The Covert Agenda

Incredulity fused with a Panglossian sense of optimism.

Tag: mental health

‘Built quickly, cheaply and with little forethought’

Cross-posted on Harry’s Place, 28th March 2017.

As further objections are raised to tiny office-to-resi units, what can housebuilding during the Industrial Revolution teach us today?

As the relaxing of planning regulations results in another story of inadequately sized ‘rabbit hutch’ homes appearing in the papers, it is worth considering the roots of modern planning laws.  It’s hard to argue with the government’s position that deregulating and allowing office-to-resi conversions below the national minimum space standard of 37 sq metres for a single person will help meet housebuilding targets.  At the same time, though, it could be compared with sharing a small cake amongst a large group of children and telling them they should be satisfied.  It may deliver a temporary gratification, but it won’t sate their hunger and it certainly won’t sustain them for long or allow them to grow.

What can history teach us?  During the Industrial Revolution, rapid urban expansion resulted in accommodation being built quickly, cheaply and with little forethought.  Our modern planning system has its roots in steps taken to address these issues and improve the lives of the working classes.  Aside from issues of sanitation and the spread of diseases which issues of overcrowding brought, today under infinitely better control, there was also an awareness of the need of humans for space and open spaces.  This led to the creation of public parks to reduce social stress.

Our modern times may differ in many ways, not least in terms of the quality of life now enjoyed by ordinary people.  We now have what must then have been inconceivably large global and domestic populations, along with the resulting competition for space and higher land values.  But the basic human need for space, psychologically and physically, has not changed.  The government’s “permitted development” system means that developers who convert offices into homes are under no obligation to meet minimum floor area standards.

‘Shoebox’ housing may suit some younger people who are starting out in life, but confined living can cause mental health issues and increase stress, especially as people get older.  It is also a natural progression for singles to become couples, couples to become families. There are already thousands of ‘second-stepper’ homeowners, people who now have families and have outgrown their first home but are unable to move up the ladder.  This also causes a bottleneck for first-time buyers, meaning more starter homes are required and issues around progressing up the property ladder are exacerbated.

There is much research by charities such as Shelter that demonstrates the detrimental effects that cramped living conditions and a lack of privacy can have on children, such as delayed cognitive development. An academic paper from the US investigated the effects of housing crowding on children’s academic achievement, behaviour, and health.  Even after controlling for socioeconomic status, several dimensions of children’s wellbeing suffered when exposed to crowded living conditions; and the negative effects on children raised in crowded homes can persist throughout life, affecting their future socioeconomic status and adult wellbeing.

Perhaps we need to be realistic about the rapidly changing world we live in today and accept that space, especially urban space, comes at an increasing premium.  Yet, at what point do we start damaging citizens’ health and wellbeing, and the prospects of this country, by squeezing ever smaller units out of or into spaces.  There is also the risk that developers will become accustomed to the higher returns gained from converting offices into more and smaller spaces and widen the trend further into new-build territory.  Reduced ceiling heights and room sizes are already complained about in new houses and flats, as is the quality of the workmanship and the materials used.  None of these new dwellings comes with a cheap price tag either.

The nation’s housing requirements need to be addressed in a sustainable, long-term manner.  Office-to-resi has a valuable part to play in relieving the housing crisis, but it does not have to entail eking out as many tiny dwellings as possible from each building.  Additionally, unless it is simply because new-builds take longer to plan and complete than conversions, the fact that converted offices delivered almost three-quarters of the growth in the supply of housing last year does not feel terribly sustainable.

The Victorians considered that improving the health of workers would enable them to work harder whilst reducing the cost of supporting an unhealthy population. Today, good health, mental health and wellbeing are recognised as factors which improve productivity and reduce the strain on the NHS.  A raft of legislation was sparked following the publication in 1842 of Sir Edwin Chadwick’s report ‘The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population’ which aimed at improving living conditions.

By 1875, acts of parliament had been passed to tackle the issue of overcrowded housing.  Today, such restrictions are being loosened and we’ll have to wait to see the results.  It is, however, worth remembering why such limitations were established in the first place.

Reality Threatened With Extinction

A pernicious disease is spreading through society.  The effects can be devastating, yet the symptoms often so subtle as to render the sufferer unconsciously crippled.  The number of people gradually realising that they too are inflicted is growing at a rate of pandemic proportions.  The cause has taken experts by surprise: Reality itself is threatened with extinction, with severe consequences for humans.

“For years of my life I felt like I knew what was going on, but these days I can’t be sure of anything,” told Gary Muddle from Glasgow.  “Everything is so contradictory.  One person says one thing, another says the opposite, and it’s all backed-up by the same studies and figures; how are we supposed to know what the hell is going on.  If I hear one more frigging statistic I’m going to explode.”

It’s the same across the nation.  “How can people keep a straight face?” raged Guy Rights of London.  “How can some people who promote feminism agree with segregation at certain meetings?  How can some people who supposedly support free speech want to ban certain people from speaking?  I know life’s not black and white but it feels like we’re living in 50 Shades of Grey – just without the fun bits.”

Joe and Guy are in the early stages of confusion and irritation, the classic initial symptoms, but there are already those displaying more advanced stages of the disease.  A dinner lady from Sheffield, who wished to remain anonymous, began feeling unwell around the time she discovered her favourite reality TV show was not real.  “I watched it religiously, I was a proper fan.  Then I learnt it wasn’t real – it’s something called ‘structured reality’.  I’m not an educated person but even I can see that’s a contradiction in terms.”

The lady also reported feeling so confused that she once voted for UKIP.  “After I came out of the ballot box I realised what I‘d done, but at the time it seemed like there was no alternative.  I can’t even be sure of myself anymore.  Do you know who I am?”

Honor Truth from Cornwall is so perplexed about what to eat she has lost 7 stones and been admitted to hospital.  “I’m too bewildered to eat,” she whispers feebly from her bed.  “I started developing a phobia of food last year.  Everything I ate turned out not to be real: my lasagna was horse meat instead of beef, ice-cream synthetic and 50% air, there was no chicken in my chicken nuggets or chocolate in my chocolate-flavoured shake.”

Honor’s medical team briefed me against mentioning GM food and whether it’s safe or not to her during our conversation.  “I know I might die, I just can’t bear to eat anything pretend anymore and it’s so hard to tell what’s real and what’s not.  Even organic food is being faked.”  Doctors are hoping Honor will be strong enough to start growing her own food in the hospital garden as a cure.

Professor Frank Talk is leading the team that first identified a possible link between the decline of Reality and mental health.  “You don’t have to search hard for evidence of causes of this malaise.  It seems to have infected most areas of society, from government and international business to the food we eat and our entertainment.  Many cases I have seen describe how politics increasingly antagonises their symptoms.  It was bad enough when politicians were disparaging about MPs from other political parties but now they attack MPs in their own parties even more vehemently.  Some politicians try to rewrite history by deleting things they have written and published on the Internet in the past; parties say they are doing one thing when their policies actually have totally the opposite effect to the stated intention.  Backtracking and denials abound.”

In response to mounting public concern, the government is setting up a task force to look into the erosion of Reality in society and the consequences for public health.  At a press conference, the Minister for Health urged everyone to keep calm and carry on.  “Let’s be absolutely clear, no government has ever been more concerned about its citizens or done more to protect them.  We’ll not be rushing to any hasty conclusions but conducting a swift investigation.  The last government failed even to detect an issue, but when we do I would like to reassure everyone that we shall do everything in our power to ascertain the causes and administer treatment.  We are already stockpiling antidepressants as a precaution, to ensure anyone who manages to get an appointment and see their GP is treated.”

Two journalists were actually stricken during the press conference, having to be reminded where they were and what the point was.  It’s not all bad news though; shares in pharmaceutical companies shot up with the announcement, with one leading CEO seeking to reassure the public with this statement: “The extinction of reality is simply the next major mental health challenge for mankind.  Our industry has been helping patients overcome Reality for many years.  We already assist hundreds of millions of people around the world beat the misery of Reality on a daily basis, and we’ll be here to help customers through any transition to a total loss of Reality, and beyond.”

An anthropologist of dubious credentials had a more positive view: “People have altered their own realities for millennia, expanding their minds with hallucinogens and now with virtual worlds, even simply using their imaginations.  It can be seen as a natural evolutionary step for humans to start taking this to the next level.  Progress is inevitable and you can’t make an omelette without cracking eggs.”

So what does the future hold?  Can Reality be brought back from the brink of extinction?  Are we simply in a period of transition to a new post-truth Reality?  Does anyone ever actually know what is really going on?  In the meantime, the advice from the medical establishment is to drink plenty of water, enjoy regular exercise and take a hefty dose of reality.

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