Coventry, being a city like any other in a country where homelessness keeps looking like it is going the wrong way, seems over the last few years seen a significant rise in noticeable rough sleeping. But it was only when I started figuring out the walking route before lockdown eased that I got a true idea of the scale: everyone on the streets suddenly stood out when there were no other pedestrians.
My first memory of homelessness in Coventry City Centre was in the 90s, that Scottish bloke people called Scooby, because he used to stand around the steps to Lloyds in Broadgate, giving the Evening Telegraph sellers a run for their money, shouting “Scooby Dooby Doo, come buy your Big Issue”, a slogan which worked really well when bawled out comically in a thick Glaswegian accent.
But the reality of today is far more gritty. Over the last few years it has almost seemed that it is a compulsory requirement of any closed shopfront to have a collection of cardboard boxes and duvets in the doorway, almost like an office for unpaid security guards for derelict retail outlets. Of course it’s not just Coventry, it’s everywhere beyond a certain size.
Anyone who doubts the size of the issue simply needs to go and look at the page on the City Council website detailing that there are currently 27 times to go somewhere in the city each week for a free meal, with another six charging a small cost. Obviously, some of people accessing these services will be coming as they need to cut out the cost of food to prevent themselves from becoming homeless, but the bottom line there wouldn’t be a provision if there wasn’t a need. And remember that’s a list of places offering free meals, it doesn’t include the 14 foodbanks operating in the city.
Now compare that with what has happened in the last decade in the City Centre, Allied Carpets, Astleys and Axa Insurance have become student flats – and that’s just the As! We are at the point where if a sod of turf fell off a lorry in Coventry, by the end of the day someone would have submitted a planning application to build student accommodation on it. Of course what is happening in Coventry is symptomatic across the country, and oddly enough it seemed to start with the conversion of warehouses in Liverpool back when they were City of Culture.
But to me, and as a former National Treasurer of the National Union of Students I have some expertise here, this always seemed like a bit of an unsustainable gamble, a bubble that had to burst eventually. Whilst student numbers have increased in recent years, we’re seeing more UK students stay at home and study at their local university, and there has been a massive increase in international student numbers. Even before we see what the long terms impacts of Covid will be, it was surely only going to be a matter of time before the bonanza of international student expansion started to dry up, as the quality of degree-level education in the countries student are coming from gets better. UK universities may still be regarded with high esteem, but the more education moves away from being an experience and toward being a commodity, the more it will be judged on value for money. In that respect, Coventry’s third University, Arden, is the modern equivalent of the Open University, offering online degrees at half the price of physical teaching with none of the additional costs caused by physically having to be anywhere beyond your bedroom. Things were already moving that way. Covid will only serve to accelerate it.
While the good news for Coventry is that it has two of the better, and therefore less vulnerable universities, are we really sure we are going to fill all those blocks of student flats – the current ones, let alone the planned ones? Surely this can no longer be the lazy solution to plaster over the death of some many national chains of high street shops. What else can be done with these empty buildings? They surely can’t all become arts spaces.
The bottom line is we are years past the point when we need more council housing. This may now come nationally, not necessarily because people need the housing, but because something has to be done with the land.
But lets not forget that two of the handful of medieval buildings in Coventry to survive the purge of the town planners were the Almshouses, Fords and Bonds Hospitals, the Elizabethan equivalent of council housing that has survived until today, so why not be ahead of the game again with City Centre South?