Spike Western is a Paralegal at North Kensington Law Centre. After spending four years backpacking, working and volunteering in various parts of the world, Spike returned to the UK in 2016 to pursue a career as a barrister. He has a first-class degree in Law from Birkbeck, University of London, which he gained while working full-time at the Law Centre. In this guest blog he talks about his work and why he believes housing is a human right.
Nothing is more uniquely human than the home. A home can say so much; not just about the person who lives in it, but about the place they live in and the shape of the world they inhabit. No wonder people’s homes have always fascinated me. My father, who spent his career working in local government, would drive me around our little corner of England exploring all the various places people lived. As much as I was in awe of the grand old country houses like those I’d read about in books, I was equally captured by my father’s passion for social housing estates. We would drive around the Portsmouth outskirts and I’d dream of being one of those kids on the estate. Part of the community. Part of the family.
It must have been fate, then, that took me into housing – albeit in an entirely different capacity to my father. Pursuing a dream to become a barrister, I began volunteering at the North Kensington Law Centre in June 2018, exactly one year after the tragedy of Grenfell that shook the community to its core. A few weeks later I was taken on full-time in the role of helping victims of Grenfell with their housing. Now my client base stretches beyond Grenfell to anyone who needs legal help with housing, whether they are eligible for legal aid or not.
I met a woman who lives with her three children in a one-bed flat. Damp and mould have taken over the only bedroom. She showed me photos of these innocent, beautiful children, all under seven years old on mattresses – infested with bed bugs – on the living room floor where all four of them sleep. It looked like something post-apocalyptic. Their landlord, a housing association, accepted repairs need to be done but the family needed to be relocated temporarily and there was nowhere for them to go. The family were stuck in limbo. In reality, they need to be rehoused because their flat was too small for them anyway; they need three bedrooms, but they only have one. The fact is that there just aren’t enough properties and it’s families with children who suffer the most.
In another case, my client’s husband had a bad stroke a few years ago and is now in a wheelchair. After three years in hospital he was discharged to a care home to continue his recovery. Since January 2017 he’s been ready to return home to his family. But he cannot return home because his flat is wheelchair inaccessible. His family have been trying for three years to transfer properties without success. The absurdity of this situation is there is a huge shortage of hospital beds because of insufficient spaces in care homes for those ready to leave hospital for less intensive care. Yet this poor man has been stuck in a care home unnecessarily for three years because he has nowhere to go. There isn’t enough social housing to meet the demand. Meanwhile, the taxpayer is footing an enormous bill for all this chaos.
Cuts to social housing and to legal aid mean that these examples are exactly that, examples. There are many, many, more like them. They are a stain on our society. Figures from 2018 show that there are 170,000 people in temporary accommodation in London. Local authorities have a legal duty to house them, but they are placed temporarily in various types of properties until there is a space for them in social housing. They have very little access to legal help and the quality of temporary accommodation is often very poor. Yet at the same time, it costs the taxpayer a huge amount of money.
I believe that housing is a human right. Access to good housing is as important as access to education or healthcare – all are pillars that together underpin successful civilisation. Home is an extension of the self, part of one’s identity almost. Perhaps all along my father was instilling in me the value of the home, from both an individual and community perspective. I am immensely proud to be part of North Kensington Law Centre’s 50-year history protecting this right, and I feel right at home doing it.
About the author
Spike Western is 27 years old and from a small coastal village in West Sussex. After spending four years backpacking, working and volunteering in various parts of the world, Spike returned to the UK in 2016 to pursue a career as a barrister. He has a first-class degree in Law from Birkbeck, University of London, which he gained while working full-time at the Law Centre. In his spare time, he enjoys playing sports, reading novels and going on adventures with his Catalan wife, whom he met in Australia.