Tuesday, 17 November 2009
Living Hell - Cashing in
Princes Lodge 2007
BY John Pilger
From his Book Heroes
There is also much ‘reality’ these days in the field of housing. Since 1979 spending on housing has been more than halved, and fewer homes are being built in Britain now than at any time since the Second World War. Put an other way: in 1975 equal amounts of tax money were spent on defence and housing; in 1984 five times as much was spent on the military services and war material. Britain no longer has a national housing programme.
While this policy has created more and more homeless people, a phenomenon has emerged. It is the British Welfare State bank-rolling the exploiters of the homeless and the unemployed to the extent of more than £120 million a year. This windfall now enriches the owners of so-called hotels and hostels, most of them squalid were victims of the recession are sent by the local authorities and by the Department of Health and Social Security. These are the workhouses of the late-twentieth century.
My symbol of the 1980s is not the micro-chip; it is Princes Lodge. A cavernous, granite slab, standing like a Colditz on a corner of Commercial Road in Tower Hamlets, East London, Princes Lodge was completed, appropriately, during the Great Depression. It became a British nightmare.
In February 1984 I slipped past the bouncers who guarded it and found up to five hundred people inside, an under-class of cowed humanity. They included many young children, over whom I had to step as they played in damp filth of carpets in darkened corridors; there was nowhere else for them to play. Some of the residents had complained but not for long; several were evicted, with all their possessions and their children at night, or poverty had its own debilitating effect upon them, converting them into ‘trustees’ who ran the place for a few extra pounds in hand. Having been rejected by the ‘reality’ outside, they had become dependent on a landlord, his ‘wordiness’ and his minders.
There was another group at Princes Lodge. These were people who had done what the Secretary for Trade and Industry, Norman Tebbit, had advised the unemployed to do: to get on your bike and find work. They had got on their bikes and into trains and coaches and old cars and looked for work which did not exist and had ended up in London, in places like this
Jim and Kay Mckirdy and their six children had set out from Glasgow, and Princess Lodge was the end of their fruitless travels and their hopes. They had two rooms. One room was twelve feet by six feet and had a cooker, kitchen utensils, two beds, a television, all the family’s clothes and all their belongings. It was not really a room; it was an extended cupboard.
Their six children, aged from three to eleven, slept in anther room, six feet by fifteen feet. They had four bunks and they slept in shifts. There was room for one adult between the bunks. Jim and Kay maintained the rooms as a feat of order and dignity. They could do nothing about the vermin. For accommodating the McKirdy family, the owners of Princes Lodge received public money of £195.85 every week.
Princes Lodge is owned by Namecourt Ltd, which made more than £250.00 profit on the sale of its previous slum hostel in Earls Court. From the beginning, Namecourt’s directors included members of a wealthy London family, Agrans, who are well known in the property, television and film worlds and the Conservative Party. Albert Agran is a Justice of the Peace who sits on the bench at Redbridge Magistrates’ Court.
In January 1984 the Argans pulled out of the company and left it to two Scouts, Paul Cowie and Alan Gill. Who had run an Oxford Street ‘accommodation bureau’ enterprise. It was Cowie who collected the rent at Princes Lodge every Thursday when the Social Security cheques arrived. With the Agrans out and the enterprise now his and Gill’s Cowie doubled the rent for children under the age of eleven and increased by six times the rents for those up to fifteen years old. The local DHSS office accepted the increases, the new ‘ceiling’ imposed by Cowie, and proceeded to tax the residents accordingly. One man with three children was told in a letter from the DHSS, ‘As you are probably aware, since Prince Lodge have seen fit to increase their board and lodge charge…we are unable to allow a meal allowance for children under eleven years.
The increase gave Cowie’s company up to £250,000 extra on its current income, and Cowie has become a millionaire. In County Durham he has spent £750,000 restoring an eighteenth-century Gothic castle which, until the local council rejected his planning application, he intended to turn into a profitable old people’s home.
According to Councillor Paul Beasley who was leader of Tower Hamlets authority for ten years, ‘Princes Lodge managed to slip through the net of our planning regulations. We have been against it from the word go.’ From ‘the word go’, in 1979, Tower Hamlets Council knew about conditions at Princes Lodge and, apart from a drawn-out correspondence with Cowie about ‘constructive discussions …in an attempt to maintain some degree of flexibility, the Labour Council did nothing to end the misery in its borough. Several worried councillors did not manage to get into Princes Lodge. But the Council’s own health officers were able to make a number of visits, and nothing changed. Professional warnings of the risks to health and life at Princes Lodge came from independent sources outside the Council. In 1984 two independent health officers found only sixteen lavatories for 500 people, no hot water in the bathrooms, no radiators working, broken glass on the stairs, open dustbins in the hallways, surrounded by rubbish and vomit, as well as exposed asbestos, filthy communal kitchens, half the fire extinguishers missing and ‘the very real possibilities of fire tragedies’.
The paediatrician at the nearby London Hospital, Dr R. J. Harris wrote to Councillor Beasley:
For some years now the families living in Princes Lodge have been causing anxiety. The number of hospital admissions is disproportionately high for the number of children resident in the lodge.
Dr Harris and his staff had conducted a survey and found that of nine babies admitted during a five-month period, six had serious respiratory and stomach infections. He described infants with the same strain of food poisoning, and one little girl who was admitted to hospital six times. He wrote:
I am faced with a newborn baby destined to live at Princes Lodge I tend to keep mother and child in hospital longer than would otherwise be necessary…I cannot take the risk of discharging a baby …and therefore place its life in jeopardy.
To be continued…
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