Saturday, 3 December 2011

Living in the rectum of London

So recently I met with some sales people from an IT company, they know I’m responsible for a core banking system selection (if you don’t know what that is, then it’s the main bank system that handles all the accounts and transactions and will set you back at least £20 million if all goes well, and it never does) and therefore they are of course keen to meet. Since I'm a sad person with a shortage of real friends, I tend to accept.

Anyway at some point over the course of the evening the new sales guy, who don’t know me and therefore don’t know that I will hold a grudge longer than an elephant, called my place of residence "the rectum of London". I guess that’s about one inch short of calling me a turd.

What prompted him to make this career ending statement was of course that I had told him about my horrid encounter with the emergency room at the nearest hospital and what he meant, I hope, was that Canary Wharf, where I live, is surrounded at all sides by deprived areas.

However thinking about it, by conventional standards living in Canary Wharf isn’t necessarily that fantastic. Bizarrely though I love it, but if you don’t live in London city centre and perhaps are on an average income, this post might make you feel better.

To meet the demand for accommodation for people working in the area, and particularly in the boom years where property speculation was rife, a lot of residential properties where developed very quickly. They are generally of poor standard. I've driven through real slum in Jamaica and the Philippines, terribly sad living conditions, but it is entirely plausible that the person who built the shantytowns there was selected as the architect for the apartment blocks around Canary Wharf, because of his experience with card board and Gaffa Tape. How on earth anybody in their right minds will buy these places on a 25-30 year mortgage is beyond me. I find it highly unlikely they will be habitable by then and the resale value will be close to zero. Luckily for us the Chinese haven’t realised this and 30-40 pct of the properties are at the moment offloaded to Chinese investors. Well done Knight Frank!! So because I am in my right mind, I am renting.

A two bed apartment will set you back somewhere from 1000 to 3000 pound per month. For this modest amount, you get a couple of small rectangular rooms, and absolutely every closet, drawer, door and whatever are fitted so poorly and with such consistency, that you would have thought it required extra effort.

As a private tenant in the UK, you generally renew/renegotiate your lease every year, and it can therefore only be viewed as a short-term solution. Every 6 months or so we have an inspection, where some tosser from, surprisingly, Knight Frank, comes by with a clipboard, and tell you the importance of using the dehumidifier in the bathroom, even in it's completely useless at anything other than making noise and drawing air in from the neighbour; the ventilation in my bathroom is connected to the kitchen of our neighbour, and they like curry it seems. I can only imagine the smell in their kitchen. I think I'm the lucky one.

We also have some sort of ventilation above the ceiling in our kitchen and living room. Sometimes you can hear little footsteps and scratching, my wife is fairly calm about it, but I am incredibly scared of mice and rats, everything that isn't dead in fact, that I can't sleep, so I go down and ask the porter to poison them, which will then deal with it, for a while.
When our smoke alarm needed its battery changed, it was installed so poorly that we had to replace the alarm itself. So for a couple of days we had a beep sound every few minutes until we could get a handy-man to come (you’re not allowed to do anything yourself so you have to wait for the landlords guy). While living here, we have also had the radiator and toilet flush thingy (it made such a loud noise, I couldn’t flush at night out of fear of waking up the building) replaced.

We have a weird, wooden on top of concrete, decking in the hallway outside, which makes it extremely noisy when anybody walks on it, not helpful if you are trying to run an escort business as I believe is the case with one of the neighbours. Clap clap clap clap every 30 minutes until 3 am.

However, the most incredible thing is the windows. We have windows in the living room that can only open a few inches, presumably for security reasons, so it’s not possible to wash the outside. I enquired the management a few times about getting our windows cleaned and told them I would be happy to pay for it. They would look into it but of course nothing happened.

Then one day I noticed that the block next to ours had their windows washed, so I asked management again. It turns out that when the property was built, in order to get planning permission, the developer had to give one of the three blocks to the counsil and that block therefore has counsil tenants, and the counsil is required to keep the property at a good state (I’m sure they don’t have rats in the ventilation either). Anyway I then asked the guy who was washing the windows over there, if he could do mine as well, for whatever was the charge, but sadly no, he was only allowed to work on the counsil flats. WTF. Of all the moronic things local politicians can come up with this one deservers a special award. Firstly why do they need to stay within walking distance of the banks? As the salesman correctly pointed out there are depressed areas 1 mile in any direction and I am certain that if you took the money and spend them there, you could benefit a lot more people, and potentially, also free up apartments needed for people that actually work here (therefore generating more tax income for the counsil). And then I just found it completely crazy that your living standards are better in the subsidised flats, than if you are one of the people paying the full whack. I can be kicked out with "reasonable notice", counsil tenants cannot, and the owner can unilaterally decide to change to rent when the lease is up for renewal (although I can of course bugger off), but most importantly you get your windows washed with my tax money, while I can’t see anything out of mine.

I decided to look into what you are rights are as a counsil tenant and got the below information from a booklet prepared by Department for Communities and Local Government.   

      You can live in your home for the rest of your life as long as you do what your tenancy agreement says.

      You can buy your home at a discount.

      You can pass on your home to someone in your family living with you when you die.

      You can take in lodgers and sub-let part of your home.

      You can get certain urgent repairs done quickly and at no cost to you.

      You can carry out improvements to your home.

      You can be paid for certain improvements you have made if you move home.

      You can help to manage your estate.

      You can exchange your property for another one.

      You must be consulted on housing management matters.

      You must be given information about how your council runs the homes it owns.

As a private tenant you have NONE of those rights. I am not at all against counsil tenancies, but I think there a lot left to be desired for protection of private tenant’s rights. In continental Europe private tenants are protected by legislation not very dissimilar to the above, and I think we could combat a lot of the mindless property speculation, that have caused so many problems, by simply requiring landlords to comply with rules like the above.

After that diatribe you are expected me to say something like “I can’t wait to leave”, but the curious fact is that both my wife and I love living here. We love it. We wouldn’t buy it, of course, and I could live without the rats, but we are completely at home here. For us it is great. The parks, the houseboats, the skyscrapers with the banks, the shops and cafes are great. However if you aren’t in love with banking, you probably wouldn’t extract the same feeling of awe that we have and, objectively, a little house with a garden and friendly neighbours in the suburb would for most people beat living in Canary Wharf. Just not for us.


  1. I've just bought a house in the centre of San Jose, Costa Rica - according to the guide books a bourne from which no traveller returns....
    Not a new flat, but an old house.
    Five minutes' walk from the centre, theatre, music and events...great!

  2. Shakespeare? I read your blog,it looks and sounds really great, you just need to get rid of that neighbour!

  3. Well, he's in the country! And, at the moment, lying low.
    The architecture in San Jose is amazing and after years of neglect they are trying to preserve and restore some of the buildings...lots of art deco stuff among the concrete nasties they built in the 70s...
    Pity the guide books haven't caught up.