George Clarke: ‘Britain needs a big, positive and radical reboot’

In a piece penned exclusively for our After The Virus series, architect and TV presenter George Clarke explains how housing must form the bedrock of how we build for a brighter future beyond Covid-19

I still don’t think I’ve got my head around the reality of what is happening across the globe right now. Even after weeks of lockdown it just didn’t seem real. Well, it didn’t seem real until my stepdad contracted Covid-19, that’s when the reality of it hit hard. Thankfully, he came through it and is recovering in hospital. Unfortunately, I know people who haven’t.

Obviously, the priority for everyone and every business at the moment is survival and none of us knows how we, as a global society, will change off the back of this, but change we must. Going back to ‘normal’ (whatever that is) shouldn’t be an option following an event that has brought the entire planet to its knees.

Let’s face it, we’ve had a terrible 13 years. The 2007/08 global financial crisis was the worst economic disaster since the stock market crash of 1929. We then had over 10 years of extreme government cuts and austerity, which battered public services, and if that wasn’t enough we then had the turbulence and unknown world of Brexit which, whatever your views, caused massive division and instability across the country. We now face a terrible global pandemic that we are going to have to somehow live with until a vaccine is available. That could take at least 18 months.

Of course, it is right to put people’s lives before the economy, but we must have some form of economy to pay for all the essential services we need, such as our amazing NHS, and to avoid a complete breakdown of society. We will eventually get through this, but at what cost? The government is pumping in many billions of pounds to prevent the country from total collapse, but this means there are going to be decades of pain for us all and further pain for those who were already struggling and vulnerable.

My biggest worry is that we will end up going backwards rather than forwards across the entire housing sector

I’m desperately worried about what effect all of this is having on housing and the home-building industry. I was worried about it before coronavirus, so imagine how bad things could get now. Everything is on hold. All of the critical issues around housing aren’t being talked about or dealt with because coronavirus is all-consuming. To give just one example, my council and social housing campaign that was launched last year, on the 100th anniversary of the Addison Act, has lost all momentum and everything we planned for 2020 has been pushed into next year. Really important climate change and zero-carbon events linked to building better and more sustainable homes to help save the planet and end fuel poverty for vulnerable households have been postponed. So, urgent and vitally important issues are being lost in the noise of the pandemic and are being delayed because of lockdown. Completely understandable under the circumstances, but it’s still an enormous problem for society.

But my biggest worry is that when we get this awful virus under control and we all return to our day-to-day lives that the economy will be in such a disastrous state, with the country burdened with so much debt, that we will end up going backwards rather than forwards across the entire housing sector. Will the state have the funds to build the truly affordable homes for rent the country desperately needs? Will the private householders push even harder to not build their affordable housing requirements? Will building standards and the overall quality of new homes being built drop even further in the rush to build faster and cheaper? And will the climate emergency measures that should be imposed by the government and adopted by the home building industry be delayed, or worse still, abandoned completely?

George Clarke

We cannot let this virus send us backwards. Against all odds, we need to be positive and push forwards. For me, if there is one positive thing that should come out of this horrendous pandemic and difficult lockdown it’s for our government, our businesses and corporations and for everyone in society to take the time to consider how we might live our lives differently in Britain to the benefit of EVERYONE in the country. Covid-19 is indiscriminate and in some ways, you could say it has levelled out society. It has shown that every single one of us is vulnerable because we have all been affected by this. But, unfortunately, some are more far more vulnerable than others. Shelter, for whom I’ve been an ambassador for many years, announced a couple of years ago that “one in three working families is only one pay cheque away from losing their home”. I dread to think how many more families will be added to the list of 350,000 people currently homeless in Britain because of the pandemic. So, Britain needs a big, positive and radical reboot.

DID YOU KNOW…

Last year, 27,000 people worldwide earned an income selling street papers, making a total of £23.4 million.

The day after the armistice of World War 1, when we defeated a very visible enemy, our Prime Minister Lloyd George promised homes for heroes when he said: “Habitations fit for the heroes who have won the war”. Now, 101 years later in this new battle against an indiscriminate, devastating and invisible enemy, we’ve realised that our heroes aren’t celebrities, footballers or racing car drivers; our real heroes are our healthcare workers, NHS staff, doctors, nurses, social care workers, firefighters, the military, cleaners, supermarket staff, teachers, van drivers, delivery men and women, train drivers, Tube drivers, bus drivers, rubbish collectors, factory workers making PPE equipment, our volunteers (this list could go on forever, I’m sure you’ll agree!) who are working tirelessly and often putting their own lives at risk to keep people alive and to keep essential services going. They are our heroes. I’ve heard some politicians recently calling these people “ordinary hardworking people”. They aren’t “ordinary”, they are “EXTRAORDINARY” people.

Without a safe, secure, stable, and truly affordable home, everything else in life is going to be a massive struggle

So, the best way we can all thank them is to give them safe, stable, secure, and genuinely affordable homes in amazing communities. Let’s make them green, sustainable, with low (even zero!) energy costs to end fuel poverty. Let’s build them to last using the best quality, ecological materials we can. Let’s stop buying low-quality building materials that have to be transported thousands of miles from far-flung places around the world and don’t stand the test of time when the homes are built. Instead, with government support, let’s reboot the entire British manufacturing industry to design and build our own building materials, products, and components that have a low carbon footprint. The very best architects should be pushed to design spaces in and around the homes that dramatically improve our quality of life, homes that make us happy, that improve our mental health and wellbeing. Homes that exist in harmony with Mother Nature and not fight against her. Homes that embrace the benefits of technology and reflect 21st-century ways of living where inevitably more of us are going to start working more from home, saving time and money on pointless travel. Exciting homes for enthusiastic and energetic young people of today who don’t want to be burdened their whole life with debt. And we should be creating wonderful ecological homes for the elderly, for people like the absolutely incredible 99-year-old Captain Tom Moore (who when I last checked had single-handedly raised a staggering £28m for the NHS!) who has given so much to Britain, yet asked for very little in return.

Without a safe, secure, stable, and truly affordable home, everything else in life is going to be a massive struggle. The government has to get this right first and end homelessness in Britain once and for all. It is time for the nation to create super-green homes for every single one of our superheroes; the extraordinary people of Britain who keep us safe and keep the country going.

Stay safe. And stay home…if you’re one of the lucky ones to have a stable roof over your head.

George Clarke presents The Restoration Man and George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces and is founder of housing charity MOBIE

This article is part of The Big Issue’s ongoing After The Virus series. To read more brilliant people plotting a path for Britain beyond the pandemic lockdown, head here.

The piece originally appeared in Big Issue #1407. Pick up your copy from The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store and Google Play, or susbcribe to the magazine in the app or at bigissue.com/subscribe.