Shelter at 50: the razor thin gap between our history and present day housing conditions

Overcrowding and poor conditions were rife in 1960s Liverpool.


“At 6 Princes Avenue the house is in an appalling state of repair; broken windows, garbage all over the front yard, and no security as anybody can get in.

“A couple with their 5 children are all living in one room…They all sleep in one big bed behind a partition, making a room 4 ft wide. Seven people sleeping in one bed in a room 4 ft wide…They are on the Council waiting list.”

This was Liverpool in 1966 – the other side of the decade affectionately remembered as the ‘swinging sixties’. It was reports of such dire conditions in places like Liverpool that fired change, and led to the founding of Shelter.

Here at Shelter, we’re looking back to 1966 as part of our 50th year anniversary. But a recent visit to Liverpool revealed that the gap between our history and present day housing conditions is only razor thin.

In Liverpool in 2016 children are still growing up in unimaginable conditions. On visits with one of our support workers I witnessed damp; mould; freezing cold; overcrowding; unsafe walls and flooring; doors and windows that don’t shut properly. And this is before families contended with being priced out of private renting, evicted at short-notice, and made homeless.

I visited one family in Anfield, a couple of miles from the city centre, where riverside developments have sprung up and flats are sold to investors in Hong Kong. Two parents and their five children are sharing a single bedroom. Their ‘beds’ comprise of two double air mattresses shoved together, covering almost all of the floor space. The walls are covered, floor to ceiling, in mould. The air is cold and damp, and the room is sparsely decorated. It’s impossible to make this place feel like home, despite the parents’ best efforts to do so.

Then and now: cramped conditions in 1960s Liverpool (top) and present day


Their tiny bathroom is in no better condition. The paint on the ceiling is flaking. Mould grows across it, and down one of the walls. This is Liverpool in 2016. But depressingly, this is not dissimilar to the descriptions of Liverpool 50 years ago. Then or now, this is no place for children to grow-up.

Unimaginable conditions: damp and mould were rife in the slums in 1960s Liverpool (top left), and poor conditions still exist today.


At another visit, this time in Speke, I saw how severe damp and mould had led to one member of a family developing a chronic lung disease. The conditions are so bad in the kitchen and living room that the family have to eat upstairs, and often resort to cooking at their neighbour’s houses. Their landlord doesn’t care about the state of the property, despite pleas from the family and their local council.

1960s v 2016: Conditions are so bad in this house (right) that the family have to cook at their neighbours.


Both families are trapped in expensive, insecure and poor quality private renting. Neither can afford the deposit and admin fee to move to other private accommodation, let alone to buy a place of their own. They face a long wait for social housing, much like the 18,000 households on the council waiting list in 1960s Liverpool

Of course, things have generally got better during the 50 years that Shelter has been around. Fortunately we don’t come across anything as bad as the conditions photographed or described back then. The scale of the problem is mercifully different too. In 1960s Liverpool more than a quarter of houses had no hot water. Two per cent didn’t even have a toilet to call their own. And 1 in 10 households were living in overcrowded conditions.

But to ignore 50 years of progress and to try to make direct comparisons is to miss the point: just one child living in the kind of conditions that we witness in 2016 is unacceptable. Yet through our work we know that there are heavily entrenched housing problems in Liverpool, especially in the private rented sector.

Liverpool council acknowledges the scale of the problem, and have attempted to address it by requiring all private landlords in the area to hold a license. Landlords are required to meet certain safety criteria, and keep the property in a good standard.

It’s an uphill struggle, but there are reasons to be optimistic. The new Housing and Planning Act gives local authorities more powers to tackle rogue landlords, while additional funding will mean they have the resources to do so.

But real change won’t be achieved until renters have the power to take matters on themselves too. At the moment, they can only take on their rogue landlord side-by-side with their council, which is costly and time consuming.

If we are to truly see an end to rogue landlords, and terrible conditions in the private rented accommodation, we need wholesale reform across the sector.

Photographs property of Shelter/Kayte Brimacombe and courtesy of Nick Hedges.