Well, I haven't updated this blog until today for a reason. And that is because for the last week or so, I have been in a fit of deep despair. Again.
About a week ago, we received a prelimary response from the Local Government Ombudsman. We have never held out much hope of our complaint, first submitted in er, what, October last year, coming to any favourable conclusion, not because we do not know we have been treated very badly, but because the Ombudsman procedure is strictly limited in its powers, and many maintain is direly in need of reform, being so weighted against the needs of complainants and being predisposed to work to the advantage of the authorities. The other day, in fact, I found a website, ombudsmanwatch.org, which, if I had seen before we started this process, would probably have persuaded me not to bother. Take a look, if you are interested, or struggling for justice from any cynically obstructive, morally bankrupt, and hopelessly incompetent local authority. It won't make you feel any better.
We were told, despite misgivings, last year, by someone who has great experience in dealing with LGO cases that ours was a good one, and worth pursuing. The fact that, despite every obstruction put in the way by Barnet, we did eventually manage to get an active investigation at the beginning of this year was a sign that we certainly had a case that needed addressing. This served its own purpose, as from that point on, a noticeable change took place in the attitude of the authority to the Smith problem, and instead of leaving us with no suggested solution, other than to install £10,000 worth of sound proofing to block out the sound of Mrs Smith 'whacking' her sons, or taking a private action, whcih the council assured us would be bound to be sympathetically heard (because we had so much evidence which they weren't going to use), a resolution was at last put forward.
So it was almost with academic interest now, I suppose, that we have continued our complaint, or rather left it to the arcane mysteries of the Ombudsman process. I had almost (almost) forgotten about it, in fact, when a package arrived last week containing, amongst other material, a first stage response, and in particular, comments on our complaint made on behalf of Barnet Council by a certain senior council officer. Let's call him/her Ms X. I hope he/she reads this, and perhaps some vestige of conscience might stir somewhere in her soul, if she has one, in the dark hours of her night. But I guess that would be too much to hope. When I looked at some of the shameless bilge written by this person on behalf of the council, you see, I very nearly lost my mind. In fact, I threw the letter on the floor, walked out of the front door, up the road, and found myself sitting on a park bench in a state of total bemusement. wondering if I was about to have a stroke.
I won't go into full details about the contents of this officer's statement, as it would be inappropriate at this point, but let me just say that even I, the veteran now of more than a year and more's worth of Barnet Council's Machiavellian working procedures, am staggered by the well, interesting and selected version of the truth and countless inaccuracies that her written comments contain. Rather stupidly, many of these 'misrepresentations' are easily proven as such and indeed are contradictory within the same documents. Many of the people who read this blog come via the Neighbours from Hell in Britain site and I think that they may well be familiar with this sort of corporate sponsored 'creative writing'. And it won't make any difference if these errors and distortion are corrected, I am sure, as for every one you cut down, another will spring up in its place.
It is so hard for an ordinary resident to pursue any complaint like this. You have no support, no guidance, and precious few resources to help you. Unless of course you are fabulously wealthy and can afford legal advice at a cost of several hundred pounds a go. The authority you are complaining about, on the other hand, has of course an entire network of resources : professional officers adept at fending off complaints, and presenting selected information in the best light, legal departments, files of information to which it will have access but to which you will not, for reasons of 'data protection' ... There is no way in which you can compete: it is like a tiny mouse trying to fight a pack of lions.
So I have spent the week thinking very carefully about what to do. My first reaction was to just throw in the towel, because I have just had enough of the whole damned thing, and I don't know if I can keep going, and what will it acheive anyway? The amount of stress that this whole experience has dumped on me is difficult to convey, but anyone who has been through something similar will understand how hard it is to fight something like this at the same time as living with the situation you are trying to escape. It really does take its toll. I felt that I couldn't, didn't want to, put myself through any more anxiety over this situation. More letters, more point by point dismantling of the council's lies and distortions and convenient ommissions: what for? They will get away with it in the end because of one huge drawback in the LGO remit.
Any maladministration can only be proved if an authority has failed its own standards or procedures in some way. Of course Barnet has already admitted to the LGO that it was guilty of treating our complaint incorrectly, and other procedural failures to do with keeping us informed of developments. Barnet has a very nasty habit of failing to follow procedures at times when it suits them. Breaches of the Freedom of Information act in response to requests by us about the Homechoice scheme, and other examples such as sadly missed blogger 'Don't Call Me Dave''s attempts to access councillors' expense details are, or should be, deeply concerning to all of us. Now you might attribute this sort of thing to genuine incompetence, which itself would be unacceptable, or something more sinsister, ie a cynical and deliberate abuse of procedure for political reasons. And what happened to our complaint is no different. Barnet eventually and sniffily offered us the grand sum of £500 for what was, to the council, a very useful delaying tactic, cheap at the price, in fact, but barely covers the legal expenses we incurred in sending an unanswered letter to their irresponsible landlords, let alone compensate us for all the additional, totally unnecessary, and prolonged trauma that this convenient abuse of the complaint system caused us.
In regard to the way in which it dealt with the antisocial behaviour, things are more complex as there are, it seems, in Barnet, no clear cut procedures anyway, or standards to measure their actions by, so they can't really fail to administer something that wasn't in place. If you see what I mean. Terrific.
There surely is an urgent need for a body which not only fairly monitors the behaviour of local authorities in disputes like these, redressing the imbalance in the system and giving the complainant a more complete access to justice, but also legislation which sets national standards to which authorities must comply in areas such as dealing with antisocial behaviour, with clearly defined time limits. That might prevent any more victims like us being forced to go through such a prolonged period of distress while the authority concerned makes up its mind what it is going to do, or fail to do.
One would hope that David Cameron's coalition government might like to put measures in place that will protect the rights of ordinary families in situations like ours. But as that would involve telling local authorities what to do, and Dave and his chums want local authorities to do what they want, with even less input from central government, there ain't much hope of that. You might even think that the Human Rights Act might cover these issues already, and in theory it does, but in practice, apparently not, at least not in Broken Barnet. This borough is run by Tories whose values are not anything that most traditional Conservatives would recognise. You might imagine that support, in a Tory borough, would be given to the homeowner, the ordinary law abiding, tax paying family, rather than the benefit dependent, law breaking and abusive household like the Smiths, but no, not in Broken Barnet/easyBarnet. That would have cost implications. Here in Broken Barnet, money is more important than justice.
How amusing, incidentally, to see this week a story in the local press causing so much upset because our council would not fly the England flag over the Town Hall, for the reason, according to Councillor Andrew Harper, that it would cost too much. Compare this admirable penny-pinching attitude to the grossly inappropriate and self indulgent creation of three new senior officer posts advertised last week by Barnet Council, at a cost of more than £300, 000: a totally unnecessary and shameless splurge at our expense, at a time when, for example, we are told wardens in old folks' homes must be cut because we cannot afford to pay for them. Why have these posts been created? To save money. Er ... ?
I invite any of the Tory supporting residents of this borough who voted this feckless lot back in power to explain to the rest of us what you think of such proposals. Of course it may be that Leader Lynne Hillan, who has, after all, a proven record of outstanding business acumen, has been going though the books, and found some secret funds(maybe savings from the deleted antisocial behaviour officer post, or some ASBOs that never got to court?), or maybe she got back some of the millions her predecessor, our new MP, lost in Iceland, in which case I defer to her superior judgement.
So, anyway, all week I have been debating whether or not to put my sanity first and ignore the LGO process from now on, or to continue to stand up for what I know to be the truth, and demand justice for what we feel has been a betrayal of our right to live a normal family life in our own home. Seems like a simple decision, I suppose. But it's not that easy.
A couple of weeks after the Smiths left, the owners of the property next door brought in some workmen to renovate the house. Of course, being the sort of unpleasant people they are, they even managed to fall out with these workmen, who seemed to have left after some sort of argument. We became concerned as to what was going to happen to the house now: very concerned. Once or twice Mr Angry has encountered two of the brothers who own the house, at a distance: tellingly, they avoided eye contact and looked embarrassed, as well they should. This week, however, one of the brothers was seen with what must have been prospective tenants or buyers: my heart sank. They were not exactly an encouraging sight, and one pair stormed out in a row, shouting, 'You say four bedroom: not four, only three, you lie ...' Up to their old tricks, it seems: should have expected it. And with this in mind, it may well be that we have to keep the pressure up via the old LGO after all.
Because the horrible, frightening thought which is now keeping me awake at night is: are we going to be living next door to more Homechoice tenants? Barnet have refused to count this out, despite everything that has happened. And in the comments by Ms X, the senior officer at Barnet, there is no criticism of the landlords at all, no mention of the lack of cooperation with the police, the rat infestation that had to be cleared, the fact that by the end of the tenancy they had fallen out with tenants and council alike, and were apparently demanding compensation for damage to their property! No, if you read her remarks, you would believe they were model landlords, with model tenants, who only needed 'support'. So: more of the same, then? Are we going to have to put up with more problem neighbours? Will we have to move out of our home? Anyone who has followed this blog from the beginning, or lived through an ordeal like this might have an idea of how we feel. It just seems never ending. Hence my despair.
And I realised then that it isn't over. I can't draw a line under it all and 'move on'. We are still facing an uncertain future. Once again, I just feel overwhelmed by anxiety about what we may have to face in the next few months.
I looked again at the letter from the LGO today, the first time in a week that I have been able to bring myself to do so. I read and reread the sentence which drove me out of the house, into a state of incipient madness in the park. Not for the first time in our dealings with Barnet council, I did not know whether to laugh or cry.
Anyone who has read this blog will have had a taste of what we have had to put up with in the sixteen months that the Smiths were resident next door. I've only included some of it, so just imagine the rest.The hundreds of incidents of antisocial behaviour. The drug use, the drunkenness, the domestic violence, the abusive language, the harassment, the continual noise, the constantly disrupted sleep, the numerous crime reference numbers relating to police attendance, the arrest of Mrs Smith's daughter after a violent assault, the notice served on Travis Smith for harrassing us: etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, ad nauseum.
But Ms X, the senior officer who responded to the LGO, mentions none of this.
She reverentially refers to the 'needs' of Travis Smith and his ADHD, and goes out of her way to present Mrs Smith as nothing more than a tragic victim of circumstances. No reference whatsoever to the drug abuse, the violence, all the antisocial behaviour of the other members of the family, or indeed, the lodgers and many other associates of the household who were openly accommodated by Mrs Smith. She can't mention that because that would only serve to underline the complete failure of the council to offer any consideration of our rights and well being. The fact that the Smiths were moved was never because of any sympathy for us, or acceptance of responsibility for the inadequacies of their housing policy in action; it was because of the long delayed activation of the LGO investigation - oh and possibly due to some uncomfortable publicity in a pre election period.
We could of course turn the whole thing on its head and say, ok: by your non existent standards, it is true, then, that you are not guilty of maladministration in your handling of the ASB of this family, because there were no standards capable of protecting innocent victims like us from such an experience. Hmm: that doesn't say much about your commitment to the residents of the borough, or in tackling the challenges of Broken Britain, does it? When the perpetrators of such behaviour are given more consideration than their victims? How does that fit into Conservative political philosophy?
As for Ms X: one has to ask if she and some of the other senior officers and councillors involved in this case do actually understand, or care, about the impact that living through a situation like we did has on your life. The truth is that they probably don't give a damn, as long as it doesn't happen to them.
No where in her comments does Ms X mention that throughout our hellish sixteen month ordeal we did not once retaliate, or respond in any way, despite all the distress we endured and the extreme and constant provocation. That we conscientiously did everything the council and police asked us to do. That Mr Angry only spoke - politely - to Mrs Smith on one occasion, after being kept awake literally all night, as we were night after night for months on end, by Troy Smith and his yob chums - she of course as usual skilfully deflected the blame on her poor son Travis (who has ADHD, did you know?) despite the fact that it was nothing to do with him.
As for me, I have never spoken to Mrs Smith, being so terrified of her, and her menacing household, and despite her informing me, or rather screaming at me on two occasions, her decided opinion that I am a 'fucking cunt' or, on a more friendly day, that I am a 'fucking cow'.
We have always followed official advice and tried hard to resist responding to their obnoxious behaviour, and scupuously done everything we were told. Where did it get us? Absolutely f***ing nowhere. And worse.
Everything we had to put up with has been completely ignored. Reading Ms X's comments, you would think that we had spent the last sixteen months living next door to the Waltons, or maybe the Von Trapp family. And then, in a paragraph which is supposed to be an initial response to the complaint in general, in a paragraph in which our name is, incidentally confused with the Smiths, and detailing for some reason the remarkably saintly behaviour of Tracey Smith, who we are told was 'happy' to move, being such a nice cooperative Neighbour From Hell (into a special type of tenancy that is only available to families proven to be guilty of ASB) and what do we read? A nicely placed throw away comment, obviously meant to cast me in the light of one of the worst villains in modern history. You will be shocked, be warned. This seemingly trivial example of Ms X's attempts to justify the actions of the council in our case is actually the one sentence in the whole report that very nearly caused me to spontaneously combust - says Ms X:
'(Mrs Smith) was happy to sign up and moved out last week. Lovely woman. Mother of the Year. But look what happened then. Ms X can hardly contain her her disgust. 'When Mrs Smith moved out Mrs Angry displayed banners saying 'Bon Voyage' and balloons on her (Mrs Angry's house).'
There. Now you see me for what I am. A despicable, contemptible, untrustworthy woman who may not not indulge in drug abuse, domestic violence, criminality or antisocial behaviour, but who, for no reason, at the drop of a hat, nips up to Waitrose and sticks a few decorations in the window in full view of passing motorists and unexpectedly returning Neighbours From Hell. I am so ashamed. Lock me up, and throw away the key.
I had an overdue library book once too.
If you remember, we were rung by the police on the night the Smiths left, to say that they were definitely going at eight o'clock that night. We watched them drive off, and the house was for the first time in sixteen months silent all night long.
I had long ago promised my daughter, who, with my son, has put up with a prolonged and intolerable situation that no one their age should have to endure, that when the Smiths finally left, we would celebrate. So we had a bottle of champagne, which had been chilling in the fridge for some time during the long last few weeks of rumoured moves. Thank God no one told Ms X about that. The next morning, as promised, I put some white balloons on the front door, and some Waitrose best bunting in the window, yes, with a small bon voyage sign. It was partly a joke to show our friends who pass by on the way to school in the morning that we had been liberated. Do you blame us? What we didn't know of course was that the Smiths, who we had been assured had finally gone, would return, and see this display. But so what, after what we had put up with? That night, as recounted in a previous blog, they slipped into the house next door and left a nice surprise for us all over our doorstep. They got the last word, as is only fitting, I'm sure you will agree.
So Ms X decided to ignore all the terrible things the Smiths have done, and draw attention to the one gesture of defiance that we ever dared to take: after we had been informed by the police that they were finally gone. That is very interesting, isn't it? Why does she feel the need to mention this dreadful example of Mrs Angry's social delinquency, I wonder? Of course smear tactics are a favoured ploy in this borough in some quarters, as we have seen.
What do you think, dear readers?
How I regret, now, not doing something that was really worthy of inclusion in this woman's pathetic attempt to discredit our case. You see, friends, virtue is not always its own reward, after all.
And so, here is Mrs Angry's advice to any of you who may be in the same situation as we were.
If you live in this borough, unless you live in a council property, don't bother asking the council for help. They won't. If appropriate, contact the local police.
Log everything that happens, so that you have evidence. Make sure you have witnesses to some of the trouble, or maybe CCTV.
If you are being harrassed or intimidated, and you can provide evidence, use it, insist the police see it and take action.
If all else fails, and a friendly cab driver offers to get a pal of his to teach the b******s a lesson, say no. But give him a good tip.
Or start a blog.