Although an old Etonian, the author George Orwell was a lifelong socialist, and in January 1936 he set off from London to investigate how the Great Depression known as “the hungry thirties” was impacting on the people of industrial northern England. Their harsh lives were described in his book The Road to Wigan Pier.
The title conjures up a Blackpool-like pleasure pier along which people stroll while licking ice creams and enjoying the sea air. But what Orwell actually encountered was a grim jetty on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal where coal was loaded onto barges. To use the vogue expression, Orwell embedded himself in a local miner’s house and a flat above a tripe shop, finding people eating raw food because they couldn’t afford to buy fuel and many other examples of destitution. Wiganers, though, managed to maintain a stoical sense of humour about their plight and cracked the bleak joke that the only holidays they could afford were trips to Wigan Pier. That attitude still exists, and – I kid you not – next month a musical called The Road to Wigan Pier will be premiered in the town, with hopes that it will transfer to the West End.
It would be wrong to get the idea that everything has changed for the better in Wigan. If people can put on happy faces and sing and dance about poverty, the implication is that it’s consigned to history. But nothing could be further from the truth.
What has changed, though, is that another Orwell, while visiting the north to write about hardship, would conclude that there’s no need to enter a single house. It is out on the streets for everyone to see. If the unemployment, penury, bad housing and vile working conditions found by the author were the scandal of 1930s Britain, then rough sleeping shames us today.
In Wigan, it is an escalating problem, with the number of recorded people on the streets going up from six in 2010 to 30 last year. Worryingly, most of that increase was since 2015. This trend is mirrored in towns and cities everywhere, including, as it happens, two other places Orwell included on his trip, Liverpool and Leeds. I visit the latter once every few months, and recently it came as a shock to see a much greater level of rough sleeping than I recall seeing before Christmas. Most streets in the city centre now contain at least one heap of sleeping bags and blankets. The situation looks even worse in Liverpool, which I visited last week.
One of Orwell’s observations in the 1930s was that “there were not enough houses to go round”. Yet 80 years on, after the greatest improvements in living standards in our history, those words are truer than ever. Only these days people are dying on the streets.
Will there ever be enough houses to stop rough sleeping? Not if Theresa May’s speech to the Royal Town Planning Institute last week is any guide, which showed she hasn’t grasped the scale of the looming tragedy on our streets. What rough sleepers need – and right now – is a roof. In the short term every church and cathedral, unoccupied shop and house should be utilised. There’s no reason why anyone should spend another night out in the cold.