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Review: All that is Solid by Danny Dorling

all-that-is-solid

Full Title: All That Is Solid: How the Great Housing Disaster Defines Our Times, and What We Can Do About It

Category: Non-Fiction, Property/Economics – Hardback: 400 pages – Publisher: Penguin – Source: Public Library
First Published: 2014

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I’m not entirely sure, but I am, I think, one of Dorling’s intended audience for his book, All that is Solid. Published in early 2014, it’s an account of some of the issues causing, affecting and predicted by the UK’s current housing crisis.

I am self-employed and I am a life long renter in the politically-less-valued north of England. The prospect of me ever buying a house or getting a mortgage seems as fantastical to me as the possibility of buying a seat on a shuttle to the moon.

I live in a neighbourhood where large, four-storey Victorian houses have been bought and speculated on by property developers who turned them into 8, 9 and even 10 bedroom properties for those studying at either of the city’s universities. The impact on the neighbourhood was considerable, good and bad, but the impact now is wholly bad – these ‘Houses in Multiple Occupation’ (HMOs) increasingly stand empty because those students have shifted their attention to cheaper areas of the city or have been deterred altogether by £9000 a year university fees. And what need has anybody else of a 10 bedroom rabbit warren?

Housing policies and rights are therefore a hugely important political issue to me as I think about my future housing options and see how my city’s housing stock is being affected by national issues of treating property as a financial asset rather than someone’s shelter.

Broken into sections titled Crisis, Planning, Foundations, Building, Buying, Slump, Speculation and Solutions, Dorling’s book looks at the issues around the US sub-prime lending disaster, the overheated property market of London, who now buys houses (and where and how) and the chaos caused when large numbers of people can not keep up with mortgage payments and banks must either repossess the house or let them live there for free as a caretaker to prevent others from squatting in it.

At the heart of the book is Dorling’s belief that the problem is not about how many homes there are in the UK. He rejects the constant calls to build more homes. According to every census and statistic he can find we have plenty of homes and more than enough bedrooms in fact. It’s just that they are so unfairly distributed that at least 22 million of them lie empty every night at the very same time increasing numbers of people are willing to pay to live in sheds to stave off the threat of being homeless.

Dorling is a well-respected Professor of Geography at Oxford who frequently comments on political and social issues surrounding housing, the north-south divide in England and so on. This is however a double-edged sword. He links together data and trends, always backs arguments up with statistics and gives numbers to what can sometimes become a very emotional debate. Instead of just declaring the ‘Bedroom Tax’ morally bankrupt he calmly shows that to be true through proven facts about those affected. However, Dorling is also limited by being an academic outsider who swims in a specialised sea of statistics. This is a book about the very human cost of corrupt, unequal housing laws and policies and there is not a single case study, no attempt to put any kind of human faces to the multiple and varied tragedies he’s describing.

I am not criticising him for not interviewing the homeless personally or tracking down and talking to those living illegally in sheds. Or rather I am not criticising him for that alone. But he avoids quoting from interviews others have done with those affected and even avoids communication with the organisations that are the front line services for the crisis he describes. He quotes statistics from the housing charity Shelter but doesn’t include much information about their work. He never talks to debt charities or those working in the Citizen’s Advice Bureau. There are photos of housing in Sheffield used throughout the book to illustrate the issues but it is telling that the only one focusing on a human subject is a disembodied hand inputting the number of a care worker into a phone.

And this is why I am not entirely sure who his intended audience is and whether I am criticising the book for something outside of its remit.

If he wanted to fuel the debate on housing issues and offer a ready source of statistics for those who will actually reach that wider audience, he succeeds. If he wanted to articulate the issues for some of the millions of potential readers affected by them and not just other academics and political figures, he fails to engage with them. I closed the book feeling like I had almost drowned in all those statistics, my lasting impression is of too much maths and not enough compassion.

And then there is the fact that a book like this, sold for the statistics alone and with little ‘artistic’ merit, has a limited shelf life. I find that I cannot recommend it to you as a fellow reader unless you were already likely to read it anyway.

Instead I am going to suggest you go and get a mug of coffee or tea and read novelist James Meek’s article, Where Will We Live?, which was published in the London Review of Books at around the same time Dorling’s book came out.

Meek’s piece is narrative-based, far more humane and very memorable. He brings an author’s eye for personal detail to bear on wider social issues and his piece focuses on conversations with those actually affected by them. At its heart is compassion not a graph.

So yes, it is incredibly rude of me to re-direct your attention from Dorling’s book to Meek’s article. And I truly do think we need both the Dorlings and the Meeks of this world, the statisticians and the authors, those who conjure graphs and statistics for the politicians and those who can make a story real and human for us. But I am fairly certain, as I think most readers are at heart, that it is narratives and images, not the statistics behind them, that change the world… So I hope you will forgive me the unorthodoxy and go ahead and read the article instead.

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