State of the Nation
Posted on March 1st, 2018

By Padraig Colman Courtesy Ceylon Today

Just before last Christmas I had to fly to London urgently because of a family bereavement. I had not been out of Sri Lanka for over eleven years and was somewhat trepidatious about how I would cope. I had heard scary stories about people on motorcycles driving by and grabbing mobile phones. I had read in the press of a craze for throwing acid in the faces of strangers. I had lived in London for over 16 years and mainly loved it but now it seemed a scary place.

I had been expecting travelling about in London to be a problem but it proved easy when I got myself an Oyster card. The Travel Cards to which I had been accustomed were less convenient because you could not move out of a certain zone and the cards were time-limited. Metered three-wheelers are handy for getting around Colombo but any kind of cab in London is expensive. With your Oyster card you can hop from Tube to bus and if you travel off-peak it can be quite economical.

I ventured into Croydon on a wet and cold December morning. Allders was an independent department store founded in Croydon in 1862 by Joseph Allder. He developed a chain of stores across England and at one time the Croydon store was the third largest department store in the UK. As I approached the store, I thought I could see a man dancing outside the entrance. As I got closer I could see that he seemed to be taunting two other men who were swearing at him and trying to chase him away. The two men gathered up bags and blankets and themselves moved away. They had been sleeping in the doorway of Allders on a freezing December night. Allders of Croydon was placed into administration on 15 June 2012. Allders ceased trading on 17 January 2013. Later that year the Croydon building reopened as ‘Croydon Village Outlet’.

On another day, I was looking for the Irish Embassy. I came up through the subway at Knightsbridge Tube station. Harrods is in Knightsbridge. Near the Tube station is the Lanesborough, which has been described as London’s most expensive hotel. Just across the road on Hyde Park Corner is Apsley House, former home of the Duke of Wellington. An apartment in the development at One Hyde Park was sold for GBP 140 million. There are more luxury hotels and palatial residences on nearby Park Lane. I walked along Grosvenor Place to the Irish Embassy. An eccentric elderly lady was riding a bicycle along the pavement. She had three greyhounds on leads. She was probably rich, for this was Belgravia. Most properties are owned by Russian oligarchs or Arab billionaires. The whole area around Knightsbridge station reeks of wealth and privilege. The subway from Knightsbridge station reeks of urine. I saw human turds scattered about. Most Tube stations have a shivering beggar sitting outside.

When I first moved to London in 1982, a young woman approached me and asked me for ‘change’. I naively thought she wanted a note changed into coins. Soon, it came to the stage where one could not walk along a London street without being besieged by beggars. At night, all the shop doorways along The Strand had people sleeping in them. These were not all alcoholics or madmen.

There were many reasons for being homeless but a big factor was government policy. Council tenants were allowed and encouraged to buy the accommodation they had been renting. This social housing stock was not replaced.

It is very difficult to earn enough money to buy or rent a home in London. My first house in London bought in 1983 was a three-bedroomed terrace which cost me GBP 53,500. Checking the current potential price of that first London home on Zoopla I see that it could be worth GBP 500,000. Not all those sleeping rough are unemployed. Many people who are not actually homeless are living in squalid conditions. Housing charity Shelter’s chief executive, Polly Neate said: “The Grenfell tragedy exposed the catastrophic consequences of unsafe housing in the most devastating way, and how our laws fail to protect people’s right to a safe and decent home. Too many private and social renters are forced to live in poor and sometimes dangerous conditions, unable to tackle safety concerns or legally challenge their landlord.”

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