Loved by those who own them, but  loathed by most other drivers, touring caravans are as much a sign of summer as the swallows that come home to roost.

The benefits of caravanning are very clear. Caravan owners have the mobility, and flexibility to head off quickly and cheaply. They are not obliged to set schedules, when to eat breakfast, vacate or access their room.  And, with no flights, or train timetables to worry about and they can mostly go where they want, when they want.

They leave their homes behind, change their routine and have a carefree holiday experience.

More solid and substantial than a tent, a caravan has heat, water, bathroom facilities and proper beds. It is also a safe, lockable and comfortable space where you can cook, socialise and sleep – just as you would at home.

You can wake up in the morning in the most beautiful of locations –  a different place every day. Or, temporarily live off grid in the middle of nowhere. A caravan is entirely self-contained. It’s home from home.

We associate freedom with free will: the ability to make choices and decisions that determine your own life. A caravan may be a symbol of independence and reflect carefree, happy times on the road and freedom of seaside sites. But a caravan  at the side of the road, or in a shopping centre car park, is a social aberration. It goes against society’s rules. It’s not where it should be.

Even in wasteland a lone caravan is an unwelcome intruder. Viewed as a negative presence it spells ‘trouble’.

Rules, codes and laws of the highways and byways, councils and road service state that an immobile caravan parked where it shouldn’t be, is indeed not ‘King of the Road’. A parked caravan in the ‘wrong’ place gets people’s hackles up. A temporary encampment? Not In My Backyard.

In a housing market that bubbles and boils there are always casualties. People who cannot afford to live anywhere because it is so expensive, still have to live to somewhere.

On a downward sliding scale of alternatives there are people living in cars, tents and vans.  Compared to  which caravan dwelling is a relative luxury.

The Guardian recently highlighted the rise in caravan dwellers in Bristol. Rents there have risen 33% in the past year, but wages have not kept up.  When the smallest flats and spaces in homes of multiple occupancy are outside of your price range you are forced to find whatever alternatives you can.

These are people  who have jobs, some work in essential caring roles, but they live on a minimum wage – which in Bristol effectively puts them on the periphery of housing stock. There is little or no housing available to them, that they can afford.

Everyone living/renting/buying in Bristol has been equally squeezed which means the basic standard of what people can afford has necessarily dropped. This pushes people further down the ladder into various levels of poor standard accommodation…. and then further down still.

Sadly, this is a story that affects  most big cities.  Dublin  – for example.

We all need shelter, a home, and the dignity of a place of our own. But for banking, utilities and services we also need an address. We need to be able to fill in a form and declare where we live.  Which is difficult, when where you live doesn’t technically have a formal address – or a postal code. A caravan at the side of the road is a vehicle, not a home.

It is all a long way from the Caravan and Motorhome Club rules where members must adhere to strict guidelines to ensure the respectability of the organisation and all that it stands for. A caravan used for leisure symbolises a positive and liberated way of life. Think: glamping. Think: Cliff Richard touring Europe in a double decker bus. Or, Instagram millennials seeing the world from a campervan.  But a caravan used as a permanent home is often crisis accommodation for people who are precariously close to the gaping hole that is homelessness.

A small touring caravan is not ‘housing’.  It cannot replicate the space, security and solidity of a proper home.

In the US mobile homes have become legitimate housing stock. They are also communities and most have an address. But as people on low-income, with limited housing alternatives they still have to suffer with the stigma of being labelled ‘trailer trash’.

For people who want to remain independent, to pay their own way and to just have somewhere of their own, a caravan represents the best of limited options. It comes down to: ‘this’ alternative, or ‘no’ alternative.

But of course, most caravan sites are out of town and  close in the winter.  Which is why people turn to an undesignated/empty/available space. And when one caravan is joined by another, then it is suddenly no longer about the individuals and their housing problems, but about an illegal encampment, and what needs to be done to move them on. And on.

Of course, all that does is to kick the problem further down the road – to a different road. The focus, the blame and the responsibility  temporarily shift elsewhere.

Councils may turn a blind eye….. or they could do something constructive.

If the housing crisis worsens we may start to accept caravans as a viable housing. But only because they are  better than a tent, or a cardboard box. Without more careful planning for a range of contingencies, crisis accommodation may become the standard by which we judge everything else.

Is this the new normal?


Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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