How to make a slum by Bill Hartley

How To Make A Slum

BILL HARTLEY sees the shabby reality of social housing

The welfare state - England's New Jerusalem

Of late, thanks to my involvement with a friend’s company I have been able to acquire a close acquaintance with public housing in the North East of England. These days it is known as ‘social housing’ but the public being generally behind in official speak still refer to them as council houses. My friend makes a good living at what might be described as ‘clearing up the mess’. Generally he is called in as the first step in the process of making a council house habitable once more.

As a preliminary to his arrival a council official will have visited the property to bolt a burglar alarm to a bedroom floor. This is intended as a deterrent to squatters. He will then hang net curtains at windows to give the illusion to passers by that the property is still occupied. Finally he will fasten a small safe to an outside wall and place the keys inside. My friend has the combination and takes possession of the property until the place is rendered fit for workmen to enter. Thus begins the process of returning the house back to the council as fit for habitation once more.

The first stage is to remove furniture and other belongings. It might be supposed that the departing tenant would clear the property. Not so. Abandoning what is no longer wanted is standard procedure when vacating and of course passes the cost of disposal on to the council. The council however cannot be sure that everything in the house is actually no longer wanted. Hence they have a rule that items must remain in situ for twenty eight days just in case the former tenant has second thoughts. This is despite the fact that the tenant has effectively trashed the house and the council is going to have to spend a lot of money making it habitable once more.

At a typical property a ton of rubbish is not considered unusual. This is verified when we take a trailer load to the tip. And of course disposing of rubbish costs money;  further expenditure added to the month’s loss of rent whilst the council waited to see if the tenant wished to recover any of it.

With the property empty, we can begin the clear up.  Generally the worst room in the house is the kitchen. Cooking in such households appears to focus on the chip pan and it is extraordinary how far along the ceiling fat can travel before settling into brown rivet shaped globules. The best way of dealing with this is to use a pungent and effective coverall paint (£53 per tin for the trade, £73 to you and I ).

Once the neighbourhood notices that work is going on we begin to receive callers. Despite being quite obviously contractors we are viewed as part of the small army of officialdom who visit the estate district commissioner fashion, to generally think and make decisions for them. We are often asked to dispose of their rubbish, give an opinion about when ‘someone’ will be round to view a problem associated with their home, or do something about a mess which the locals themselves have created. Rebuffed, they wander away with a mild air of bewilderment. Help is generally at hand though and I became quite adept at spotting official visitors. Great care being taken to lock and secure their car is the first clue.

The bathroom can be relied upon to be the second worst room in the house.  Some tenants would appear to have a horror of ventilation and like the chip fat downstairs, black mould thrives in such conditions. Most houses are fitted with UPVC windows which provides an excellent launch platform for the fungi  and if it has colonised the ceiling then out comes another tin of the coverall paint. Toilets can be rendered uncleanable by a failure to flush. Eventually the ceramic bowl is penetrated and no chemical can undo the damage.  This is reported to the council who will have to replace. And if it is one of those designs in peach or avocado then probably the sink and bath will have to go too.

The council will of course wish to pay for the bare minimum to be done before the house is ready to be reoccupied. However sometimes they cannot avoid instructing us to clean up the garden.  Superficially this would seem to be little more than getting rid of decomposing soft furnishings and the odd mattress. We however know better. That undulating mound of uncut grass hides layers of rubbish going back decades. Much of it is plastic and therefore destined to otherwise lie there for all time. Once we begin to collect then more and more of the stuff is uncovered. Fashionable children’s toys from decades ago together with a spectrum of broken glass and house ware are mixed in with rusting metal. The garden is the modern equivalent of the medieval habit of just chucking it out of the window. In really extreme cases we utilise machinery. Archaeologists of the future will be pleased to discover that beneath the six inches disturbed by a Rotavator machine lie layers of still unearthed domestic evidence.

The other rooms in the house can generally be dealt with by cleaning all of the surfaces such as skirting boards and cupboards. What we dread most though is an occupant who was a smoker. It is the reluctance to let in ventilation which causes the problem. Nicotine is bad enough but attached to dust and dirt becomes almost impossible to eradicate, leaving surfaces with a permanent sepia tint. A living room can resemble a Victorian photograph. When a cocktail of cleaning substances have failed then the last resort is the coverall paint.

It might be asked how is it that a council allows properties to get into such a state and what happens to the tenants? In fairness people living in poverty are not all like that. It’s not unusual among our trickle of visitors to meet neighbours who will express their disgust at having had to live in proximity to the former tenant. Some will even wish to let us know that they are in work and self supporting. The reason is that councils have dropped inspection as an easy way to save money. It isn’t of course since they fail to spot what is happening to some properties until it is too late. Inspection is a predictable and quantifiable cost, clearing up the mess isn’t.  Also the tenant will be rendering the house uninhabitable by neglect rather than by deliberate vandalism. So for example when the black mould has done its work and replicated the conditions of a Victorian slum and the children come down with respiratory problems then it’s on to the council for rehousing. It is highly unlikely that a junior official will be prepared to get confrontational with tenants of this sort and suggest they do something about the squalor they have created. It is easier to make a brief visit, ignore the cause of the squalor, note the complaints and make a recommendation. So when my friend is called into clear up the mess, it’s reasonable to assume another just like it is being created elsewhere.

BILL HARTLEY is a Yorkshire-based freelance writer





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