CHRIS PHILP: Shame of Camden's council house squalor
I recall clearly the moment I first knew that I wanted to help my neighbours by serving as an elected representative. It was in 2005, and I was talking to distraught residents in an estate called Kiln Place in Gospel Oak. For the previous 10 years, the 40
I recall clearly the moment I first knew that I wanted to help my neighbours by serving as an elected representative. It was in 2005, and I was talking to distraught residents in an estate called Kiln Place in Gospel Oak.
For the previous 10 years, the 400 residents there had been pleading with Camden Council to repair their outdated "warm air" heating system. It simply did not work - it blew out tepid air, leading to damp and leaving residents freezing in the winter.
I saw mould growing in kitchens. I saw rotten window frames. I met pensioners who had to sleep in their living rooms with a Calor gas heater during the winter.
I saw children with worsening asthma and heard how ice formed on the inside of windows. All this was happening in the middle of one of the world's wealthiest cities. This shocked me, and along with Lulu Mitchell and Keith Sedgwick, I was determined to fix it, if elected.
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Well, we were elected in and we kept our promise. Today, Kiln Place has a new heating system and vulnerable pensioners on the estate no longer have to shiver by Calor gas fires in the winter.
I'm afraid that's not the end of the story. Today, around half of Camden's council homes fail to meet the government's decent homes standard. This is serious because Camden has 33,000 homes (of which 9,000 are owned by leaseholders, the others rented by tenants).
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Around 35 per cent of Camden's residents live in council properties, half of which are "not decent". The Kiln Place story is repeated across the borough, caused by years of neglect. Leaking roofs, broken lifts and squalid stairwells reeking of urine and cluttered with needles abound. It's heartbreaking.
The cost of making all this good is vast: it's estimated at £413 million over five years. That's £17,000 per tenanted property, or about £1,200 per year per council tax-paying household. Many local councils received government money for this kind of work, but Camden did not. Fortunately, the Housing Scrutiny Committee which I chair has just approved an investment programme to fix this problem without unduly burdening Camden taxpayers: it involves selling some properties as they fall empty and developing council land on estates being regenerated.
Unfortunately, my Lib Dem counterparts responsible for running these repairs still have a central command-and-control view of the world. Residents and leaseholders are not given the power to guide the repairs and capital works.
Delays, incompetence and complaints are rife. There have recently been huge delays and costly mistakes on repair projects such as the Whittington Estate in Highgate, the Chalcots in Belsize Park and at Kilburn Gate. Leaseholders are also routinely grossly over-charged for works.
Centrally run schemes tend to be inherently inefficient and ineffective. It is inevitable that the vast bureaucracy needed to administer 33,000 homes will be unresponsive. I would like to see residents given more responsibility for deciding how the budgets for their estates are spent and in overseeing and approving those works.
No-one cares more than residents about repairs and maintenance. By trusting people and giving them responsibility, we will be pleasantly surprised by the results. I have more faith in people with a stake in their neighbourhood than in distant bureaucracies.
Camden's estates suffer from one other serious blight: anti-social behaviour and crime. Often harassment, abuse and drug dealing make life unbearable. So far, the Lib Dem councillors responsible for this part of Camden Council haven't used new powers to kick out tenants who are causing serious trouble. They are wrong: we should not provide subsidised housing to people who terrorise others.
One tenant threatened to stab someone, dealt drugs, repeatedly harassed and attacked neighbours and breached his bail conditions 13 times in one month. Finally, after years, this person was moved out - into another council flat elsewhere in Camden! This is unacceptable.
In summary, the money is finally available for physically repairing Camden's estates, but it's essential that residents (not the bureaucracy) play a leading role or the money will be wasted. And unless there is the political willpower to clamp down on crime and anti-social behaviour, the social fabric of our estates will be torn even as their physical fabric is made good.
q Chris Philp is a local councillor and the Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Hampstead & Kilburn