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.

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