Scary, tiring and sometimes bizarre – the story behind the story

I’m always interested in how to tell a good story and was delighted to be sent this piece last week by a senior manager at Sandwell Council. I was also pretty surprised, it’s not often I find good examples of story-telling in the realms of reality TV. What makes this story work for me is that it includes many of the key ingredients of great story-telling: seeing the world through the eyes of characters you rarely get to hear about, genuine need and emotional connection. In the background is a plucky team that tackle complex problems with tenacity and humour. And there is the bonus of an authentic -not fairy-tale- ending.

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It’s a brave decision by any public service to open itself up to the scrutiny of the cameras. Well done to all those organisations that have, in the context of more cuts, I think it’s increasingly essential, that we see difference that local government officers are making.

The BBC’s Housing Enforcers series followed Sandwell Council’s team inspecting privately rented properties. This isn’t just a story of a tenant and landlord dispute or dodgy repairs, it’s about passion and pride in your work, health, well-being and the state of the private sector housing in the UK.

With Richard Hawkins’s story behind the story below – you get to read his words, what’s important and how he feels about his work. It’s something I’d read any day and millions of people have already watched.

9.00am – Flat inspection, High Street, Smethwick

The case was referred to us by our colleagues in Public Protection who deal with fly-tipping and filthy and verminous properties. The tenant of the flat was a single male, part-time musician, Claude. His first floor flat above a take-away had a number of serious problems: fire regulation breaches, lack of adequate heating, leaks and electrical issues. I had already served the owner with a notice to fix the problems, however Claude had informed me no works had been done.

So today I was to meet with Claude and the landlord to discuss the matter, all in front of the camera. I was working with a BBC crew fronted by Matt Allwright, they wired up me and the camera started rolling there and then. There was no time to brief Matt off camera, no scripting, no managing expectations, it was all live.

We arrived at the flat and it was immediately obvious there was no change. The landlord and tenant were not co-operating and there were immediate hazards – all the smoke detectors were faulty. I called in the cavalry, my colleagues at West Midlands Fire Service. Not many people know how closely we work with the fire service, but we do. We often inspect premises together, and we help each other out by carrying out works or enforcement action against building owners. It was a great chance to show off this joint work.

The relationship between the tenant and landlord was damaged, I spent a long time trying to repair it, but the tenant’s lack of willingness and the landlord’s frustrations eventually resulted in Claude being re-housed by another of our colleagues. This wasn’t a failure because the flat is now being renovated to the correct standards and will soon be available for a new tenant. Claude is safe and the landlord now has a better understanding of his responsibilities.

My main emotion was relief. I’d promised Claude I would help him and I did what it took to get a solution. It had been incredibly intense. I had to do my difficult job with the eternal scrutiny of the camera documenting my every decision and action. But it was worth it, I had managed to shine a light on the terrible housing conditions faced by some tenants in our borough and the tireless work we do to eradicate them. I felt I had shown that we work very hard in often pretty unpleasant surroundings for extended periods of our day, and we do it for a very just cause.

There is a great love for public services like the NHS. They all make us better, they are there to protect our most important asset; our health. Well, Sandwell Council also works to protect our health and wellbeing. We fight to improve for housing conditions to protect citizens against cold, damp, electrocution, falls, trips, scolds, burns, the list is endless but small things make a big difference.

“The Housing Enforcers” BBC series is a window into the front line of a battle against poor housing and poor health in Sandwell. I am so proud to have been part of it and to have helped elevate this important topic into the public gaze. It has been a scary, tiring and sometimes bizarre experience, but a positive and an important one.

Richard Hawkins
Property Intervention Officer – Private Sector Housing Services

You can see the episode featuring Richard and Claude at the following link from BBC iPlayer: Available until 23rd June 2015.

Other episodes featuring stories from Sandwell Council can also be found on the iPlayer until the end of June 2015 (see episodes 10, 13, 17, 18, 19, and 20).

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