Sunday, June 04, 2006

Thatcher Thatcher Plumbing Snatcher

Warning: this rant might sound a bit rich coming from a homeowner, but I'm going to say it anyway.

A colleague of mine asked me and Plumbing S if we would change the cistern on the toilet in his flat. It was a high level cistern, he said, and he wanted to replace it with a low level one before he put the flat on the market. He doesn't actually live in the flat -- he used to, but he moved in with his partner when their first child came along and he's been renting it out ever since.

Okay, I said, that sounds quite straightforward, I'll come and have a look.

It's an ex-council flat, and it was built in the 50s or 60s -- classic low-rise, lots of concrete, of a type which is mostly (but not all) now in private ownership thanks to Thatcher and her Right to Buy 'nation of homeowners' ideology.

I have never seen anything like the plumbing in this flat. The toilet was the least of it -- it was the original, and pretty grim, but it did actually work. It would actually be fairly difficult to change the cistern, as all the pipework and fittings had at some point been covered in thick gloss paint (and I also couldn't find the mains stop tap -- it might be that you need to turn the whole block off), but my question was more, why would you bother? Really, the whole lot needs to come out and into a skip: hot, cold, waste, boiler, everything. It's fifty years old, it's been bodged and rebodged, and the world - and the water regulations - have moved on.

He can't afford to do that. The chances are that the next owner won't be able to afford to do that either. The fact is that a lot of low-end ex-council housing is owned by people who can't afford to do proper maintenance and upgrading. Even worse, a lot of it is privately tenanted and owned by landlords who can't or don't upgrade it.

Similar flats which have stayed in public ownership have had their bathrooms replaced, had double glazing fitted, had central heating installed with pipework which doesn't resemble a box of snakes, using public money rather than relying on low-income families to find the thousands of pounds necessary to get it done properly. Yes, housing maintenance is a big drain on the public purse, which is why it was so abhorrent to 1980s Tories, but the public purse has more flexibility in it than many private ones.

I'm not a housing expert, and I know there's some pretty vile social housing out there, but there are some situations where the free market just does not work, and low-end housing is one of them. There's a woman in her 90s who lives in a tiny terraced house behind my parents. She doesn't have a bathroom at all, just a tin bath, a cold tap and a toilet in the yard.

Yet the UK is fifteenth out of 200+ countries in the world's Human Development Index for 2005. Nobody should have to live like that in a country as rich as ours. I don't know if I can really argue that no council housing should ever have been sold off, but did we, as individuals or as a society, really have a full understanding of exactly what rights we were giving up when we exercised our right to buy?



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