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.

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