Cambridge: Housing is a basic need, whatever our nationality

The National Conversation made its second visit to Cambridgeshire last week. Last February, we visited the Fens, and held a stakeholder meeting and citizens’ panel in the town of March, which has seen rapid migration from the EU. Our second visit was to Cambridge, an ancient seat of European learning. With 72% of voters in Fenland District (which includes March) opting for a Leave vote in last year’s referendum and Cambridge voting 75% Remain, we expected attitudes to be very different between these two towns. Instead, we found common concerns about housing pressures and a consensus that dealing with this issue must be part of any integration strategy.

In Cambridge our stakeholders’ and citizens’ panels both said that landlords had bought up houses to rent out. This had pushed up prices for young families who wanted to get on the property ladder and some people felt there should be more control over landlords:

“If you control how many houses somebody can own and rent, it means there would be more houses on the market and [the price of] houses wouldn’t be increasing as dramatically as they are at the moment. Because you have 100 houses and a guy buys 50, as happened in a village when I went to buy a house – the whole row of 2 beds had been bought by a lady who was going to rent them out. The whole road now belongs to her. Why did they do it? Why didn’t they sell it to a first time buyer?”

In a city where house prices are on par with the most expensive parts of London, social housing is the only option for some families with young children. But this is in extremely short supply, a situation that causes stress and resentment of those who do manage to secure it. Often this resentment lands on migrants or students who are most likely to live in private rental accommodation.

As in other parts of the UK where there are severe housing shortages, some panellists felt that migrants were given preferential access to housing.  One panellist described:

“It seems you can go down the road and see seven empty houses and you’re on the waiting list for years and years and years, and suddenly there’s a family in there and they have come from abroad and you think ‘how did that happen?’”

March is 35 miles up the road from Cambridge. It is in the Fens, Britain’s agricultural heartland. The towns in this area – Boston, Spalding, Thetford, March and Wisbech– have seen very rapid migration from the EU, with workers who come to work on farms and in food processing.  Overall, about 12% of the population of Fenland district have been born in EU countries and in Wisbech this figure is higher.  Migrant workers in the area tend to live in private rental accommodation, but much of this is of poor quality and overcrowded. We were told:

“You’ve got one house or a flat, but with ten times the rubbish outside and six times the number of cars.”

When we visited March, we were given accounts of bad landlords who did not maintain their properties or treated tenants badly. But with many migrants wanting to save money, and much work poorly paid, supply of affordable decent housing has not met demand and rogue landlords have been able to take advantage of this. Whole streets had started to look run down and neighbourhood decline was a major concerns of most panel members.

Secure and decent housing is a basic need – whatever our nationality. We also want to live in well-maintained home and in streets that feel safe and attractive. When we are denied this, it is easy to feel angry and resentful of those we think have contributed our situation. While most of our citizens’ panels in Cambridge and before that in March saw the benefits of immigration, they were also concerned about housing pressures and neighbourhood decline. If we want good community relations and a confident inclusive society, we need to fix these housing problems. Cambridgeshire and Peterborough have just elected a new regional mayor, who has been given planning powers and extra funding for affordable housing. Making sure that buyers and renters have access to decent and affordable housing must be a priority.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *