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Camden New Journal - FORUM
Published: 6 August 2009

Town Hall protest: Tenants campaigning to save caretakers’ jobs
Threat to ‘eyes and ears’ of estates

The Town Hall’s plan to save £109,000 a year by sacking a quarter of its caretakers and handing over part of their duties to a private firm has been greeted with a sense of dread, warn Stuart Doran and Dave Gingold

AN overflowing pipe was sending water down the side of the block, and the caretaker was aware the person living inside was living alone and had long-term health problems.
He knocked on the door and got no answer.
He persisted, and still, no answer. Alarm bells rang, so the caretaker called the police. The door was broken down and the tenant was found, close to death, in bed.
If the caretaker hadn’t had the intimate knowledge of his patch, or been on one of his routine maintenance patrols, the tenant would have died.
Such a story is typical of the daily work caretakers in Camden do.
We know of one who discovered a man who had been stabbed and was bleeding heavily in the sitting room of a flat. The caretaker applied first aid and saved his life.
We know of the caretakers who knock on the doors of the elderly each day to check they have all they need, or make sure young people are not hanging around the estates when they should be at school.
The news that Camden Council wants to save £109,000 a year by sacking a quarter of its caretakers and handing over some of their duties to a private company has been met with a sense of dread by caretakers and the tenants who rely on them.
It’s not, of course, just the fact that many Camden caretakers whose jobs are threatened are now middle aged and fear if they are sacked, they may never get another job again.
It’s also not the idea that decades of experience of dealing with estate problems will be lost in an instant.
Instead it is the fear that these supposed savings will have massive hidden costs – and they will hit the quality life for thousands of people across Camden.
We have given more than 20 years service between us as Camden Council caretakers and, as union representatives, one of the things we hear caretakers say they love about their jobs is the fact each week is different. There are always new problems and issues to solve.
As we work on the front line of council services, it is perhaps a point to make that our jobs have lots of hidden roles that are not immediately apparent, and we feel have not adequately been taken into account by the Liberal Democrats and Tories in the Town Hall who have pushed the policy through.
As well as vital health and safety work, on going maintenance, caretakers’ roles include liaising with groups such as tenants and residents associations, or Safer Neighbourhoods teams.
We are the eyes and ears of estates. People know us, trust us and come to us with their problems.
One caretaker heard of witnesses to a sexual assault who were too scared to speak to the police.
He persuaded them to do the right thing and the offender was caught.
Another sat through the night with the grieving mother of a boy who had passed away. His body lay in the flat until the morning, and the caretaker stayed there throughout, offering a vital role whose cost cannot be adequately gauged.
These personal touches are just the tip of the iceberg.
Many caretakers clear up the debris left in communal spaces by drug users on a daily basis.
It’s never a nice thought that youngsters may come across crack pipes or syringes on their doorsteps.
We are always on hand to clear them away immediately and we worry if Veolia are brought in with their weekly tidy-ups these jobs will not be done – or still be done by us as we won’t just walk past them, but with larger patches to cover, the service will deteriorate.
If it does, there is then the added worry that Camden will use this as an excuse to privatise all caretaking services, and the ultimate losers will be the people who rely on us the most.
Caretakers are also expected to do other vital jobs, such as cleaning up faeces – a surprisingly regular occurrence.
Graffiti is a problem. As soon as it’s spotted, we photograph it, especially if it is offensive, and then get it cleaned up. graffiti makes a place feel unsafe and cannot help but affect quality of life.
Again with bigger patches caretakers’ abilities to stop vandalism can only be hit.
But it’s the daily help we provide that councillors who voted for these sackings are not aware of.
Caretakers are the glue that sticks together estate communities and any threat to this must be fought.
We do not take the idea of industrial action lightly, it is a last resort.
But if the service caretakers offer – and a service which Camden has been rightly applauded for in the past, with its being given five stars by Whitehall – is under threat, we will not stand idly by and let tenants be the losers.

* Unison representatives Stuart Doran and Dave Gingold, who are both Camden caretakers.

Send your letters to: The Letters Editor, Camden New Journal, 40 Camden Road, London, NW1 9DR or email to The deadline for letters is midday Tuesday. The editor regrets that anonymous letters cannot be published, although names and addresses can be withheld. Please include a full name, postal address and telephone number. Letters may be edited for reasons of space.

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