Monday 29 March 2010

We're on the road to Nowhere

During our long, long struggle to get something done about the mess we have been landed in by Barnet, many people have offered us their well meant advice - some good, some not so good, some bad, and some frankly highly illegal.

This advice has ranged from the obvious: complain to the police/council - answer well, yeah, done that, to - no, really kick up a fuss - answer, yes, we have really REALLY done that ... to the more extreme, usually involving violence and the risk of arrest ...

A lot of sympathy was shown by a cab driver, for example, who mentioned, with a knowing wink as he dropped me off, that he is a childhood friend and drinking partner of members of a notorious local crime family ... it seems that they, unlike Barnet Council, have a stringent policy of zero tolerance to people like our neighbours, or as he put it, '******** like that'. Interesting idea, that social justice is now the responsiblity of community minded gangsters rather than the local council, but being the wet middle class woolly liberals that we are, we thought we should stick to more conventional solutions.

In retrospect, of course, this may well have been a major mistake, as behaving ourselves and following the correct procedures has been spectacularly unsucessful. And no, Ms Hillan and Mr Freer, I'm not behaving myself anymore.

Here in Broken Barnet, we learned, social justice is dependent on a local authority whose political idealogy does not allow a financial committment to the resources and staffing needed to protect the community from antisocial behaviour. There is little evidence either, in our experience, that the authority wants to improve its partnership with the police in order to more effectively address the problem as part of any multi-agency approach. Of course after the recent high profile cases which illustrate the tragic consequences of ignoring ASB and its impact on victims, this sort of laissez-faire attitude has been shown to be clearly inadequate and highly criticised by coroners, politicians, 'Victims' champion Sara Payne, and now in a highly significant report by the Chief Inspector of Constabulary.

Most people - encouraged by our local authority -imagine that antisocial behaviour takes place on council estates, far away, in run down areas, urban ghettoes. The truth is somewhat different. It can happen anywhere, and increasingly does.

If repeated ASB takes place in a council owned property, there is a procedure which the council can follow which will lead to a fairly easy and swift eviction by the family or individual responsible for the trouble.

If, on the other hand, the ASB takes place in a privately owned property, caused by a tenant who has been placed there by a council housing scheme like Homechoice, the authority can simply stand back and evade all responsibility for the problem. Nothing to do with me, guv. Off the housing list, out of sight, out of mind. Barnet has no system to ensure that the tenancy is responsibly managed by the landlords, or indeed any system to vet landlords before their uninspected accommodation is taken on for recommendation to homeless residents. You might be forgiven for thinking that this is a license for bad behaviour for both tenants and landlords, and you would be absolutely right.

Homechoice properties can be anywhere: with so many recent problems in the housing market, there are plenty of very nice properties in residential areas that are now being let, rather than sold. And it may seem like a very good idea to offer your property to the local authority ... if you are thinking of this, if I were you I would think again, unless you want to run the risk of acquiring tenants like our neighbours.

Last year, there was a lot of publicity given to a story about a detached house in Totteridge which was occupied by tenants from the Homechoice scheme, and whose alleged behaviour had enraged neighbours and the owners too. Of course, because the family in question were said to be travellers, this was seized upon by the tabloid press who never miss an opportunity to feature a negative story about gypsies and perceived benefit scroungers. But it drew attention for the first time to the housing scheme which was now distributing 'vulnerable' tenants in receipt of benefits all around the borough. This will, incidentally, have a very interesting effect on voting patterns, won't it? If the natural Labour vote is shared out in Tory areas?

There is absolutely every reason for genuinely needy families to be given a decent home to live in, and undoubtedly most of these families placed in private accommodation are well behaved tenants, but what happens when they are not?

Nothing really happens, that's what. You just have to put up with it.

In theory, the landlord can evict the tenant if they are in breach of the tenancy agreement. But what if the landlord refuses to evict the tenant? As long as the rent is paid, an unscrupulous landlord will care very little about the behaviour of the people living in his property, as we have found.

You might expect that, as in our case, after being encouraged by the police and local authority to report and record several months and nearly two hundred incidents of ASB, the local authority might fulfill its promise to apply to court for ASBOs in regard to your neighbours from hell. You might expect that, but, as in our case, you might very well be wrong.

To be continued.

Friday 26 March 2010

Sacks and Drugs and, er, a cut price housing scheme

Barnet is a thought of as an affluent borough, and this is the image that the local authority naturally prefers to present.

The recently departed leader of the council, Mike Freer, (departed, sadly, not to a better place, but to an even worse one, ie the House of Commons, or so he imagines) has tried to convince the world that he is a man of enormous political wisdom, on the basis of a ludicrous plan for local government - the infamous easyCouncil idea - which no one quite understands, but appears, in essence, to offer a two tier system for council services. You want something quicker or better than anyone else: you pay for it. You can't pay for it? F off then.

Of course this would fit perfectly in Tory run Barnet, where there is already effectively a two tier system for residents: those with means live in areas with the best schools and the nearest access to healthcare resources, those without tend to live in sink estates, miles from our only hospital, and they cannot afford to live in the catchment areas of the better state schools, or pay to have their children tutored for years in the chance of getting into the selective school system.

In our borough, no one really wants to think about the urgent social issues which concern so many of the less affluent members of our society: the elderly, the poor, the homeless. Most of our councillors, and certainly almost all of the Conservative councillors, are very nicely off, thank you, and imagine that everyone else lives like them, or if not, that's just their hard luck. Their priority is to cut spending, and if that means cutting back on the services that most affect the neediest and most vulnerable members of our society: who cares? Actually, Mr Freer, and Ms Hillan, quite a lot of us do.

According to the housing charity Shelter, here in Barnet, shamefully, we have the longest council housing waiting list in the country. Investment in social housing is of little interest to this administration, so what to do? Well, why not dump as many people as possible in private accommodation, as quickly as possible, any old landlord, any old property, and then wash your hands of the tenants. Believe it or not, this is how Barnet's Homechoice scheme actually operates, and that is our problem neighbours came to live in the uninspected, rat infested property where they remain to this day.

Mrs Angry submitted Freedom of Information questions to Barnet in regard to the Homechoice scheme, and, after appealing to the Information Commissioner to investigate delays in response and a breach of the Freedom of Information Act, was eventually given the information which confirms that hundreds of vulnerable homeless families have been moved off the housing list into private properties which have not been physically inspected and are required to meet no standards of quality or safety other than a gas certificate and an energy certificate. Yes, that's right, having identified familes as vulnerable, the council then proceeds to abandon them in accommodation in which the electrical safety has not been tested, nor the fire safety, nor the suitability of facilities, or even the standard of cleanliness or decoration. Shocking, isn't it? This state of affairs, you won't be suprised to hear, is not regarded as good practice in well run authorities, where qualified housing officers make the necessary health and safety risk assessments of all potential properties.

In the case of our neighbours, the owners of the property approved, sight unseen, by Barnet council, had consequently to be forced by Barnet's own Environmental Health Officers to clear the garden, and two outhouses, of a mountain of squalid rubbish which was attracting rats. This pile of filth had been created there over several months by the owners prior to the tenancy, and a huge amount dumped on top the night before the tenants moved in. Numerous rubbish sacks stuffed full of old junk, discarded bedding, bits of old wood, broken household items, rusting metal pieces, paper, tins, a toilet cistern, stuffed bin liners spilling out everywhere, shards of jagged glass, even the proverbial kitchen sink, all thrown into the garden, covering the entire area, like a landfill site. The tenants thoughtfully added a couple of mattresses, a sprinkling of fast food wrappers, bottles, tins, and some other crap of their own, just to make it seem like home.

After a while, the tenants: let's call them the Smiths - thought it might be nice to clear a space in the middle, so they could start a fire and sit around it late at night smoking a variety of illegal substances and boozing. They managed this, we observed, on more than one occasion, by paying a dirty looking man who had the shakes and appeared in urgent need of some drugs, to dump a few of the bags in the bins of a nearby school, and then in our wheelie bin. Mrs Smith passed the man a small package into his hand as a reward. When Mrs Smith was reported for this dumping on her neighbours' doorstep activity, the family and the number of male youths who also stayed there decided to take an alternative approach and start burning stuff in the back.

One night, we smelt choking, acrid smoke coming from the back of the house. Looking out from the bathroom, we saw what looked like a scene from a hoody version of 'Lord of the Rings': a number of wild eyed drunken/stoned youths larking about around a huge blazing fire, gleefully throwing onto the fire pieces of the broken rubbish that was strewn around them. They looked up when they saw the light go on in our bathroom. One of the Smith boys, Travis, a youth with alleged 'behavioural problems' who, like all his brothers, looks curiously underdeveloped for his age, and with equally immature emotional development, yelled out excitedly - 'They're looking!'

An older yob with a beer gut, who was one of their lodgers, looked up at us and said 'Fuck'em. So what, ' and carried on drinking.

Yeah, so what.

By now, even with all the windows shut, the fumes from the fire were making it impossible to breathe in the rooms at the back of the house. We decided we would ring the council's out of emergency service to report the situation. The man who was on duty laughed. 'You're joking, intcha? We don't have an out of hours service in the week anymore,' he told us - 'nah, that was knocked on the head ages ago ... cuts and all that.' They only have 'em at weekends'.

So, in Barnet now, if your neighbours are keeping you awake at night with unbearably loud music, or setting light to toxic rubbish in the back garden, or creating any statutory nuisance, and it happens during the week, you can forget about getting any council officer to come out, as they won't be on duty. Then, in a Barnet Catch 22 style trick, you will find that if the problem continues, and you try to take action against the perpetrators, you will be told that there is no evidence, as nothing has been witnessed by an environmental health office. Neat, eh?

The next night, the Smiths and their friends had another bonfire.

On the following day, an Environmental Health Officer came to visit. She photographed the garden squalor and quickly agreed that an order to clear the rubbish had to be made. She said she had previously had to visit the property due to rat infestation. She also told me that now because of the neighbours, our property was effectively worthless, as we would not be able to sell it without declaring the problem we were having. I broke down in tears.

Since the Smiths and their friends had moved in we had been kept awake almost every night by the noise that only a household like that can make: constant noise, night and day, yelling, swearing, fighting, Tracey Smith screaming obscenities at her sons until past midnight, walloping them, the older son and his pals up all night partying, hanging around the house during the day. Our lives had been turned upside down. We had become so desperate that we considered taking the drastic step of moving - but now we realised that we couldn't escape. We were trapped.

The next night, another bonfire.

Late in the night I peered out of the bathroom window and saw Troy Smith, the eldest son, sitting by the fence, smoking a joint, and sucking on some sort of pipe attached to a glass bowl. Mrs Angry thought that the equipment appeared to be 'a bong'. We noticed that there were also glass bottles and pieces of tin foil near the bonfire. This brought back vivid memories of a recent unfortunate holiday to Amble, the only village in Northumberland which has a major crack problem, as we discovered walking through the dunes one night and tripping up over a group of enthusiasts gathered together around a little fire ... in fact, as Mrs Angry's son observed gloomily, 'Last year, Mum, we went to Amble. This year, Amble came to us ...'

Ha, we thought, now we can call the police for assistance, so we did, and then waited. And waited. No one showed up. The next morning the bong, tin foil etc were still on display, so we took photographs and rang the police to ask again if they would care to come and arrest the Smiths for drug abuse.

When eventually the local police questioned the family, Tracey Smith assured the officers that of course her son and his friends were merely indulging in their fondness for 'sweet tobacco'.

And that was the end of that.

More to follow.

Wednesday 24 March 2010

What is antisocial behaviour?

What is antisocial behaviour?

From a legal point of view, according to the Crime and Disorder Act of 1998, this is defined by:

"Acting in a manner that caused, or was likely to cause, harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household (of the defendant)" ...

To a certain extent, therefore, the perception of what constitutes ASB might be said to be a subjective one, as what causes distress to one individual might seem acceptable to another. And seen in isolation, many of the incidents which amount to ASB may seem relatively trivial, hence the difficulty at times in getting police and other agencies to respond quickly and effectively to what theoretically is a minor misdeameanour. The important thing to realise is the cumulative effect of a series of such incidents, and the devastating impact that this can have on victims.

Unless you have the misfortune to experience personally a situation like ours, you probably imagine that antisocial behaviour takes place in a world far away from you, on a council estate, a city centre late at night; places you never go to and never think about. At least, if I am honest, that is probably a fair representation of my own attitude before all this began, at the beginning of 2009.

Since then, our family life has been turned upside down. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say it has been totally violated by the continual intrusion of the neighbouring household's violent, reckless, and utterly dysfunctional lifestyle: perpetual domestic conflict, open drug abuse, drunkeness, intimidation and a complete disregard for the effect that their behaviour has on anyone else.

Our children have been continually exposed to the most appalling behaviour and constant obscene language, by which I don't just mean swearing - I mean foul, abusive language used by the neighbouring household as a weapon, an expression of violence within their own family. Obscenities used as abuse, as a perverse form of communication, as punctuation, verb, adjective and noun; used casually or deliberately, the constant use of violent language in every possible context expressing a view of the world as one of utter contempt, alienation and emotional disassociation.

As well as the vile language, our children have had to listen to endless arguments, fights, the frrequent sound of a mother 'whacking' her sons, or threatening to. They have heard a woman apparently attempting to kill her partner, watched a hoodie standing in front of the window brandishing an eight inch kitchen knife, acting out a stabbing, seen yobs jumping into our front of our home making obscene gestures at us, been woken up night after night by the sound of yelling, swearing, fighting, mucking around, one, two, three in the morning, anytime.

Our children have had to try to study for GCSEs in a house where almost no room is safe from this constant racket, as well as deal with the immense anxiety they feel after living for so long next to such a frightening household. Their schools have had to be informed about the 'problem' and they in turn have had to inform the exam boards in case of the detrimental effect on their performance.

On the plus side, their education has been unexpectedly broadened as a result of living next to this family, their numerous lodgers, asssociates and casual callers, and given them an expert knowledge of drug abuse: apart from smoking weed they now know how to use a bong, snort coke and so on. Is there a parent who wouldn't be grateful for that extracurricular experience?

The effect of living like this on my husband and myself has had, not surprisingly, a deep impact on us both. I have had to have medication and counselling for stress, my normally robustly healthy husband, after months of struggling to go to work on little sleep after a night of continual noise and disruption, ended up in hospital with a chest pains and then pneumonia: me, I have now spent four months sleeping on an Ikea camp bed in the kitchen, which is the only room on the house where I know I can sleep without being woken up by noise from next door.

This sort of behaviour has been going on for a year and three months now.

Apart from the disruption, day and night - the house, due to its multiple occupancy, is never empty - we have been sworn at, spat at, laughed at, had rubbish thrown in our garden, and dumped in our wheelie bins, continually intimidated by the large numbers of yobs who attend the property. We have lost count of the numbers of times the police have been called to attend some incident or other, or sat in our front room listening to us pouring our yet another tale of grief as a result of the never ending situation.

Because of course we have, since the very beginning, done all the things you are supposed to do: involve the police and the local authority. We have never retaliated in anyway, despite severe and constant provocation. We have kept, as instructed, endless incident diaries - more than a dozen volumes worth. I weighed them recently: nearly a couple of kilos worth of misery for our family. We were given them by the police, and they were theoretically for the use of Barnet Council's officers when legal proceedings would start. Ha.

Where has doing as we were told for so long got us? Bloody nowhere. Despite all promises, we are still here, they are still there. Why has their behaviour been tolerated by the authorities, after months of being told that ASBO proceedings were inevitable?

Incredibly, and in stark contrast to all well run local authorities, Barnet Council does not have any antisocial behaviour officers. It used to have one, but guess what, despite the growing awareness of the problem of ASB and the need to get tough with it they decided to delete the post last year. Barnet's Tory administration, you see, are not exactly on message with David Cameron's latest worries about 'Broken Britain'. They are obviously still catching up with his earlier and much appreciated 'Hug a Hoodie' idea. Instead of an ASB officer, there is a PIT, a small team responsible for every little irritating local problem from abandoned cars to dog crap. Oh and ASB, when time allows.

So you can imagine, perhaps, how we were left in this mess for so long, and when we began to kick up a fuss about lack of action, a new thought was put to us. The household which was causing all this trouble might be better served if, instead of being punished, they were given 'support for their needs'! Of course, our needs are irrelevant, because we are middle class and expected to put up with this crap and behave ourselves, and we do. What a mistake that was.

More tomorrow.

Sunday 21 March 2010

"Neeeeeeeigh-bours ... ev'ry body needs good neeeeeeighbours ... "

My daughter sits on the floor and waits for the next episode of homely Aussie fun to begin. I laugh to myself, and take a deep breath, glancing nervously at the wall behind the tv set. This is because 'good neighbours' are something we can only dream about. The neighbours we have had for the last year and more are the other sort. You know - you've heard about them, read about them, seen them on the telly - the ones From Hell.

If this ever happens to you, and I really hope it does not, understand this: your life is never going to be the same.

Your home will no longer be a refuge, it will be a battlefield, or rather somewhere under siege.

Your family life will be torn apart, slowly, in a sytematic violation of your right to peace and privacy.

You will lose the ability to sleep, or relax, or do any of the normal things that a normal family does in a normal home.

Your entire life will consist of thinking about your impossible existence, and how you can sort it out.

You will bore your friends - and yourself - talking about your problem all the time.

You will find yourself breaking down in tears in front of family, friends, casual acquaintances, complete strangers, as well as policemen, councillors, doctors, solicitors, council officers.

You will become more and more angry as it becomes harder and harder to accept that there is no easy way of protecting yourself from the constant intrusion into your life by the people on the other side of the wall.

And you cannot possible imagine what difficulties you will find in the way of resolving the situation, or how little help you will get.

If it happens to you, be prepared for a relentless struggle to get any effective assistance from the authorities that are supposed to support you. Whether you get the help you need will depend upon where you live, and what sort of local authority you have. If you live in the London Borough of Barnet ... well - read on.

Recently, of course, there has been a lot of debate about the issue of antisocial behaviour, due to too many high profile and deeply tragic cases of victims whose intense distress has been ignored, or badly managed, by local authorities and the police. The tabloids are full of stories of the facile concept seized upon by Tory leader David Cameron: "Broken Britain", tales of a society breaking down, a feral underclass supported by benefits, drug and alcohol abuse, petty crime and violence. Is it a true representation? I don't know, and I don't think an Old Etonian like David Cameron can possibly have any idea, nor can he allow himself the luxury of thinking that his party has nothing to do with any failure to address the urgent social problems which we now face.

The truth is that many front-line social issues, and in particular antisocial behaviour, are the day to day responsibility of local authorities rather than central government. How effectively ASB is managed is entirely down to the approach of individual authorities and will depend on their committment to providing the resources necessary for identifying and tackling the problem.

Many local authorities are now, of course, Conservative controlled, as is the London Borough of Barnet, and Mr Cameron would do well to consider whether these councils are playing their part in dealing with the intense distress and disruption that antisocial behaviour causes, or supporting the victims of such harrassment. The Pilkington case is one we all know about: how many more are there? How many Tory run boroughs are effectively facilitating the intimidation of ordinary decent families or individuals by failing to provide the procedures and staffing resources that would protect them?

Commenting on the Pilkington tragedy, David Cameron said: ... "everything will be done differently by a Conservative government" ... I've got news for you, Dave - your local authorities in many areas are already in charge of the management of ASB and they are failing to provide the support that is needed because they simply do not want to commit the necessary funding for it. Come to Barnet, where there is no antisocial behaviour officer anymore, only a 'Priority Intervention Team', whose responsibilities, ever increasing, appear to range from dealing with abandoned cars, street trading, dog fouling, oh, and every case of ASB within the borough.

More tomorrow.

Friday 19 March 2010

Watch this space, full blog coming soon ...