Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Real Eastenders

My next door neighbour was a classic Eastender. He died at 84 in September, after living in the same council house (owned and provided by local government as part of the social welfare system designed after the Second World War) for over 40 years. He was a dustman all his life, and when I first met him, his son, and his house, I thought I was watching an East End version of Steptoe and Son. They were so disadvantaged, down-to-earth, humble, and so loved animals - they had 30 pigeons in the shed at the bottom of the garden. They had no money, the son loved to go fishing, the son had asthma, the son died of an asthma attack 5 years ago and the dad lived alone since then.

Now then, the house they lived in, even in its poor condition, would have been worth £170,000 today. And in England, there is a scheme called the Right-to-Buy, originally set up by Margaret Thatcher but now being phased out. This entitled the council tenant to buy the house they live in, at a discount of up to 60% (depending on how long they had lived there).

My neighbour also had another son and a daughter, but they were too fractious, too poor and not savvy enough to club together and help their dad claim his Right-to-Buy. Consequently they lost out on a potential inheritance value of £102,000. Of course, they also lost out on their history, because the house in which they had grown up had to be returned to the Council after their Dad died.

Thus once again, an East End family much disadvantaged in earlier times by the more priveleged classes, still loses out in today's England.

The Council is Newham which once was "the People's Republic Of", and for a long time was staffed by a weird mixture of Freemasons and Trotskyite Guardian readers. Today it also includes people whose poor command of the official language of the United Kingdom is simply obstructive to government.

Until recently the Council's policy was that it could "not afford" to fix up these council houses, so in fact they transferred these houses for the manorly sum of ONE Pound to a housing association. It took a while for people to notice that this was a crap idea. So now what they do is they grant a lease on the house for 15 years to a housing association. The housing association gets a grant from central government to do up the house, and also earns money as landlord and manager over that period, after which the property returns to the ownership of Newham Council.

The lucky housing association in this case is ARHAG (originally the African Refugee Housing Action Group) which is getting the majority of these housing lease contracts in Newham. Their success is apparently due to their performance, but is clearly enhanced because Newham favours ARHAG as a BME enterprise. Never mind the acronym, it is known as a Black and Minority Ethnic group enterprise. Why not "Yellow and Minority Ethnic", or "Brown and Minority Ethnic"? No, please note, it has to be "Black and Minority Ethnic", when ideally it should be just MINORITY GROUP Enterprise!

ARHAG did the house up reasonably well, and under the contract had to offer it to the Council's homeless waiting list. A pleasant English East End couple who heard about the vacancy knocked on my door and told me they were hoping to get the house after several years of trying desperately to get out of their existing one. They also came to tell me when they learned they did NOT get the house. Even more sadly, they tried to take their case higher up, but they lacked the erudition to convince anyone in authority to care. (Well, Stephen Timms MP couldn't help them)

Anyhow, my new neighbours moved in while I was away. Today I heard them, even before I have even seen them. I have never heard such a racket coming through my party walls, in 13 years of living here. The children were screaming, slamming doors, and shouting (in what sounds like a Middle Eastern language), and generally running riot as though their parents had no control of them.

So once again, I feel sorry for the original East Enders, and I want to apologise to them for not being able to help them despite all my years of living here.

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