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A Christmas Social Housing Carol

A seasonal satirical offering from Carl Davis

It was Christmas Eve and snowing heavily as Capital Quarter housing association boss Briona Arrowsmith-Wright tumbled out of the Bolt taxi and lurched up the steps of her Chelsea town house. She fumbled in the dark with the door keys to let herself in.

The journey home from the Chief Executives early evening do at the Dorchester had been an ordeal. She’d felt nauseous as she’d drank way too much after receiving the ‘Most Community Spirited Chief Executive Award 2022’ (sponsored by a surveillance technology firm) from her colleagues. Jay, the Bolt driver, had droned on  incessantly about the gig economy and how much he was struggling to make ends meet all the way from Park Lane to Chelsea.

Still, she mused as the street door finally swung inwards and she was hit by a rush of warm air, at least Capital Quarter’s clueless tenants would pick up the tab for the bottle of Krug Clos d’Ambonnay she’d knocked back and she made a mental note to make up some serious complaint about driver Jay to spare others having to listen to his tedious selfish griping.

Briona loathed  having her time wasted listening to other peoples problems.  

Closing the street door behind her, Briona struggled out of her Dior trench coat, kicked off her Stuart Weitzman high heels, and staggered towards the stairs. She ended up crawling up the last few steps and into her bedroom to collapse fully clothed in a heap on her bed clutching at the duvet. She felt the room slowly spin and that she was going to be violently sick.

Suddenly through the haze there was a figure standing over her: “three sheets to the wind again are we Bree?” he said.

Briona instantly recognized the speaker and immediately came to her senses. She sat up, squinting at the figure now sitting at the end of her bed: “Doug? Is that you? Doug Mathews? How can it be? You’re dead! You died of a heart attack before the services charges scandal came to trial!” she cried out.

The figure at the end of the bed moved closer and Briona could see it definitely looked like Doug Mathews OBE, her mentor, friend, former corporate crush, and the late disgraced former Chief Executive of Orion Constellation Housing. But he looked pale and haggard, and he was dressed in rags.

Doug smiled thinly and replied: “I’m afraid so kid. Unfortunately my sudden passing wasn’t greatly exaggerated, only my commitment to social housing, accurate financial accounting and social equity was. And I’ve come back to warn you to change your corporate psychopathic ways before you’re forced to otherwise you’ll end up like me”.  

Briona was confused, asking “so if you’re dead Doug then I’m just ….dreaming this..?”

Mathews shrugged. “That’s one perspective Briona, but dreaming or not before this night is out you’ll thrice be haunted and encouraged to reflect on what you’re doing to the social housing sector and your tenants and be given one last chance to avoid my fate.”

Briona yawned and sank back down on the bed and pulled the duvet over her head  and muttered from under it: “I’m obviously dreaming so get out of here Doug. I don’t do ethical self-reflection. You taught me to avoid that nonsense. Besides I have a private business flight to catch to Chamonix first thing in the morning and I haven’t even had time to pack my ski jacket and salopettes yet.”

The crestfallen spectre of Doug Mathews remained seated at the end of the bed for a few moments and then with an audible sigh withered away. Briona slept fitfully and just as she felt she was descending into deep sleep she heard another voice: “Have you got any spare change love?”

Briona felt wide awake but couldn’t answer. She could see in her minds eye what was going on around her but she felt pinned down like she was just observing events. She was no longer in the Chelsea town house but eighteen years old again and standing in a bleak, cold and snow covered Glasgow street staring down at an old homeless man. His blanket was wrapped around him in as he sat inside a shelter made from cardboard boxes. She remembered the event like it was yesterday.

The encounter had changed Briona’s life. It had triggered her desire to work in social housing. Her mother had always advised her not to give money to street beggars assuring her that they only spent it on drink and drugs but Briona had given the man some change, taken the time to sit down and talk to him, and recalled his name was Bill. He had been a communications specialist who served two tours in the army.

Briona re-experienced Bill telling her how his life had fallen apart after returning from duty, how he’d lost his wife and kids and ended up on the streets. Bill had said he was 38 but looked nearer sixty. Living on the streets had taken its toll on him. He’d explained how more than anything else, he missed the solidarity he’d experienced from his mates in the army.

Briona heard Bill saying again how that solidarity was lacking in civvy street, how no-one cared, how people looked down on you, and how you could die on the streets and people would walk straight by.  

Briona relived returning home that day determined to do more for Bill, and for all the homeless people, and how she’d looked for him the following day but he’d gone. She had never seen him again. She had signed up as a volunteer with a local homeless project though.

This event had launched her early career helping out at the homeless centre and taking the first steps towards establishing her work in social housing. A great sense of warmth towards and pride in her younger self washed over her.

Suddenly, just as clearly saw the young man who had approached her on the street on her way to the Dorchester earlier that evening. He’d also asked if she had any spare change and Briona saw herself crossly snapping back as she had said “No I most certainly do not have any spare change for you. I work for every penny I get.”

And there was Bill again staring up at her shaking his head ‘”See what I mean about no solidarity out here love? You could die on the streets and people will walk straight by.”

Briona woke with a start. She was sweating. She looked around the room expecting to see Bill, but the room was empty and she saw from the  display on the  digital clock on the bedside table that it was 11.05 pm. It was still Christmas Eve and outside the snow was still silently falling. Briona fell back asleep, but she wasn’t alone for long.

“I want to show you this new development” The voice was booming, confident and sounded very much like Marcus King’s, the Capital Quarter marketing and sales manager. Once again Briona was transported to another realm, this time observing an agent for an overseas  investor being guided around a showroom luxury apartment in a 30 storey building that was part of a new commuter enclave built around a busy South London railway station and transport hub.

It’s only fifteen minutes from Waterloo. Twenty minutes tops to Charing Cross” the salesman continued. “And although Capital Quarter’s orginal social purpose was to provide safe, secure, well maintained and affordable social housing to the masses, we don’t do that any more. Or at least we try not to as there’s no money in it for us. Your client won’t have to worry about  social tenants threatening his investment. There are only two  apartments at social rent and they’re much smaller, have a separate entrance, and are strategically located either side of the building’s trash compound.”

Briona smiled in her sleep and pulled the duvet tighter. But then the voice changed to Samuel’s, a well-known housing campaigner describing appallingly, unsafe, and unsanitary conditions on a local Capital Quarter estate in the same borough.

Again the voice was confident and booming only this time it was totally scathing: “Tenants are living with damp, dangerous black mould and debri leaking out of the plumbing system” Samuel thundered, “and instead of sorting this Capital Quarter are blaming it on their tenants’ lifestyles, and relying on racism and classism to do that”.

This shook Briona awake again, and she cautiously peered out from under the duvet to make sure that the dreaded Samuel wasn’t physically in the room, half expecting to see him decked out in a track suit and smirking with a TV crew standing round her bed. But the room was empty and silent. It was still snowing outside  and from the clock she could see that Christmas Day was still 30 minutes away, so Briona curled up into a ball and tried to descend back into sleep.

Instead Briona found herself ascending the steps into a courtroom dock as the defendant in the  proceedings, but she couldn’t manage the stairs on her own for some reason. She was assisted by two wardens who very carefully supported her up the stairs placed her on a comfortable chair, rather than forcing her to stand in the dock. It really felt like she was right there. The judge and jury were already in place, and she knew all eyes were on her.

What am I doing here?  she thought. There is no meaningful regulation of social housing so how on earth have I ended up here? This is a nightmare. It must be. And why am I finding it so difficult to move?

The judge looked at her sternly and boomed: “Wake up Ms Arrowsmith-Wright, this is the future for greedy housing association chiefs and their board members! You were repeatedly invited to change before you were forced to. Your tenants begged you and your organization to change and show some empathy. But you chose not to.”

“Was it the service charges?” Briona asked. “Capital Quarter will refund anyone whoever has been shortchanged. The same goes for mis-selling shared ownership? I’m sure we can come to some agreement on that. There’s no real need for accountability, is there?”

We’ll regulate ourselves properly this time if you give us another chance” she said, pleading. “Properties unfit for human habitation? No problem, we’ll get on that. Lethal black mould? That too! Racism and disability discrimination? We’re prepared to address those social evils as well now. We’ll stamp out racism and consider disability and anticipate and provide reasonable adjustments as the norm.”

“It’s far, far too late for all that I’m afraid” the judge responded. “Times have changed and so have you as we’ve obviously had to make reasonable adjustments to ensure you could appear here today.”          

“What do you mean reasonable adjustments?” Briona asked. “Reasonable adjustments for what?” 

The judge looked at her sadly. “Ms Arrowsmith-Wright, your organisation Capital Quarter denied its tenants the most simple and non-burdensome reasonable adjustments because that would have required you to change certain practices and procedures, but that was viewed as far too inconvenient for you. Well, since your accident, you now have to rely on other people to provide you with reasonable adjustments. You may well need them to ensure your safety, security, and the decent maintenance of your home. And, perhaps at some point, if your finances are depleted, the  affordability of your housing as well.”  

Briona struggled to comprehend “What accident?‘  

The judge clutched his glasses closer to his face and peered  down at the court papers before him. “Well it says here Paraplegia. Not necessarily permanent. A spinal cord injury suffered ….” he hesitated as he read ahead “…during a skiing trip in France on the 25th of December 2022…

It was at that moment Briona finally woke up. The time according to the digital clock on her bedside table was 00.01. It was still snowing outside.

On Christmas Day after spending hours reflecting on her past, present and future, Briona Arrowsmith-Wright leapt out of bed cancelled her flight to Chamonix, sent an email to Inside Housing declaring that she was taking a fifty per cent cut to her £320,000 salary. She sent another to the staff union saying she was willing to openly negotiate on pay and work conditions, and personally phoned every board member to inform them that Capital Quarter was returning to its original social purpose with immediate effect.

The coming year, 2023 would see great challenges and difficulties for the housing association to get things right. Challenges and difficulties which this time would not be offloaded on to its  tenants, residents and workers as they usually were. 

She went out into the street and ran through the snow wishing everyone she met a Happy Christmas. 

24 December 2022

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1 thought on “A Christmas Social Housing Carol”

  1. Who the Dickens does Carl Davis think he is? Implying that Social Housing CEOs have a conscience – even when drunk – is slanderous. Mine even pretends that he does not receive e-mails that are sent to him.

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