Since I’ve been working here, by far the biggest single issue I’ve had to deal with has been a long running dispute over the control of the common grounds of the estate. As with a lot of things in housing, pulling at the thread of this particular problem leads to the unravelling of a much longer list of questions. Like many council estates of the period (early 1970s), Oats Hall (not its real name) was designed with a significant amount of communal land and green space, a hallmark of Modernist domestic architecture. In some places, the legacy has been desolate, ill-defined swathes of concrete, but here there are gardens that bring a splash of nature (birds and stuff) to a very urban environment. The clear intention was that these areas would be enjoyed and shared by all residents, but such hippie-era idealism didn’t take account of the rampant privatisation of the early 21st century. Before my arrival, some residents began to colonise the space behind their flat and create a de facto private garden. After they moved, other residents effected a land-grab-back and built a fence to create a separate area for communal gatherings. This enraged another resident who argued that this was counter to lease covenents and that the resulting parties were a disturbance to ‘quiet enjoyment’. Eighteen months and about a million emails later, the issue is unresolved and is due to go to court.
Without being flipant, when I think about this situation, the Middle East often comes to mind. It sadens me that neighbours can arrive at such an intractable postion that even some of the simplest pleasures of life, like meeting friends and socialising, can become so difficult. I’ve read those stories about people killing each other over the beight of a hedge and thought ‘how can it come to this?’, but it can. It’s easy to blame the particular individuals and circumstances at Oats Hall, but there are bigger forces at work. First there is the hydra’s head that is the Right to Buy. As I mentioned in my previous post, RTB has a host of hidden consequences that have overflown the ideological battle over the privatisation of council housing. One of these is the divisive dynamic it estaboishes between tenants and owners. In the case above, the main protagonist is an owner who quotes a private lease to uphold private rights that might otherwise be part of the commonweal. This is aggrevated by an exagerated desire to exclude ‘others’ and control their behaviour, to the point where a childrens’ party becomes a threat to personal space. Once relationships have become soured like this they reach a point where every transaction becomes mediated through formality and expensive bureaucracy. But as Anna Minton’s well-worth-a-read book ‘Ground Control’ makes clear, what I’m seeing at work is only a microcosm of a delibetrate, commercially motivated political policy that is redefining what is even now optimistically or falsely referred to as ‘the public realm’ as private thiefdoms, recreating feudal land-ownership patterns and an expectation of private property rights that can be defended at law, or by force.