Catherine Pepinster: My heart skips a beat when I hear that grating noise outside my house


Something rather ugly appeared on my strreet a month ago.

Something rather ugly appeared on my strreet a month ago. Its arrival was announced by clanking, scraping and banging as it was moved into position, chipping the kerb and cracking the pavement. Like most Londoners, I'm used to noise throughout the night: the chirruping of mobiles as people stagger home from nightclubs; foxes barking as they terrorise next door's tabby; the police helicopter hovering overhead; the boom boom boom de boom of a sound system on wheels. But at 6.30am, the shifting of several hundredweight of metal outside my window is enough to inspire thoughts of violence.

Since then, I've had a change of heart. The behaviour of my neighbours, of estate agents, and even passers-by suggests they feel the same. Now I'd be hard-pressed to think of a more lovely sight than that of a skip.

My love affair with the skip was no coup de foudre. First, there was that unwelcome wake-up call, then came irritation. It was taking up a much- needed parking space, and it was a cumbersome hulk of metal. Then I started to realise what a Godsend it was. It was not just next door's dustbin; it could be my secret dustbin, too. And the beauty of skips goes beyond that simple role. People can not only furtively chuck things in, they can also dig things out.

Skips are the kind of places the unknowing leave all those useful additions to a house: shutters, the odd bit of original floorboarding you need to finish off the dining room now you've got rid of the tatty fitted carpet.

They're also useful for disposing of items the council has decreed should be taken to the dump. But dumps are at least four miles away: far too long a journey just to throw away a burnt-out toaster. Creeping out under cover of darkness to chuck a toaster casually over your left shoulder is no easy matter. Especially when several other neighbours are doing the same – easing in torn vacuum cleaner hoses, and the odd hi-fi, circa 1982 – into the skip.

Our skip now has not only the bric-à-brac of the entire street piling up – while another gang of people are pushing and pulling at bits of oak – but it's become the stopping-off place for people emptying their pockets as they pass by. A confetti of fag packets, train tickets and sweet wrappers is now sprinkled on the top, which is finished off rather splendidly by someone else's ripped-up hedge, and even a broken sapling.

But best of all (and this is where the estate agents come in), is what the skip symbolises. For if someone has hired a skip, it means they are tarting up a house. And if they think a place worth tarting up, someone else will think it means the property is worth more. If the street gets smarter, my house is probably increasing in value, too.

That's the sort of sentiment that has people who can't afford to buy their own home seething with justifiable fury. But the appearance of a skip in a street need not mean rising prices. It can signify that redundant, derelict, rundown homes are being brought back to life, homes that could be affordable.

In East London, there is a row of six terraced houses close by the Royal London Hospital, a hospital that, like so many other inner-city ones, struggles to recruit nurses. These terrace homes, shuttered and empty, could have provided much-needed accommodation for hospital workers. Yet the hospital that owns them left them to rot.

The hospital is not the only organisation guilty of keeping property in poor condition and empty. Row upon row of vacant flats can be found above boutiques, gift shops and book stores. The London Plan, to be published next month, will propose that high-street retailers should build affordable flats above stores and on petrol station sites to cope with the demand for cheap housing. The demand is worryingly high. Ken Livingstone estimates that 31,000 homes a year are needed by people such as nurses, bus drivers and teachers. So forget the new homes. The retailers could start refurbishing their existing living quarters above the shops. Then we could all relish skip after skip appearing in our streets.

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