Last Night's TV - Dispatches: Landlords from Hell

Posted by Alexander Hay

In exposing wrong doing, this documentary fails to tackle the real problem

A TV in somewhat better condition than many of the 'homes' shown last night

Jon Snow is a man of many talents, primarily bicycle riding and presenting Channel 4 news. But in his dissolute youth, he also helped run a charity helping those who were homeless or desperately close to being homeless from ending up in a cardboard box and then, ultimately, a wooden one.

So he had a vested interest in last night's episode of Dispatches (Channel 4), where he exposed Meridien, a slum landlord company that also somehow benefited from charitable status. The various rotting, filthy, mouldy rat holes poor and vulnerable people were housed in were not, however, the sort of charity you'd want to begin at home.

And what with the various dirty tricks, like tricking single parents into leaving their flats, that veered into protection rackets (rents being put up on short notice) and out-and-out crookedness (old couples being tricked into selling their houses and then renting them back), you have to wonder where the police were in all of this. After all, such behaviour is meant to be illegal, right?

Well, laws mean nothing if they are not enforced, and it took an old fashioned doorstepping by Snow and an intrepid cameraman to bring this rather sordid outfit's boss to light.

The human degradation reached another low, however, in Southall, where illegal immigrants suckered into the UK by human traffickers and dodgy student visas are forced to live, literally, in garden sheds, and in cramped vermin-infested bedrooms. To his credit, the 'landlord' in this case immediately confessed to everything, though only because he'd been caught red-handed.

In all, then, a revealingly nasty and gritty documentary, right down to Snow discussing how the stench of mildew clings to his clothes, but one that misses several key points. As anyone who saw the BBC's equally stark documentary 'Poor Kids' recently will know, it's not just the private sector that's full of slums and children's bedrooms that are too damp and unhygienic to be slept in. To invoke an overused overused cliché, the elephant in the room here is the severe lack of new housing being built.

As Snow's narration on the trailer for the show reminded us, we have a shortfall of approximately 1 million homes in the UK, and yet this is not mentioned, nor the morbid obsession with over-valued property prices, inflated artificially by a harmful scarcity. The over-reliance on the South East for the nation's economic health is similarly problematic, given its lack of housing and rock bottom wage inflation, which prices everyone but the rich out of the property market. There wouldn't be landlords behaving badly if the market wasn't so stacked in their favour.

In fact, by focussing on slum landlords, Dispatches mistakes a symptom for the disease itself. The notion of property and a place to live are fundamental issues that we are simply not facing. Instead, for all his good intentions, Jon Snow simply keeps on distracting us from what is really at stake.

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Alexander Hay

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