Not so long ago, managers of a block of flats in south London gained brief notoriety for setting rules that forbade – among other things – late-night television, early-morning whistling in the shower, and prams and bikes anywhere at any time. Oh, yes, and residents had to have white net curtains. Instead of prompting outrage about "busybody Britain", as the exposé seemed designed to do, however, it drew mostly approving, even envious, comments from flat-dwellers exasperated by inconsiderate neighbours and managers who failed to enforce the terms of a lease.
Noise from neighbours, as I've learnt from flat-dwelling in several countries and over many years, can drive you to distraction. And one of the most infuriating varieties – apart from a piano-playing neighbour who regularly flouted the already generous 10pm cut-off – is the sound of people tramping around upstairs. I don't know why this should be, other than that footsteps are something at once so banal and so unpredictable.
Which is why I was maddened by a verdict in the Appeal Court last week on just this issue, where the three judges ruled that those on the floor below would just have to live with it. True, they also said that "skilled mediation" and "a moderate degree of carpeting" could have saved those concerned their £140,000 legal costs (flats in this Belgravia block go for several million). But, as I read it, the dispute was precisely over that "moderate degree of carpeting".
The people upstairs had spent £100,000 installing wood flooring and under-floor heating, which they argued would not work properly with carpet on top. The judges had to decide between the upstairs people's new floor and the downstairs people's peace and quiet.
For me, they made the absolute wrong choice, and for one simple reason. In fitting this expensive new floor, the upstairs people had apparently violated the terms of their lease, which stipulated – as flat leases, for this very reason, often do – that the floors had to be carpeted. And the real problem – replicated in flats considerably more modest than those in question – is that managements seem extraordinarily reluctant enforcers.
The upstairs people say they were given permission to do the works they did. If so, they should not have been. There's no point in having a rule book if enforcement is selective. I wouldn't mind betting that, off the back of this verdict, leaseholders are measuring up for parquet up and down the land.
In the Paris blocks we lived in, compliance with the rules was enforced in the first by a fearsome aristocratic matriarch, and in the second – less effectively – by a grumpy concierge. In our Washing-ton block, discipline was policed ferociously. The British are known for being reluctant flat-dwellers, a house with a garden being the national dream. But we might be better at communal living, if we could have confidence that the terms of a lease would be enforced. I wonder if these Appeal Court judges have ever lived in a flat.
When attention deficit is fatal
The junction of Baker Street and Oxford Street must be one of the busiest in London, what with multiple lanes of traffic, waiting taxis, and bikes, rickshaws and pedestrians threading their way between. Yet, from my bus seat, I could clearly see the car driver alongside preparing to steer through with one hand, while trying to rescue a collapsing sandwich with the other. It's no novelty, of course, to spot car drivers using their phones, surreptitiously texting, or snacking. And unless we have more actual policemen, few will actually be fined.
But if, as some reports suggest, the reason why a Belgian coach full of schoolchildren slammed into a tunnel wall was that the driver was trying to help a parent change a DVD, then just maybe this disaster can be held up as a deterrent to all those – drivers, cyclists and pedestrians alike – who think nothing of trying to do two (or more) things at once, putting themselves, and so many others, in mortal danger.