripping wet and the bathroom is blackened by mould.
Cockroaches crawl through the kitchen and silver slug trails criss-cross the damp carpet. Two beds are in the bedroom, one in the living room.
Sarah, a care worker, who is renting the flat in Moss Side for £475 a month, shows me a video she has taken of what happens at night.
“I live in a zoo,” she says, as mice captured on film emerge from under a bed and sofa.
The housing and homelessness crisis that has festered under the Tories is acute in Manchester.
Sarah is one of 30,000 people on the city’s waiting list for social housing, forced to endure slum-like conditions.
The problem is not just scarcity of social housing but also lack of regulation of private rentals and an all-out assault on the welfare safety net.
Among the homeless are those driven on to the street by the brutality of the benefits system.
As well as fighting welfare cuts, sanctions and the benefit cap, some postcodes are in the disaster zone of Universal Credit.
Mike O’Connor, 55, a former hospital security guard, tells us he cannot cope with the Jobcentre any more and is leaving a hostel to go back on the street.
He says: “I’ll push a bush open and put my bedding in there. I’ve slept in minus nine degrees before.”
Christopher Sullivan, 33, who shares a flat with his girlfriend, says he may “downsize” to a tent after his disability payments were stopped.
“My partner has been paying for everything, but you can’t do that for ever,” he explains.
In Manchester, former Communities Secretary Sajid Javid’s “housing revolution” turned out to involve “incentivising” private landlords to offer longer tenancies , with Mrs May promising to extend Help to Buy, a move charities say pushes up house prices.
The Tories are also intent on extending Right to Buy to housing association homes – further slashing social housing.
Consequences of the Tories’ policies, and cuts to council budgets that have laid waste local support, can be seen in every shop doorway.
“There were 12 deaths on the streets in Manchester last year,” says Suzanne Angle, 41, an ex-banker who founded Helping Manchester and Bury Homeless two years ago after the death of a man who slept under her office building.
We are in the city not for the Tory conference but following George Orwell’s footsteps on the anniversary of his book, The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937.
Orwell was fascinated by the lack of beggars in Manchester. Today, below the glittering shop fronts of Spinningfields and the shimmering Hilton, a visible homeless community is sheltering in shop doorways, parks and under flyovers, some in the grip of a new designer-drug epidemic.
The problem is so acute that the first act of Manchester mayor Andy Burnham after his election was to donate 15% of his £110,000 salary to a new homelessness fund. The Road to Wigan Pier turns out to be Burnham’s favourite book.
In November, Lucy Powell, the Manchester Central MP, directly linked austerity measures to the deaths of two homeless people in a fire at a derelict building in Chinatown.
When you walk through the smoke-dim slums of Manchester you think that nothing is needed except to tear down these abominations and build decent houses in their place. But the trouble is that in destroying the slum you destroy other things as well. Houses are desperately needed and are not being built fast enough; but insofar as rehousing is being done, it is being done – perhaps it is unavoidable – in a monstrously inhuman manner.
She says action is needed to shake up the private rented sector. “Modern-day slums are badly managed, unregulated private-rented housing,” Powell explains.
“We have good, yet insufficient, council homes but if we could regulate private-rented homes we could transform lives. Instead, we spend billions subsiding bad landlords through housing benefit.”
Sarah’s home would be familiar to Orwell – a slum with no heating, infestations, riddled with damp and desperately cramped.
Her nine-year-old daughter shares a tiny sleeping space with Mum and Dad. “Her teachers have started to notice problems,” Sarah says.
Britain’s council house revolution had already begun when Orwell came to Manchester. As well as staying in the “smoke-dim slums”, he stayed with the Meades, a trade union official and his wife, in Brynton Road on one of the new housing estates.
“Very decent houses with bathrooms and electric light,” he wrote in his diary. “Rent I suppose about 12 or 14 shillings.”
More than 80 years on, the front door is answered by an Asian woman. She laughs. “George Orwell stayed here? No, I’d no idea at all.”
Poppy Mued, 32, was born on the estate and had to fight for a council house – waiting six years crammed into her mum’s home with her husband and young children.
Poppy’s husband, Abdul, works long hours as a chef, like Sarah’s husband. They have three kids and are expecting their fourth.
“These are good houses,” Poppy says, showing us the kitchen where Orwell met the disapproval of “Mrs M” for offering to help with the washing up. “When Orwell came they must have seemed so modern.”
Poppy’s council house offers the same possibilities to her family it did for the Meades – the chance to build a secure life. Yet for millions in Britain like Sarah, a secure council tenancy is just a dream.
John Ryan, manager of Shelter Manchester, says: “Every day we see families dealing with the double blow of cuts to benefits plus private renting that costs the earth.
“The horrors we hear – from people forced to live in flats crawling with mice or water pouring out of the toilet waste pipe to those suffering fires from faulty wiring.”
Malcolm Metcalf, 70, a former probation officer, was proud to grow up on one of the area’s first council estates.
“I grew up in the 1950s,” he says. “When we got a flat in a high-rise block we thought it was paradise. Now we live in a culture of landlordism.”
Unlike Wigan, which has struggled with its connection to Orwell’s book, Manchester has been proud of its association with the author.
Walked to Macclesfield, 10 to 11 miles, then bus to Manchester. Went and collected letters, then to bank to cash cheque but found they were shut – they shut at 3pm here. Very awkward as I had only 3d in hand. Went to Youth Hostel headquarters and asked them to cash cheque but they refused, then to police station to ask them to introduce me to a solicitor who would cash a cheque, but they also refused. Frightfully cold. Streets encrusted with mounds of dreadful black stuff which was really snow frozen hard and blackened by smoke. Did not want to spend night in streets. Found my way to poor quarter (Chester Street), went to pawn-shop and tried to pawn raincoat but they said they did not take them any longer. Then it occurred to me my scarf was pawnable and they gave me 1/11d on it. Went to common lodging house, of which there were three close together in Chester Street.
With classic Manc swagger, the city even seems to have written its own vision of itself into the text.
In the shiny Urbis building you can find the quote: “Manchester, the guts and belly of the nation – Road to Wigan Pier.”
Words that never appear in the book, although they might have done. And when we see Poppy again, she has been reading Wigan Pier too.
“It’s interesting to see how a lot of things are the same,” she says. “People are still working hard just to survive.”
Eight decades after Orwell visited, it is a deep tragedy that the secure, decent housing on Brynton Road is still a kind of miracle.
For the Tory party to come to Manchester of all cities, with no vision or intention to fix the housing crisis, is nothing short of a burning injustice.
If you live in any of the places mentioned in the Wigan Pier Project and have a story to share, please get in touch.
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