Southwark Sleeper: A New Housing Initiative for London’s Homeless (Or Not)

In exciting news for developers, Sadiq Khan has announced a new package of funding under his Homes for Londoners programme. In collaboration with Southwark council, ‘Southwark Sleeper’ will be test-piloted this winter as a solution to the growing army of London’s homeless. Peter John OBE, Leader of Southwark council and newly-elected Chair of London Councils, told reporters: ‘I’m very excited about this new initiative, which demonstrates once again that Labour is the party of practical solutions. Every homeless family will be offered their very own container, the construction of which by Sheffield-based My Container Ltd will be subsidised by London’s Labour Mayor to the sum of £50,000 per container. All the lucky recipient has to do is clean up the contaminated land on which it will be located.’ When asked whether constituents refusing to be housed in the containers will be classified as ‘intentionally homeless’, Councillor John said he had an urgent business lunch with property developers Lendlease at the London Stadium and ‘couldn’t take anymore questions’.

In a press release from the Cabinet Office the Housing Minister, Kit Malthouse, said: ‘Allied to the government’s Help to Contain scheme, available to families that have been homeless for over 5 years, we believe this Conservative initiative offers a strong and stable response to the housing crisis market.’ Martin Mcgrail, the director of My Container Ltd, Brass Monkey Brewery Ltd, UK Land & Assets Ltd and Gorilla Holdings Ltd, is holding a competition to identify suitable brownfield land on the M25 ring road for cleaning up. Will Hurst, editor of the Architects’ Journal, said he will shortly be announcing the winner of the AJContainer Prize for the best curation of the containers, with Karakusevic Carson the bookies’ current favourite for the ground-breaking suggestion that ‘environmentally-friendly’ green roofs be applied to the ‘brutalist’ metal boxes. Ben Derbyshire, President of the RIBA, called this ‘a great example of the kind of blue-sky thinking we need to see if architecture is to maintain its standing in the 21st Century.’

John Healey, Labour’s Shadow Housing Minister, told Parliament last week: ‘As long as any traces of the refugees who died in there thanks to Tory immigration policy have been cleaned up, this is a good demonstration of how a Labour government will build homes for the many, not the few.’ When questioned about infrastructure for what Lord Adonis has dubbed ‘container villages’, the shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell replied: ‘Unfortunately, due to Conservative government cuts, we will be subcontracting out the maintenance of the containers to Rydon, and the containers themselves will be managed by Southwark Sleeper Ltd. But it’s important to remember,’ he added, ‘that SS Ltd will be a wholly owned company, so this in no way represents a backdoor to privatisation.’

However, documents leaked last week by the Daily Mail reveal that containers stacked on the third storey and above of the village will incur an additional charge reflecting the better views over the surrounding rubbish tip, and have options for Ikea-manufactured attachable balconies, and that ‘affordable containers’ facing directly onto the rubbish tip will have separate entrances to keep the service charges down to a minimum. David Lammy, the outspoken Labour MP for Tottenham, said this better reflected the ‘growing flexibility in the homeless market’, and argued that to say otherwise merely reflected the prejudices of white middle-class professionals who hadn’t grown up near a council estate like he did. ‘People of colour who, because of cuts by this Conservative government, find themselves on the streets, have a right to choose the container that best reflects their cultural and racial identities’.

Miss Eileen Short of the Radical Housing Network said that until they held a democratic vote on who their spokesperson on this issue would be they couldn’t comment, but the important thing was to vote Labour. Southwark Defend Council Housing said they were in talks with Southwark Council Leader Peter John, and unfurled a banner demanding: ‘Social containing, not social cleansing!’ Prince(ss) Huperchild of the Multiverse, Labour’s Spokesthem for Equaliti(es), said the important thing was that the containers aren’t used to (re)entrench normative Eurocentric constructions of gender, and announced they would be holding a self-identifying women’s only protest on a disused bus depot on the M25 targeted for containment demanding that allocation of the containers be gender blind.

Oh Jeremy Cobryn was unavailable for comment, but a spokespronoun for Momentum has promised that the Labour Leader will appear for a photo-opportunity hugging the first lucky tenant to be housed in the container, commenting: ‘This is just the kind of initiative a future Labour government will use to incentivise the homeless market into home ownership. Jeremy believes in slum housing, yes, but for the many, not the few!’ However, in a twist to events a consortium of rabbis for Jewish Labour has pointed out that ‘Sleeper’ is Gaza slang for an undercover spy, and denounced the containers as a transparent attempt to smuggle pro-Palestinian terrorists masquerading as homeless into the Labour Party. Oh Jeremy Corbyn immediately announced on Twitter that he hadn’t looked at the containers closely enough, and called on Theresa May to draw an immediate halt to the spread of anti-semitism through import-export containers. Theresa May responded that she had increased the UK security threat to Critical.

In breaking news, Martin Mcgrail, the Director of My Container Ltd, has just announced that his new company, Sleeper Security Ltd, has won a £100 million contract with the government to secure homeless containers against threats to the security of the British People. In an inspiring speech during Prime Minister’s Question Time today, Theresa May said: ‘For too long we have allowed Europe to use the UK’s containers as a dumping ground for the world’s homeless. It is just and fair that our disused containers be used to house the homeless of Britain. I’m sure that Jeremy Corbyn and his communist friends in the Kremlin would like to turn the UK into a homeless depot for the world; but we live, thank God, under a Conservative government, and we say to the British People loud and clearly: the UK’s transport containers will no longer be a soft option for every homeless person. Slum housing, yes, but for the British, not the world!’

My Container Ltd

Today, Peter John announced that, due to his concerns about the threat containers present to the homeless of Britain, Rydon would be refurbishing the containers in anti-terrorist cladding. ‘This will make the containers far more environmentally efficient’, he said, ‘reduce energy bills for the occupants, and curb the culture of terrorism prevalent among the homeless.’ He denied reports that under his Directorship Surrey Canal Sports Foundation Ltd, a subsidiary of offshore property developer Renewal, had just bought land adjacent to the site.

ASH statement on My Container Ltd.

The reality of life in the UK today having long ago passed beyond satire, some readers have mistaken the above for that reality; so I should clarify that, yes, this is a satirical text. My Container Ltd isn’t, though, and neither are these Sleepers. The logical extension of refugees smuggled into this country like contraband goods in shipping containers is to house the unwanted refugees from capitalism already resident here in the same containers, tarted up with a paintjob, backed by a charity, and presented as ‘genuine’ alternatives for housing the 268,000 people that are homeless in England, rather than opening the 200,000 properties that have sat empty in this country for more than 6 months. If anyone believes the workhouse of the Nineteenth Century and the conditions of labour it imposed in return for bed and board could never return to this country, they should take a long hard look at these containers.

A common response to these coffins for the living is that they are ‘better than nothing at all’. Although this excuse is the foundation of Labour’s political philosophy (‘at least we’re not the Tories!’), it is not a principle the citizens of the country with the sixth largest GDP in the world should be accepting as a solution to their housing needs. We shouldn’t forget that the more than 700 workhouses in Victorian Britain – which over 100 years were home to over 16 million people, 5 million of whom died behind its walls – were instigated when Britain was the wealthiest country in the world and the British Empire at the height of its colonial power – both of which, country and empire, kept its working class at home and abroad living in abject poverty and squalor. In the absence of a welfare system or benefits, the workhouse archipelago rose as a means of shaming and bullying the unemployed and destitute into obligatory and unpaid labour. The harshness of that manual labour – 10 hours a day 6 days a week, which was compensated with bed and board in the workhouse but no payment, and where conditions were so harsh that 1 in 10 inmates never left except in a coffin – was also promoted as ‘better than nothing’. As the modern welfare state that replaced the workhouse is dismantled, benefits cut, homelessness made a permanent state for millions of UK citizens and sleeping on the street made a crime, dumping the homeless in metal coffins is not a solution, except to the businessman running this company, who will no doubt be claiming government funding for providing this service, just as the workhouse was funded by the industries that profited from the free labour they provided.

We have no doubt that the services My Container Ltd is offering will be taken up by the councils, housing associations, social services and other bodies responsible for housing the people made homeless by, for example, leaving the 900 council homes on Sheffield’s Park Hill estate empty for 15 years. When so-called ‘rogue landlords’ house 24 immigrant labourers in three rooms or charge a homeless family to live in their garden shed, the council fines and sometimes prosecutes them, which means My Container Ltd has carried out this initiative with the backing of the regulatory bodies. But how long do you think the families dumped in these tin cans will live there? 2 years? 5 years? The rest of their lives? Where do you think these metal corridors will be located? Near to local amenities, health clinics, shops, parks, on safe streets, with transport links to a booming job market? Or in a shithole on the edge of nowhere? What kind of environment do you think this container depot will create? A self-sustaining, mutually-supporting, close-knit community with the financial opportunities and social networks required to move out and on? Or a ghetto of despair, criminality, police harassment, benefit dependency and poverty that will brand its residents for life – until some other cowboy comes up with a better way to make money out of them?

If you’re working to get people off the street and into shelter, I can understand how initially this might seem attractive; but it stinks from head to tail, and sets a very dangerous precedent. This isn’t ‘better than nothing at all’; it’s infinitely worse, in that it’s part of the system of privatisation and exploitation that has turned homelessness into a boom industry, and the businessmen running it are nothing more than slum landlords. Anyone looking for real solutions to the housing crisis, rather than how to profit from it, should look at the causes of that crisis and the changes to policy and legislation that will reverse it, and finally start building not metal containers for refugees but the council housing the people of this country deserve and need.

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

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