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Artillery Row

Tragedy of the common spaces

It is sadly in keeping with the modern British mindset to prefer something good not to be done

The most effective prison is always the one a prisoner builds inside their own head. This country might have an obnoxious culture when it comes to housing, but a recent spat on X (formerly Twitter) highlights how many of us seem to have become institutionalised by it.

Sadly, the original is now deleted — the author perhaps having read the room. So whilst I might not have a thousand words to spare, let me paint you a picture.

A naïve TikToker (presumably American), had moved into a London flat and discovered a common problem: that since none of the residents owned the hall and common spaces, they had been completely neglected. This enterprising lady decided to spruce things up a bit, and share with the world how she did it. 

It wasn’t anything earth-shattering: a linoleum strip that mimicked tiling, a side-table with some flowers on it, a cork noticeboard, and a couple of framed pictures. It certainly wasn’t expensive, which was the point she was making. But it certainly made the space feel more homely and welcoming.

Her reward for this public-spirited act was being held up for ridicule on social media. Critics didn’t merely object to her taste in décor: many assumed that Londoners would have a viscerally negative reaction to such presumption; one genuinely lamented that she had installed “trip hazards”.

This woman, whoever she is, is a heroine of the housing crisis, and we need more people like her.

The problem she was tackling is an increasingly common one. As rents spiral and the system continually fails to build enough housing, more and more family homes are being converted into flats, especially in places such as London where pressure is most acute. The Government proposes to make this even easier, too: in the Budget, Jeremy Hunt proposed to allow a house to be converted into two flats without planning permission.

This is good, inasmuch as it brings more units onto the market. There are also some serious structural downsides to it, because unlike an HMO conversion into flats is permanent and can completely transform whole neighbourhoods (without mandating any increase in GPs, schools, or other infrastructure). 

But in the spirit of the lament of the millennial bibliophile and the curse of the tiny fridge, I want here to focus on one of the smaller quality-of-life problems: the tragedy of the commons and the way it blights the common spaces in such conversions.

If a house has been converted into two or three flats, none of those flats owns the hall, stairs, or common landing. As a result, these are usually neglected and can often get extremely run-down. 

An apartment block will have the foyer upkept by staff and the service charge; the owner of a house will normally take care to look after the hall, which is after all the first thing they see when they get in and the first impression guests receive of their home.

Tenants and owners of converted flats, on the other hand, are stuck with what often resembles part of a haunted youth hostel between the front door and their own flat. Chipped paint, foul carpets, gappy tiling filled in with concrete: this is what greets them when they get in, the first impression their guests get.

A small thing in itself, perhaps, but one more thing, one more visual reminder of one’s lack of control, that corrodes a sense of home.

Of course, they could in theory band together to spruce it up. Our Tiktok friend shows that it can be cheaply done. But many renters are understandably reluctant to invest in sprucing up what is ultimately their landlords’ property (and responsibility). 

So here’s to TikTok Woman, and anybody else who goes above and beyond to make this sometimes thankless city a little nicer to live in

Even owners, in a cost-of-living crisis, can be reluctant to chip in. As with the books and the fridge, I know of what I speak, having been unable to persuade my downstairs neighbour to split the costs of repainting and re-carpeting our own shared space. My brother and his fiancé, who also live in a conversion, have a similar problem.

Not thinking such things worth the effort is fair enough, of course. But it’s another thing to be so miserly that you lash out at someone doing a nice thing on your behalf – let alone to start thinking like an informer for the health and safety inspectorate.

The best objection I saw was that someone might take things too far, and impose on a common space décor too much to one particular taste. 

But they don’t actually own the space, and if this happens other residents could simply talk to them about it — or, in extremis, appeal to the landlord or freeholder. It is bizarre — although, sadly, entirely in keeping with the modern British approach to too many things — to prefer that something good not be done, merely to avoid the small chance that it be done badly.

So here’s to TikTok Woman, and anybody else who goes above and beyond to make this sometimes thankless city a little nicer to live in. Now you’ll have to excuse me, I’m off to get a quote for the hall.

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