True Gripes: Home, sweet home: Bring back the grotty bedsit

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The Independent Online
If Tony Blair wanted a winning ticket for London, it would be to offer a simple solution to the nation's ills: the recreation of the grotty bedsit.

This was the place where you could crash out without fear of spoiling the interior decor. It was fun, it was handy, and cheap. It was rented by a group of friends, sometimes people you didn't even know, from a landlord you never saw, for a sum which, shared ten ways, never took more than your weekly tips from serving behind the bar at the King and Keys.

It existed before they ever invented negative equity. It was the thing which made London swing in the Sixties. The 'fab pad spawned television series such as Take Three Girls, The Young Ones, and Rik Mayall's retro-grot show, Bottom. It inspired the odd film, and some extremely odd, like The Knack with Rita Tushingham. Those were the days when Tony Blair was in bell-bottoms.

Then it was essential to buy the evening paper's first edition for the columns of small ads in the rented section, to beat the rest in the queue for the best and cheapest flats.

The typical picture of the grotty bedsit was the basement pad in Lexham Gardens in Earls Court, which four girls and two blokes rented for pounds 37 a week. My girlfriend spent a weekend scrubbing the floor to get the grot off the lino before she would even sleep in the place.

The same basement pad is probably now a farmhouse-style kitchen and the rest of the building has been knocked back into a six-bed house and sold for a six-figure sum to a TVR-owning investment analyst for the Shanghai Bank and her family.

If the Young Ones came back, they would have to work in a bank or be on housing benefit to afford the rent for their bedsit today.

The demise of the grotty bedsit was partly due to the scandal over Rachmanism. (Historical note for the under-30s - Peter Rachman was a London landlord who exploited tenants with dodgy property and strong-arm tactics). Labour's response, the 1974 Rent Act, was well-intentioned but killed the market in the rented sector by controlling rents.

Baroness Thatcher understood the importance of the bedsit. She realised that it was no use Norman Tebbit ordering the unemployed to get on their bikes unless they had a grotty bedsit to go to.

She got the best brains in the Downing Street policy unit on to the case, but they failed to rediscover the formula. Instead, her bedsit Think Tank came up with market rents. The idea sounded fine: allow landlords to charge the highest rent the market would stand, and bedsits would spring up all over the place. Unfortunately, it broke down because no one could afford the rents.

Then they had the idea of allowing the impoverished tenants to claim the rent on housing benefit, but that proved too expensive. Now Peter Lilley, the Social Security minister, is threatening to slash housing benefit because of the cost.

And still the cheap and cheerful grotty bedsit, the Holy Grail of the property market, remains out of reach.

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