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.

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