Housing

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In their rented flat in London, Rebecca Biscuit and Louise Mothersole couldn't help but notice the stacks of lost mail addressed to previous occupants, painting portraits of the "ghost" victims of the housing crisis

They say a man’s home is his castle, but in some cases there are profound differences. Windsor House in North London is not to be confused with the Queen’s cosy home. While while the Castle is the largest occupied palace in the world (with around 1000 rooms), Windsor House is part of a rundown post-war council estate so gloomy that it was chosen to double for the Kraków Ghetto in Schindler’s List. Yet it encapsulates the utter ludicrousness of the housing crisis and says more about the current state of the nation than any royal residence could.

Rebecca Biscuit and Louise Mothersole have lived in “an absolute death trap” of a flat in Windsor House for a couple of years. The two are among tens of thousands desperately trying to cling onto affordable accommodation in the capital.

“We’re surrounded by three other blocks of council houses and all four of them are named unironically after royal palaces,” says Biscuit. “There’s a Buckingham, a Balmoral, a Holyrood and Windsor House – pretty grim council estate blocks in which we live. But our rent is relatively cheap.”

“It’s still four times the amount someone I know in Leeds is paying for a much nicer place,” Mothersole adds.

After the pair moved in, they noticed they were receiving an abnormally high volume of letters addressed to former residents who had never bothered to redirect their mail and they began to be curious about the people who had previously lived in the flat.

The one thing they all had in common was debt

“We got piles of mail for the ghosts of tenants,” Biscuit says. “Then we found a loophole in the Postal Services Act of 2000 that says that you can, well, it doesn’t say you can open mail but the wording is very subjective…”

“So we decided that meant, yes we can open the mail!” Mothersole finishes.

While there was a lot of junk, the pair discovered that the lost letters painted portraits of people struggling to survive in the city. There was a Vietnam veteran, quite a well-known actor, several Irish people who had returned home and another who had signed up to exclusive country clothing catalogues, perhaps dreaming of a lifestyle far removed from their inner city reality.

“The one thing they all had in common was debt,” Mothersole explains, “Whether it was a couple of hundred pounds on a phone bill or thousands of pounds. There was one guy who literally only owned £10 tax to HMRC but he wasn’t living here so he wasn’t responding to mail and they kept fining him. It was passed on to a debt collection agency and in a couple of years he now owes £2936.36”

Meanwhile, Biscuit and Mothersole started to notice a growing encampment of people sleeping rough near Manor House Station near the flat, while directly opposite brand new luxury high-rise flats were being built.

“One of the largest post-WW2 council estates in London was called Woodberry Down and it was built literally opposite our flat,” Biscuit says. “It was completely bulldozed, renamed Woodberry Park and has gone up as another plastic London skyscraper. A one bedroom flat costs £465,000 and 55 per cent have been sold off to investors in Singapore. It’s the horrible contrast in this microcosm of modern times.”

In 1980 when the Right to Buy scheme was introduced, 42 per cent of the population lived in council housing. By 1996, 30 per cent of tenants had bought their homes, transferring 2.2 million homes into private ownership. In 2016, 40 per cent of ex-council houses were being rented by private landlords. Less than eight per cent of the population now live in social housing while over one million people are on council waiting lists.

Through opening the mail, it became clear that Biscuit and Mothersole’s landlord was not who he said he was and they were staying in an illegally sublet council flat. They were left with the serious quandary – do they say something and lose their home or keep quiet to prevent becoming homeless themselves?

They did the only thing they could do… They decided to stage a show of their story. Becca and Louise, otherwise known as ‘Sh!t Theatre’, decided that their situation was so ridiculous it could only make you laugh or cry, so they might as well have a laugh. Letters to Windsor House mixes song, dance and serious investigative journalism. After an acclaimed run at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe and a sell out run at the Soho Theatre in February, they are now running across the country on tour.

“It’s sort of a stalker comedy,” Biscuit says. “Against the uplifting context of the housing crisis,” Mothersole concludes.

Letters to Windsor House will play at the Soho Theatre 11-13 May

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