Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Once Upon A Time.

This is a delayed reaction caused by extreme shock. I knew it would be really bad. By ‘it’ I mean of course the new regime. By regime I mean of course Grant Shapps, George Osborne and Ian Duncan Smith - aka The Three Stooges.

Over the years, I grew chillingly cynical, to the extent that I think I am being sarcastic even when I talk to myself. So why am I so incredulous at the latest pronouncements on housing? I thought I was immune, and am checking to see whether I’ve missed the point, or my brain fell out of my ears, or if all those ‘stupid’ tablets I've taken are starting to happen.

Here then, is the story. In the beginning, there was the housing market, which was quite deliberately cranked up, with humungous price rises seen as undeniably a good thing (naysayers were stoned to death.) A multitude of amateurs from the tribe called The Neophytes invested in property, because they didn’t have a pension. Rents rose.

Meanwhile the expansion in buy-to-let construction created vast swathes of identikit one or two bedroom flats, but as for much needed family housing – dream on, you deluded peasant. And yea, the rents rose. And then they fell, as flats were too numerous. And lo - the investors did go bankrupt. There was a plague of letting agents in Ipswich, and swarms of value consultants descended upon Birmingham. Verily we were being punished.

Given the climate of increasing job insecurity and pensions falling through the floor, I’m not convinced it’s the fault of the people who invested in property – I even suspect this is a deliberate ploy to undermine the working people, as those on short term contracts become more malleable, pliable, and simultaneously – breakable.

And still people just wanted somewhere to live. But jobs were hard to find. And through no fault of their own, people who didn’t expect to visit those lovely chappies at that marvellous Jobcentre+ thingy found themselves existing/subsisting/clinging to dear life on £64.30 per week (“…HOW much?”)

And then they lost their houses, but landlords were still ramping up rents and tenants had to claim Local Housing Allowance which didn’t cover all of their rent, and they had to top it up, because the landlords, the government, the banks – everybody actually - had encouraged rents to rise.

And then...and then…the new coalition government slipped into power. And they did spake unto the people exiled as ‘scroungers’ punished them with a budget that put a cap on the rent allowance: £240 a week for a one bed flat – even in London (really! I am being serious, I am not making that part up.)

What happened next? People couldn’t pay the rent, and fled to the imaginary social housing that was never built, or the pretend council houses that were all transferred or that never actually existed, or to the private rented homes they could afford, but which were miles away from friends, family, safety and jobs. Failing that, they became homeless.

This fairy tale does not have a happy ending. It is a horror story.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Like A Thief In The Night....

Back in the olden days, sinning was simple, there were seven – meaning we had clarity. Nowadays, it’s complicated: miscreants are pelted with stern looks for standing in the ‘10 Items or Less’ queue with twelve items, for interrupting (guilty!) and looking over your shoulder for someone better to talk to at parties (not guilty.)

Now we can add another item to the list of misdemeanours worthy of social excommunication: stealing broadband. The other day, my ISP emailed to tell me I had all but exceeded my allocation, and would be charged for further use.

How the hell did that happen?

I rarely download music and am not a gamer. In truth, with regard to computers, I am about as skilled as ‘Mrs Brady – Old Lady,’ and can barely turn the damn thing on. Still, I called the ISP, and spoke to a very kind man baffled by my incompetence and flummoxed by the fact that nothing worked as it should. Together, with fortitude, dedication, stamina and black coffee, we tried to change my security code.

One whole day dragged by, rippling with confusion: I ground my teeth to stumps and plaited my extracted hair to create a neat little coin purse, but did not manage to change my secret code. (Large font typefaces capable of distinguishing between a zero and a capital ‘O’ would help, but I digress…)

I still haven’t met my neighbours – I don’t know who they are. They exist only as angry handwritten posters demanding that we shut the door, or that we do not put glass into the recycling bin as the council forbid this - yet another modern sin. Occasionally, I hear a door slam, or notice the wafting scent of cheap, cheesy bleach used to mop the floor, then another notice appears, and I catch the unnerving sound of scurrying, or disembodied shouting. I know my neighbours are real because of shouting and ranting from one flat, and the aroma of old school tatties-and-mince. Occasionally, I slip on the thick muddy paw prints of their tiny, yapping, mostly housebound dog, but still I rarely see them.

Consequently, I can’t glare at the sinner on the stairs, or knock on every door to ask, since it’s my responsibility to secure the internet. Worst of all, I know the guilty thieving broadband git must be close by, and they’re guilty of playing ‘World of Warcraft’ for days on end, or downloading Michael Buble, and I get to pay.

So who is the evil thief – how do I unmask them? My enemy is can only be a neighbour, and they are invisible. Stealing my broadband is actually a crime, but you can imagine what the police would say if ever I were to call them expecting urgent sirens and flashing blue lights for a hue and cry?

Broadband theft is like appropriating someone else’s air. I never imagined being in a position where somebody could steal something so costly and essential to me, and that a bizarre system of notional walls could stop them. Or not, as the case may be.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Charting the Conversions

Outside of Scotland, older flats are rarely purpose built, but converted from the gutted shells of former family homes. In desirable locations, like Brighton and London, it’s rare to find a house still intact and not remade into a warren of tiny apartments. The consequences are exactly what you would expect from cramming five eccentric, inconsiderate, uninhibited, modern households into a building designed for one genteel Edwardian family, obediently busy with needlework so as not burden mama with one of her heads.

Conversions are frequently done on the cheap, and are insensitive to basic human needs, like privacy and security. Partition walls are made of plasterboard, so noise (arguments, music, sex, dogs) seeps through. Contemporary dividers were designed to limit the muted kerfuffle of a world before electricity and amplified sound, not block out thumping tunage and shouty phone arguments. Thin ceilings do not muzzle a world of home cinema, band practice, and power tools.

Houses in multiple occupation often have bathrooms squeezed into former cupboards, and it shows; damp and mould thrive in confined, poorly ventilated hutches. On the plus side, they have lovely high ceilings, and traces of original features like alcoves (ideal for shelves) and plaster moulding which gives a welcome sense of faded grandeur (sorry – that’s the only good news I can give you). It’s a sobering thought, but your generous two bedroom flat with desirable separate kitchen fits neatly into the parlour of what was once a modest Victorian home.

Rubbish is usually stored outside one unlucky window, so those sultry summer nights are a constant source of joy, what with the maggots, stench, and cats. Post is kept in a common area, so theft is frequent, and personal correspondence shared by all. One morning a neighbour handed over an envelope. ‘Time for your smear test, then?’ he wisecracked.

Conversions often have poor water pressure. They were built in the days when bathing was an annual indignity, and cleanliness implied laundered linen, heavy perfume, or a quick rub with a wet hankie. Every tenant needing a shower in the morning can cause the ancient plumbing to gurgle and splutter in a truly alarming fashion.

Protracted arguments arise over leasehold responsibilities, like who cleans the stair carpet, or pay for roof repairs. Some buildings share the garden access; others allow the dwellers of the dingy basement free run, just for some sunlight and Vitamin D (if not, developers could be sued for the resulting rickets).

Such flats are often hazardous, if not actually falling down. Sometimes there is structural damage, so tenants are evacuated for their own safety, or they spend the summer squinting at the sun from behind scaffolding and banners. The owners say you can move back when it’s all been mended, repainted, and resealed, but soon the building has been upgraded and sold on again. Pressing the landlord about repairs tends to encourage this.