Let me tell you about the widow of my best friend, who helped me set up my studio. He died in February 2001 as a result of Pancreatic Cancer. He left a wife and a young family, his oldest son was 7 at the time. His accommodation was linked to his job as a caretaker on an industrial estate, so when he passed away his wife and family became homeless. In his illustrious career he'd worked for both London Transport as a bus driver and The London Ambulance service. We had a grand scheme to build the best music studios in London and just before we actually started making money, he died.
His wife soon found herself with four young children on the Barnet Council housing waiting list. She was placed in temporary accommodation for a period of up to 5 years. Last year she contacted me and told me that the council was trying to evict her and get her to move to Norfolk. Given the trauma her children suffered when her husband died, you would think they'd had enough stress and upheaval, but no. Thanks to the efforts of MP Andrew Dismore, the immediate threat was lifted, but she still hasn't got a home of her own. Apparently being a single mother with 4 children, the youngest of which is severely disabled doesn't get you enough points in Barnet. There are 6,000 families on the list.
Today I read the Daily Express and found that not every single mother in Barnet gets treated quite so badly (click HERE for the full story). It seems that Mrs Omowunmi Odia managed to get a £1 million pound mini mansion in one of the best roads in Barnet at the taxpayers expense. In yesterdays Daily Mail, there is a rather nice picture of Mrs Odia, with her six year old car and a couple of bags of shopping from Marks and Spencers.
So what are we to make of it all. Which story got you more angry? I hope it was neither of the above. I hope it was the real story. I hope it was the real scandal. You see the reason that my friend's widow and Mrs Odia are mentioned at all is because Barnet doesn't have enough Council Houses. Both Mrs Odia and my friend are in private rented houses (one subsidised by the taxpayer, the other rented by the council), due to the shortage of decent Council houses in Barnet. Under the Thatcher government, Council tenants were given the right to buy. Unfortunately the income from this scheme wasn't invested in new and better houses. The old tenants cashed in their profits, moved out and new, professional landlords moved in and rented the homes back to the Council. We are faced with the absurd situation where most of the right to buy houses in Barnet, which have changed hands, are being rented back to the council at many times the cost of servicing a loan to build a new house. Take Mrs Odia's house. This costs £25,000a year to rent. Assuming it cost £500,000 to build (very generous estimate), it would only cost £15,000 a year to service a loan at the current market rate of 3%. My best guess is that a suitable 4 bedroom council house, of good quality could easily be constructed for £250,000 taking the loan repayments down to £7,500.
Do I begrudge Mrs Odia a decent home for her kids? Well she isn't the only person in Barnet who does pretty well out of the taxpayer. If you set up a crazy system, then you've got to expect that people will take advantage of it (just like Councillors allowances). I personally don't think it is right to demonise a single mum in two National newspapers for trying to have a nice home for her kids. Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail presumably has a far grander home than Mrs Odia. Presumably he thinks he's got it by hard work, but how many nurses, doctors, miners etc has he worked harder than? Like all of us in nice homes, he's taken advantage of the system and the breaks he's had and good luck to him. Surely that is all Mrs Odia has done? I'd be far more upset if she was living in a rat infested pokey flat, with a leaky roof and damp walls for her four children. Sure the system is crazy, I certainly won't defend it but until we start building proper, decent council houses, we'll see plenty of cases like Mrs Odia and plenty like my friend. Don't blame the likes of Mrs Odia, blame Barnet Council. Blame Councillor Lynn Hillan, the cabinet member responsible for the situation and blame her boss Council Leader Mike Freer. They are the people responsible.