14
Jul 17

Looking back on six years of growth for Dot Dot Dot within a developing property guardian industry

Six years ago, when I launched Dot Dot Dot, the business was nothing but an idea and a lot of optimism, and the property guardian industry was a very different place from today. It has been exciting to watch both grow up, and I’m looking forward to developments on the horizon for Dot Dot Dot and our industry over the coming year which will see my company and the wider sector improve still further.

Happy sixth birthday, Dot Dot Dot!

Back in 2011, I wanted to prove that it was possible to do property guardianship differently. There were already a few organisations offering it, but all were approaching it purely as a security service. However, it seemed clear to me that there was space in the market for a higher-quality and more socially responsible approach.

I saw that property guardianship could be used to reduce people’s cost of living and believed that it could therefore unlock their time to make a difference through volunteering. I also believed that happy, well managed guardians who had been carefully vetted and clearly briefed would take better care of the buildings they were living in. Furthermore, diligent management and personal attention would allow us to identify problems before they became serious, giving us the chance to remedy them fairly and straightforwardly before a more conventional property guardian company would even have noticed them.

It has been incredibly satisfying to be proved right on all of this. Over the past six years, we have seen that a wide range of property owners, across the country and from the private, public and third sector, have chosen to work with us because they want to be confident that their buildings are in safe hands, because they want 100% compliance with legal and health and safety best practice, and because they would like to see their empty buildings used in a way which benefits neighbourhoods and the wider community. It has been fantastic to see that our model works just as well in rural Cambridgeshire, in Sheffield and on the south coastas it does in Notting Hill and Tower Hamlets.

On top of that, it is a real pleasure to house guardians across the age spectrum and with every kind of job from architect to zoo-keeper (yes, really – Gemma, pictured above is a guardian in Wycombe and commutes to a zoo on the outskirts of London every day). And it is a daily privilege to hear about the brilliant voluntary work they do. Last year, they gave 56,000 hours, which is the equivalent of 30 working years for good causes. Within those statistics there are any number of inspirational stories of help being given where it’s needed most – Tim and Jon building community in High Wycombe through their litter-picking, Emilija’s mixture of east London volunteering and Joe teaching children circus skills in Sheffield.

And in the past year we have also partnered with Cosmopolitan Magazine to house a dozen of their readers in great homes in London to demonstrate what a difference well-managed, inexpensive accommodation makes to their lives, and to support Cosmo’s wider call for change in the housing situation for millennials. We have welcomed new property owning clients up and down the country, and we have had a rebrand by Studio Blackburn so that our looks reflect our maturity and our ambition.

Growing up within a changing industry

In parallel with our growth, the property guardian industry has changed and developed too. It has become a far more conventional and familiar choice, for property owners and for guardians. Back in 2011, many property owners had never heard of it as an option, and others were wary of it because they weren’t confident that it would keep buildings as safe as boarding them up. Today, it is a standard tool for managing buildings, and it’s widely understood that allowing responsible, well-managed guardians to live in properties deters crime and anti-social behaviour more reliably and cost-effectively than any other security solution, while also preventing dilapidation and avoiding the blight that empty buildings bring to an area.

Similarly, guardianship is no longer seen as an edgy housing option suitable only for young people seeking artistic or unconventional lifestyles. While the flexibility and resilience it requires mean it doesn’t work for everyone, a wide range of people of different ages, backgrounds and professions are finding that it is a good way to live more affordably.

And while the market has matured, other property guardian companies are gradually increasing their standards of professionalism and legal compliance. When I launched Dot Dot Dot, we were up against businesses who said – untruthfully – that guardians could be evicted with just a couple of days’ notice. This has never been the case – guardians have always been legally entitled to 28 days’ warning of the need to move out – but it has only been in the past couple of years that this claim has ceased to be made.

Progress is still needed across the industry, however. We would like to see a better understanding of the fire and health and safety standards guardians are entitled to – which do not differ from those they should experience renting a room in a shared house in the private rented sector. While guardians have less security of tenure than tenants, and are required to be flexible about moving in and moving out, they have an equal legal right to a safe home. Sadly, in the context of a housing crisis which limits guardians’ options, too many are still being asked by other providers to live in buildings which do not meet the minimum standards the law entitles them to.

In the last year, we have set out in detail the standards that guardians can expect from Dot Dot Dot, and over the coming years our goal is to continue to set an example of best practice. We also intend to work with other responsible providers to publicise the legal minimum standards all property guardian companies should comply with.

We hope that the quality of our offer to property owners will also help to push up standards across the industry. Our goal has always been to deliver a responsive, reliable service which is tailored to the specific needs of our clients and the areas where their buildings are located. We prefer to put effort and resources into risk mitigation rather than to cut upfront costs to the bone and spend money on crisis management instead. In the past six years, we have seen that a large and growing proportion of property owners agree with us. We hope that our partnerships with responsible property owners will, over the coming years, continue to demonstrate that property guardianship done well is a win-win-win for owners, guardians and communities alike.

What’s next?

At Dot Dot Dot, we are very excited about the year ahead. Most importantly, we will be growing – working with new clients and aiming to become ever more useful to our existing ones. This will allow us to house more brilliant guardians and support them to do even more inspirational voluntary work. And we will be using the opportunities this growth provides to further improve our systems and strengthen our team.

Looking outwards, we will carry on spreading the word about what a difference property guardianship can make to everyone involved – owners, guardians and communities. We are co-hosting an event with leading property developers U+I –an informal evening of drinks, networking and a panel discussion on the future of meanwhile use chaired by urban regeneration advisor David Barrie. And we will be building on our partnership with Cosmopolitan to campaign for better housing for all while creating homes for more of their readers.

We will continue to push up standards in the industry – we welcome the investigation that the London Assembly Housing Committee has launched into the role of property guardianship in London’s housing market and look forward to contributing our views and experience.

So while our scale and the context we work in have changed significantly over the past six years, our mission and our values have not. We look forward to continuing to work hard to make the most of places in transition, by getting empty buildings into use to house people who do brilliant voluntary work.

Thanks very much indeed to everyone who has helped us to achieve so much over the past six years, and here’s to the future.

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01
Jun 17

The impact of the housing crisis on civil society

Here’s a summary of a talk on the harm the housing crisis does to civil society I gave at a ‘Good Women’ event hosted at Notting Hill Housing and organised by Koreo.

At Dot Dot Dot, we are keenly aware of the harm that the housing crisis is doing to individuals – every day, we meet people who’re unable to fulfil their potential because of the high cost of living. We also see the damage it’s doing to businesses and economy – the FT quoted us in an article on the subject. But we also see the negative impact it has on civil society.

Everyone benefits from living in an environment where people help each other out, give their time to good causes, and contribute to the friendship groups, clubs, societies, neighbourhoods and communities that they are part of – without people pitching in to help, less can happen. You have fewer sports events and children’s parties; litter doesn’t get picked up and fewer bulbs are planted; fewer children are mentored and fewer older people get visitors.

And most people would really like to do their bit – it might be through what we classically think of as volunteering, by providing first aid for St John’s Ambulance or answering the phones at the Samaritans, or it might be something a bit closer to home, like helping out at their children’s Scout pack, or hosting a reading group. These things are often fun, they’re a good way to socialise, and it’s nice to feel like you’re making a difference – there are loads of incentives for people to do them alongside pure benevolence.

But as things are at the moment, high housing costs are pushing people to work harder and longer, and to commute further. So it’s no wonder if many get to the end of the day and don’t feeling like doing anything much for the common good. If you’ve spent a long day at the office, and traveled there and back, by the time you’ve had something to eat, seen those closest to you and maybe had some exercise or done some laundry, you’re probably finished. Plenty of people do manage to do more, despite the pressure on their time, but it isn’t easy.

And the instability of the private rented sector also erodes people’s motivations to get involved locally. If you might have to move house at two months’ notice, is it really worth planting things in the community garden or helping to set up a kids’ football team if you may not be there to see the results? Again, many people do give time generously despite knowing that they may not be around to benefit, but the circumstances don’t help. We know that tenants in the private rented sector are the least likely to register to vote, and who can blame them when it’s yet another chore to sort out along with the electricity and the internet every time they move house.

Plus, if we create an environment where people feel that society isn’t doing much for them – which isn’t entirely unreasonable if you’re locked out of home ownership and social housing – then perhaps we shouldn’t expect them to give much back.

So that’s bad for the individuals who are worst hit by the housing situation, it’s bad for the people they could be helping, and it’s bad for us as a society, as our communities become more boring and lonely.

That’s why we’re trying to do something different at Dot Dot Dot. We’re a property guardian company, so we can house people for a fraction of the normal rent by placing them in buildings that would otherwise be empty on behalf of the building’s owners. Because of their role as caretakers, we need to house people who are resourceful and resilient, rather than the most vulnerable, so we choose to house people who want to use their time to make a difference.

By reducing their cost of living and supporting, encouraging and – sometimes! – chivvying them to volunteer, we get them started with projects that excite them and which make a real difference for people who need it the most.

We’ve seen what a difference this makes to our guardians.

  • 98% of guardians find their volunteering enjoyable.
  • 91% of guardians say they will continue to volunteer after they leave Dot Dot Dot and 88% of guardians felt that Dot Dot Dot has made them more likely to volunteer in the future.
  • 70% of them feel connected to their community and say that they have positive links with their neighbours, and 60% of our guardians feel that our model has helped them to engage more than they otherwise would.

We know that the housing we offer isn’t the most stable – guardians are there to look after the buildings they’re in, so when the owners need them back they have to move on – often to another building we manage, but sometimes to somewhere else.

But what we’ve shown is that inexpensive housing, plus positive management, and support and encouragement to volunteer, really does unlock people’s time and energy. Last year, our guardians gave 56,000 hours to almost 1000 good causes – that’s the equivalent of 30 working years for charity. That helped a lot of individuals, but it also built up neighbourhoods, communities and society as a whole.

So what do we do about this problem more generally?

Well, at Dot Dot Dot we’re going to carry on working to scale up – to manage more empty homes and to house and support more brilliant people. But beyond this, we would like to see a wider acknowledgement that the impact of the housing crisis goes way beyond the effect it has on those at the sharp end of it. If those who didn’t buy before prices exploded, and who can’t get social housing, are crippled by high rents or mortgages, then we will all lose out, so it’s in all of our interests to solve this.

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01
Dec 16

Profile in The Telegraph

Thanks very much to The Telegraph for including a profile of me in their section on women in business on 17th November – you can read it on their website, or below.

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How she did it: ‘I help people live almost rent-free in London’

Five years ago, Katharine Hibbert, 35, was a journalist and author of Free: Adventures on the Margins of a Wasteful Society; a book about the squatters and scavengers who live on what the rest of us throw away.

The Oxford native, who now lives in east London, had always been interested in housing, communities and cities, so in 2011 she decided to set up Dot Dot Dot – a property company with a difference.

Here, Katharine – who will be appearing at Telegraph Women’s ‘how to be resilient’ talk – tells us how she did it…

Tell us about your business

Dot Dot Dot allows people who do voluntary work to live cheaply in buildings that would otherwise be empty, as guardians. By doing this, we deliver a reliable, flexible, cost-effective security solution to property owners, inexpensive housing to residents, and we support them be great neighbours and volunteers.  Today, we house hundreds of people across the country – London, as well as in towns and cities from the South Coast to Sheffield. We’re a team of 15, based in London’s Olympic Park.

What inspired you to start it?

Through my work as a journalist – and my experience as a Londoner – I saw how the lack of affordable, well-managed housing was blighting lives and preventing people from getting involved in projects that they were passionate about, and that would help the city as a whole. At the same time, I saw the problems that empty buildings cause for owners – they need flexibility to sell, refurbish or demolish their property, but find themselves dealing with crime and dereliction in the meantime. Peering through the metal grilles of empty homes and seeing how much better it would be for owners and residents alike if someone could live in there, was what drove me to start Dot Dot Dot.

What were the first few steps you took?

I was fortunate enough to have a profile as an expert in empty buildings from my book and working on a Channel Four series called The Great British Property Scandal.  So my first step was to talk to everyone in my network about my idea, to get their thoughts on whether or not it could work, and to enlist their help if they believed in it.  I got some great feedback, and a chance to practice my pitch, which helped a lot when I started talking to property owners and funders.

How did you raise awareness?

Mainly by showing up and telling people about it.  I had speaking opportunities thanks to my book, and I went to all the relevant events, conferences and lectures I could. It was through that networking that I won our first clients. And a lot of our work has come through word of mouth ever since. One of the best things about running a social enterprise is that when people understand how we’re making a difference, and are confident we’re going to deliver a great service, it sells itself. People tell each other about it.

What has been your biggest challenge?

I started Dot Dot Dot with minimal support or investment, so at the beginning it was a real struggle to find the energy to push things forward every day, before I had any real proof that it would work.  For the first couple of years, if I’d just packed it in it would have made no difference to anyone but me – the lack of co-founders or financial backers means that you really have to dig in to your own reserves of motivation. Sometimes you just don’t believe it or aren’t in the mood.  The challenge is to soldier on anyway.

How do you tackle challenges?

I love being surrounded by colleagues who care about what we’re trying to do as much as I do myself, and who bring different perspectives to solving our problems. Some of my favourite moments at work have been when we’re dealing with a real crisis – or when we have a high-stakes pitch to deliver – and we’ve pulled together, and done what we’re each best at to get a good result. It’s not necessarily fun at the time, but you look back and you’re satisfied.

Also, outside work I love endurance sport, and I hope to bring a bit of that wiliness to grit my teeth and finish the race into the office as well.  Plus exercise is a great way to de-stress and stay healthy and energised in challenging periods.

What helps you stay motivated through tough times?

It helps so much to have a sense of mission about what we were doing.  Especially in the early days, when I faltered and thought about quitting and getting a proper job, I’d remind myself of how much difference it would make to individuals if I could support them to do the things they cared about – and of how much difference those projects would make to the community. Still today, when I feel demoralised or lacking in motivation, there’s nothing like hearing the stories of the amazing voluntary work our guardians do – 25,000 hours of it in 2015 – to get me back to my desk.

What’s the best thing about running your own business?

Probably the fact that you get to choose who you work with – and that as the business grows, you can recruit people with skills that you don’t have yourself and support them in making your idea even better.  Also, I love the creativity of it, and the way that the organisation takes on a life of its own. It’s very satisfying when you get a second to stand back and see what has grown from the seed you planted.

Do you have a business philosophy?

Be kind.  That doesn’t always mean being nice, but it does mean being fair and honest, rather than trying to pull any fast ones in the hopes that you’ll get away with it. Integrity is the best strategy in the long run, and even if it wasn’t, it’s still good to get to the weekend and feel as if you’ve made the world slightly better – rather than slightly worse.

What advice would you give budding entrepreneurs?

If you have an idea for something and which you think there’s a market, find a way to start making it happen. You don’t need all the answers before you start, and you don’t need to have all the skills – if you’re resourceful, you’ll find the solutions as you go along. And if your idea is good enough, and you let other people get on board and help to shape it, then you’ll attract the support you need. What you eventually end up producing might be different from what you imagined when you started out, but you’ll never know unless you get started.

My greatest fear is… Boredom.  I love to be busy and excited about what I’m doing.

The bravest thing I’ve done is… Saying ‘no’.  When you want to please people and find solutions that work for everyone, it’s hard to walk into a room and tell someone something that’s likely to make them unhappy or angry.  But you owe it to yourself to do it when necessary.

I would tell my teenage self… Hang in there!  Being a total geek at 14 is going to pay off in the long run.

I believe… In recruiting people who’re brilliant at their jobs, then giving the freedom and support they need to get on with it.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is… Everything takes twice as long as you think it will.  And even when you’ve applied that rule, it still takes longer than you expect.  So sometimes you just have to be patient – with yourself and with the world.

My top business tool or resource is… Friends. I think best when I’m talking, and I couldn’t have got here without the people who’ve been willing to hear me out in a pub or a café when I was stuck on a problem or worried.

My favourite quote… ‘Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage’ – Anais Nin.

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07
Jun 16

Review: The Rent Trap by Rosie Walker and Samir Jeraj

 

I reviewed The Rent Trap by Rosie Walker and Samir Jeraj for the May 27th edition of the Times Literary Supplement

Rosie Walker and Samir Jeraj
The Rent Trap: how we fell into it and how we get out of it
181pp
Pluto Press
978-0-7453-3646-6

Rosie Walker and Samir Jeraj’s survey of the situation for those who rent their homes from private landlords aims to rally tenants to seek change. Stories of households at the sharp end of high rents, poorly maintained homes, thuggish landlords and predatory estate agents are backed up by statistics, history and law to paint a picture of a failing sector.

Although many tenants have good experiences of renting, the authors show that this is a result of landlords choosing to behave well rather than being obliged to do so. When things go wrong tenants have little recourse – because they can be evicted with only two months’ notice, complaining about repairs or objecting to rent increases is risky. Even when privately rented housing is well-managed in the UK, the absence of rent controls leave tenants in areas of high demand paying out very large proportions of their income, and fuels inequality as those who own assets extract wealth from those who don’t, making it ever less likely that they can afford to buy a home of their own.

The authors don’t dig into the one area where tenants do have the upper hand – if they refuse to leave at the end of their notice period, landlords are obliged to get a court order to send bailiffs to remove them, a process which can easily take six months. This is the case even if tenants have ceased to pay rent, or broken other rules. By failing to address this, the authors neglect an issue that many landlords resent, and leave tenants ignorant of one source of power they do have. Nor do Walker and Jeraj consider wider options for bringing the housing situation under control such as a land value tax.

The Rent Trap makes a compelling case – if incomplete – case for reform, but it does not set out clear proposals for change. Tenants reading this book are likely to reach the end feeling hard done by, but not very clear on what they could do to improve things.

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06
Jun 16

What I did on my holidays – Land’s End to John O’Groats

I recently got home from a fortnight of cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats, and wrote this ride report for Islington Cycling Club’s forum – cross-posting it in case others are interested, and to slot in more photos

Probably my favourite thing about the trip was seeing the countryside changing on the way up the country – sharp Cornish hills to rolling Welsh landscape to bleak Scottish wilderness, with different birds and different plants. I don’t think we could have chosen a better time of year for it – the hedgerows were packed with flowers, the fields were full of lambs, calves and foals, and there weren’t too many midges in Scotland. And (apart from torrential rain in Cheshire, hail in Cumbria and headwinds all the way up Scotland) we mainly got really lucky with the weather.

I did it with my friend Sam and I’d recommend it to anyone – there are so many different ways to approach it which would turn into a different sort of trip, and we met people who were doing it with very different levels of fitness, on very different routes, with very different amounts of kit, from lads smashing it over seven days on fast roads with a support car, to pensioners on organised tours taking it easy over three weeks.

We spent a fortnight so that we could take a 1,050 mile route on quiet lanes averaging 80 miles a day (rather than the 850 mile direct route), carry our own stuff (in bikepacking bags on road bikes) and stop to look at the view, rather than trying to set any records. I’d gladly do it again more slowly so that I could camp, or faster in a bigger bunch, or via a different route to see different places, or even just at a different time of year.

One of my main reasons for doing the trip was to see which bits of the country I’d like to explore more – highlights were Cornwall (so pretty, which made up for it being basically all either up or down steep hills) and Shropshire (lovely roads, beautiful scenery, rolling hills). The Forest of Bowland in Lancashire was great – long, steady climbs on deserted roads up to brilliant views. And then the road up through Sutherland and Caithness in Scotland was amazing – it’s a really uncanny, huge landscape, and there’s nothing there – what gets called a village on the map is often just a single house. I’m already thinking about when I can get back to those places for long weekends later this year.

Three things I learned: first, I know I ought to know this already, but on trips like this my mood is almost entirely governed by blood-sugar levels, and my legs carry on for much longer than my equanimity. There were at least two moments where although I seemed to have enough energy to carry on cycling I just felt like the world was going to end, everything I’d ever done was a failure and I’d certainly die alone. And then I had some sugary tea and a slice of cake and everything seemed alright again. I got better at eating enough as I went along, but it took real effort.

Second, I wish I’d done a shorter trip – perhaps a long weekend – with my luggage and bike setup before I set off for a fortnight. I didn’t really get on with the Apidura bag I used – it was a pain to get on and off the bike, which meant I couldn’t access stuff in it during the day, and the clips were a bit flimsy. Luckily Sam was using a Carradice, so I carried some of his clothes to free up space for him to carry food and my wet- and cold weather layers. The Carradice weighed more, but next time I think I’d suck that up for more convenience.

And third – the third day was dreadful! Lots of people had said it would be, because I would be tired, but not yet fittened up or in the routine of riding every day. We’d planned a 100 mile day for that day, and it was grim. I think Sam and I were both almost ready to just catch the train straight home. Sitting in the garden of a bad pub on a horrible a-road outside Bristol under a gazebo in the rain was a very low ebb. I obviously looked as bad as I felt, since – without prompting – the barman brought me a bowl of smarties and biscuits with my coffee. I wish we’d shifted a bit of that distance to later in the trip once we’d hit our stride. Still, an adventure has got to have low points, right?

The two best things I packed were a bar of Vanish clothes-washing soap (small, and really good for handwashing lycra) and a massage ball (not as good as a foam roller, but nearly). Also, special thanks to Gatorskins for no punctures despite some pretty dreadful road surfaces and at least a mile of gravel a day. And if anyone ever finds themselves in need of a bike shop in Blackburn, Ewood Bikes were brilliant.

Overall, it was a great trip, and I can’t wait for the next!

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Packing – 17 litres of stuff to last a fortnight. Took two things I didn’t use – a kindle (too tired in the evening for reading) and a down gilet (we got lucky with the weather)

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The fellow cyclist who took a pic of us at Land’s End was not a brilliant photographer…

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St Michael’s Mount

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Flower-lined lanes. This was basically the whole of Cornwall.

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Luxalyan Viaduct – on a traffic-free, well-paved bike path

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A bit more of Cornwall’s lanes being lovely

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Treffrey Viaduct, Cornwall

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Mercy snacks from the barman when it all got a bit bleak on day three

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Crossing the Severn on the old bridge, which has a bike path next to the road

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Tintern Abbey

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Forest of Bowland, Lancashire – definitely one of my top three bits on the trip

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At the top of Mull, with Arran in the background. Just after getting the ferry from Lochranza to Claonaig

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Distracting myself from the fact that Cumbria was very weather-y (hail, rain, wind) by practicing taking rolling selfies

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Looking over at the Isle of Seil, Scotland

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Castle Stalker, Scotland

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Scotland just generally being stunning

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Heading north through Sutherland, Scotland

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Mist rolling off the hills in Sutherland, Scotland. Photo doesn’t do it justice.

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This is the A-road through Sutherland to Caithness – single-lane with passing places. I loved this bit of the trip.

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Made it!

 

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15
Oct 14

These people need homes, these homes need people: Dot Dot Dot and the housing crisis

At Dot Dot Dot, we would like to live in a world where no one needed to be a property guardian – one where everyone had access to affordable, pleasant housing where they could stay as long as they liked or move whenever they chose, close to their work, family and friends.

This situation has rarely, if ever, existed in London, and it certainly doesn’t exist today. Right now, housing in Britain, and especially London and the South East, is in crisis. Buying is out of reach for most, rents have never been higher and waiting lists for social housing are endless.

The consequences of the failure of our housing system are everywhere. Families are moved to new towns far from their roots, vulnerable people stay endlessly in temporary accommodation, those on low wages rent shacks in back gardens, and the housing benefit bill spirals. The situation fuels distrust of migrants, single mothers, and anyone else perceived as jumping the endless queue. It blights people’s lives, forcing them to work long hours, to postpone having children, to commute for hours, or to take on crippling mortgages.

Housing is one of the most serious problems we face as a country, and the issue isn’t going away. Too few new homes are being built, salaries are stagnating, and demand just keeps on rising. Noise is beginning to be made about it, with big organisations like Shelter and the National Housing Federation and grassroots groups like Hackney Renters and Focus E15 campaigning for change. Housing will be high on the agenda at the 2015 general election and during the 2016 London Mayoral campaign, but lobbying and protest are needed to get it the attention it deserves.

This is the context that Dot Dot Dot is working in, and we are glad to add our voices to all of those calling for systemic change. Until that change comes, though, our mission to mitigate the housing crisis for as many people as we can – this blog post sets out what we’re doing and why, and then addresses some specific criticisms of the property guardian model expressed on left-wing blogs over the last few months.

We are well aware that being a property guardian has downsides – the people we house have less security of tenure than they would in other forms of accommodation, because they are licensees not tenants, so can be asked to move out at shorter notice, and have no right to fight eviction. We expect them to move into the places we offer swiftly, and their choice of home is limited by what we have available. The places that we can give them are usually unfurnished, and often need some TLC – a few hours with mops, dusters and brooms, or paint over tired wallpaper.

Getting a home with us is not like walking into an estate agent’s office and specifying the postcode and number of bedrooms, and being shown a range of freshly painted flats from which you can choose – a Victorian conversion, a mid-century modern concrete icon, or clean, new-build simplicity.

However, the other big difference is the price-tag. That kind of choice is realistically only available at the moment to the very wealthy – and even Conservative MPs and the Governor of the Bank of England find it hard to cover London’s rents at the moment. For many, renting in the private sector means choosing between bad options – between overcrowded, badly maintained, inconveniently located homes, where the rent still takes up a huge chunk of tenants’ pay.

This is why guardians come to us. Because our guardians help us to take good care of homes while they are empty pending refurbishment, demolition or sale, we’re able to offer places to live for between £35 and £75 a week – often a quarter of what the equivalent home would cost in the private rented sector.

We’re able to do this because we’re delivering a service that landlords want – the best way to keep property safe and in good condition is to have reliable residents living in it, keeping it aired and warm, with water running through the pipes, and with someone there to spot repairs that are needed before they cause serious damage. Keeping buildings lived in deters crime and anti-social behaviour at the property itself and in the surrounding area – empty homes with overgrown gardens and boarded up windows are natural targets for metal thieves and vandals, and can quickly make a whole neighbourhood feel neglected and dangerous.

However, landlords don’t choose to use property guardians when they have other options for filling their buildings. Placing guardians generates no revenue for the landlord, and can cost them money – albeit far less than alternative forms of security. So the only places we are offered, as a property guardian company, are those where there is no longer any possibility of placing tenants. This is usually because the length of time a property will be available for is too short or too unpredictable for a tenancy agreement to be legally viable – the minimum legal term for an assured shorthold tenancy is six months, and tenants must be given two months’ notice and can drag out the eviction process if they choose by forcing the landlord to take them to court.

It is entirely appropriate that tenants should have such protections – and at Dot Dot Dot we would like to see far more legal protection for tenants. However, the more rights a tenant has, the less flexibility there is for landlords – so where they need to set a date for work to start or a sale to take place, they may not be able to rent to tenants any more. Often that date is delayed, sometimes repeatedly, but the lack of certainty still makes tenancies impossible. This is when property guardians make sense – when the alternative would be for the property to be boarded up and empty, lived in by no one, blighting the lives of other residents nearby.

Empty homes are a nightmare for everyone. Obviously, they’re a catastrophic waste. But they’re also expensive for landlords, ugly for neighbours, and a magnet for crime and vandalism. The lack of residents means fewer customers for neighbourhood shops and less footfall on local streets, resulting in an unsafe, unfriendly feeling.

So we’re very glad that our work lets us get empty homes lived in – not only does this allow us to give our guardians cheap accommodation, it also lets neighbourhoods and landlords avoid the problems that empty homes cause.

But as a social enterprise, at Dot Dot Dot we want to do more than that. We were set up because we thought that there were two big ways in which other property guardian companies were missing a trick – from the point of view of making the world a better place, and from the point of view of doing good business.

Firstly, we want to raise standards in the industry. It’s clear that some property guardian companies out there are not taking good care of their guardians – and not living up to the promises they make to landlords, either. We have seen big differences between the services to landlords that some guardian companies promise, and what they deliver, in terms of vetting of guardians and devoting staff time to managing properties.

Guardians are not consistently treated well. We have heard of guardians living in buildings which are not in habitable condition – without drinkable water in the taps or safe fire exits, for instance. We have heard of guardians forced to move out at hours’ notice and unfairly deprived of their deposits.

It’s not just unethical to treat guardians like this, it’s often actually illegal or unlawful. Guardian companies may get away with it because they have more muscle and money than guardians themselves, but quite apart from being just plain wrong, all this seems like a bad basis for a business model – not a way to build positive, long-term relationships with landlords and with guardians. We don’t do it, and we never will.

Secondly, Dot Dot Dot exists because we believe that it’s possible to do something positive with empty property, not just avoid a negative by sticking warm bodies in void buildings to keep an eye on them and protect them from crime and dereliction.

Unfortunately, we can’t achieve a positive social impact by housing those in the most desperate need. The nature of property guardianship makes it impossible to place vulnerable people – families with kids can’t uproot themselves when given 28 days’ notice to leave, and people who are recovering from chaos in their lives need support rather than the responsibility of looking after an empty home.

So since we’re only able to house resilient, reliable, flexible people, we choose to house the people who may be cash-poor but who would like to use their time and energy to help others who are even more in need of support. Some of our guardians rescue people drowning in the Thames with the RNLI, some answer the phone for The Samaritans. Some befriend elderly people, some mentor kids. Some paint murals, some plant bulbs. Our city would be a harder, less friendly, less safe place without the amazing work they do, and whether or not Dot Dot Dot was there to help them our guardians – like many others – would be out there doing this work anyway alongside working hard to keep their heads above water financially.

Our goal is to reduce our guardians’ cost of living, and provide them with support, encouragement and a peer group of others who share their motivations in order to make it easier and more fun to carry on volunteering and perhaps to do even more. Because we are excited about our guardians’ voluntary work and we share their commitment to making a difference, we are even more motivated to make sure that their experience of being a property guardian is as good as it can be. We hope that this makes being a guardian with us more than just a way of getting a very cheap place to live – though we make sure it’s that too. We want to offer people a home that’s managed by a respectful and considerate organisation, to a highly professional standard, with clear expectations set on both sides – what we will do for guardians, and what we expect from them in return. Doubtless we sometimes get it wrong, but we are doing our best.

In the four years we’ve been working, we’ve seen how effective our model can be. We’ve seen how much difference it makes to neighbourhoods to have void properties lived in rather than boarded up. We’ve seen that offering a better standard of service allows us to attract excellent guardians, which means that we can do a better job for landlords and neighbourhoods too. And we know that we have helped many of our guardians to do what they wanted to do in terms of giving their time and making a difference.

So we believe strongly in the work we do – and we hope that this explanation of the problems we’re trying to mitigate, and our approach to doing so, respond to opinions that have been expressed on left-wing blogs recently about the relationship of property guardianship to the housing crisis.

Writing for Vice, Philip Kleinfeld criticises property guardian companies for failing to take good care of their guardians, giving examples of situations where guardians have been placed in buildings which weren’t fit to inhabit. As described above, we agree that guardians deserve to be treated well, and we work hard to do so. We go beyond the demands made on us by the law, and we would welcome a strengthening of regulation to enforce the standards we subscribe to anyway.

None of our guardians have ever been asked to live in a place which our team would not be willing to move into ourselves. Where a flat is safe to live in but in a tatty state, so cleaning or painting is definitely needed before it is homely, we reduce our fees to reflect this – we find that, given the choice, guardians would rather pay less and spend a bit of time sorting things out for themselves than pay more and have us use a handy-person, and it’s far better that this work should be done so that the home can be lived in, rather than that it should sit empty for months or years because the floor needed scrubbing. For some, this kind of work is a necessary evil to get a cheap home, for others it’s an opportunity to be able to project a bit of identity onto their living space – an opportunity few get in rented housing, where a spot of blue-tac can cost you your deposit.

Kleinfeld also makes a criticism aired by Charlotte England on OpenDemocracy and on the LRB blog, and by Lauren Van Schaik Smith in the London Student, that guardian companies force other more deserving people from their homes, and support gentrification. We reject this criticism. As discussed above, the properties lived in by our or any other property guardian company would not be offered to tenants if guardians weren’t in them. They would sit empty. We believe this is a bad outcome for everyone. So regardless of what you think of the overall projects – and in our opinions many of them are good and necessary, and will see sub-standard housing replaced with better quality and larger numbers of new homes – it is surely better that the houses should be lived in for as long as possible before works can take place.

Even if you object to all regeneration schemes, it is simply not the case that property guardian companies enable them. The schemes would be going ahead regardless of our work, and if we didn’t exist, the void flats would be secured using security guards, metal sheets on doors and window, or by being comprehensively stripped out to make them uninhabitable. This is still the most common way for void flats to be secured, and – as discussed above – we believe it creates worse outcomes for everyone.

One coherent argument against the principle of property guardianship as a way to help to mitigate the housing crisis and prevent empty homes from blighting neighbourhoods is parallel to the argument that Slavoj Zizek applies to all charitable work – as expressed in this talk for the RSA (with animation!). Zizek argues that by making the current situation less bad, such efforts delay the revolution, and therefore delay the day when the problems we currently face are sorted out once and for all.

This may be an argument Kleinfeld and England subscribe to, though they don’t say it explicitly. If you accept the premises, then the conclusion does follow. However, to accept this, one must believe that all work to mitigate social problems which might have political solutions are corrupt, and we – like most people – don’t buy this.

On this argument, the Trussell Trust providing food parcels to the hungry, Medicines sans Frontiers sending volunteer doctors to the developing world and Refuge providing shelter to victims of domestic violence are masking the problems of poverty and abuse, therefore taking the edge off them and perpetuating the problem.

Even if it were the case that by making people’s lives slightly better, we are making revolutionary change slightly less likely, in practice, revolutions seem to be a long time coming, and don’t reliably seem to have the outcomes left-wing revolutionaries hope for.

In fact, we believe that the best way to create progressive change in a lasting way is to bring people together and encourage them to work together, talk and discuss ideas, and trust one another. Strong communities are better able to work together to come to a vision of the change they want, and to advocate for it. No one feels like working on projects that would make a difference in the long run if they’re miserable here and now and feel that they are living in a war zone. That makes them lock themselves away and look after themselves and those close to them, rather than working for the common good. By bringing people together, making the lives of guardians and their neighbours slightly easier, and showing a positive example of what is possible when people cooperate, then we believe we are making change more likely.

Of course, if you take the view even more extreme than Zizek’s that all property is theft, and so therefore the only justified way to have a home is to squat it, then you won’t believe in property guardianship, just as you won’t believe in renting one from a private landlord or maybe even owning one yourself. Perhaps, on this belief system, to be a property guardian is to be a blackleg, crossing a picket-line maintained by anarchists. There is probably no agreement possible with people who subscribe to this – perfectly valid – argument. It’s just based on a world view we don’t share.

In conclusion, then, we’re fiercely proud of what we’re doing at Dot Dot Dot. We believe that we are offering good homes to the guardians we house, and making a positive difference to the communities where we work, as well as helping landlords. We are content with achieving just this – cheaper homes and safer neighbourhoods for the people we work directly with.  But if challenged on our contribution to the bigger picture, we believe that our impact is positive and makes long-term systemic change for the better more rather than less likely.

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21
Sep 14

Concrete / Cake

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The idea of making a model of Balfron Tower out of cake has been something I’ve joked about with various friends ever since I moved into the Grade II listed brutalist tower block in London’s East End more than three years ago.  I’m not really sure why the idea appealed – as a building, it’s the opposite of cute, with all its raw concrete and hard edges.  And unlike, for instance, the Millennium Dome, it’s not at all cake shaped.  I’m sure that Erno Goldfinger, the apparently fairly humourless architect who designed it, would be not be amused.  Architect Sam Jacobs has written an excellent essay on the contradiction involved in chinzy renderings of modernist icons.  But for me there’s definitely something appealing about a twee appropriation of such an uncompromising building.  And it seemed difficult enough to be interesting.  And also – who wouldn’t want a model of their home made out of cake?

Anyway, after talking about it for years, London Open House Weekend seemed as good a moment as any to give it a go.  Gingerbread seemed likely to be the best material – I couldn’t think of any other kind of cake which would have the structural integrity for Balfron’s tall, narrow shape – especially of the separate tower which contains the lift and the stairs.

Amy, my flatmate, and I followed Mary Berry’s recipe for making a gingerbread house.  The dough seemed very crumbly once it was made, and we had serious doubts about whether it would be stiff enough, once cooked, to stand upright.  But we rolled it out into thin sheets, and used greaseproof paper templates to cut it into rectangles that would fit together to make a 1:190 scale model of the tower – we got the dimensions from an elevation of the tower drawn by architects involved in its planned refurbishment.

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The hardest part was transferring the cut-out shapes from the rolling mat onto the baking tray, but Amy found that if you rolled it onto grease-proof paper you could lift it straight on.

We should have trusted Mary Berry – once baked, the rectangles of gingerbread were quite rigid, though still quite brittle.

Using super-sticky icing from the recipe, we managed to assemble the main block of the building and the separate lift tower, and to get them to stand upright on a bed of icing.

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And then we put in the bridges which cross from the lift tower to the main building every three floors.  This was the hardest part – the bridges we’d cut out varied in dimensions very slightly, so weren’t an exact fit between the two towers – despite wedging them in with quite a lot of icing, we couldn’t get them exactly straight.

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I’m sure there would have been a better way to make the bridges – perhaps by carving notches into the towers so that they could slot in, or by using cocktail sticks to anchor them, as Mary Berry recommends.  Also, I’m sure we could have rendered the windows and balconies using cake decorations, if we’d put our minds to it.  But overall, I think as gingerbread tower blocks go, we did alright.

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19
Jul 14

She’s up all night for good fun

20140713_042857Last Saturday, me and my friends stayed up all night and watched the sun rise.  We were out in the streets in the early hours, laughing and singing.  In the selfies we took in the dark, arms round each others’ shoulders, you can see us smiling, teeth showing, eyes full of joy.  Hours after dawn, we were still awake, eating bacon sandwiches, hugging others who’d been up all night and ended up in the same place, but beginning to feel grubby and achy, some of us getting grumpy, all of us having to concentrate very hard on not losing things.  Get on the bus, fall asleep, hobble home, crawl into bed wondering if the whole thing was worth it.  Wake up the next day knowing it was, but with fragmentary, impressionistic memories of the night before, not a coherent narrative.

I’m over 30.  My days of serious partying are past.  I’m increasingly aware of the extent to which endurance sport has become my substitute for it.  Last weekend was the Dunwich Dynamo, a 120-mile bike ride overnight, from London Fields to Dunwich, a tiny village on the Suffolk coast.  And without taking even an ibuprofin or a caffeine gel, I swear I felt as high as I ever have for most of it.

Some 2,500 people arrived at the starting point to hang around for an hour or two until they felt the inclination to get rolling.  Most people set off between 8pm and 9pm.  The first hour of the ride is clear in my mind.  A continuous stream of cyclists jostled with the traffic to head up through Hackney and out into Essex.  But as the sun set and we got out into the quiet B-roads of Epping, I stopped having to concentrate on direction or avoiding being hit by cars, and my memory is vaguer from then on.

I remember bolts of lightning on the horizon and drenched roads showed that we were following a huge storm, with another behind us, but by some miracle barely a drop of rain actually hit us.  As night set in, the mist gathered, sometimes just wisps on the fields, other times dense enough to cut visibility.  At the top of a slight rise in the land, a trail of red rear lights curving miles into the distance.  Full moon hidden by clouds, the night not pitch black but the landscape virtually invisible.

For a few miles we followed a man on a tall bike blasting out the Beastie Boys and Gogol Bordello from a sound system and setting a swift pace.  Other times we chatted.  I explained the Doppler effect to Kate, my riding companion, and she described the challenges she faces in her work, trying to end female genital mutilation.  But for most of the dark of the night, we were close to silence, the only sounds I could hear my tyres on the road and the wind passing my ears as I rode.

We hit a comfortable pace, not out of breath but not idling.  The kind of pace which gently soaks your brain with endorphins, and which you can sustain indefinitely.  The right amount of exertion to stay a comfortable temperature through a warm, humid, overcast night.  The kind of effort it takes to dance.

We stopped every few hours to stretch, drink water, eat flapjacks and wait for our friends Saffron and Gabby to catch us up.  Looking back, it feels as if the night was only dark for about an hour.  I was in my body, not my brain, thinking about nothing, smiling almost constantly, calm and happy.

Towards dawn, though, we all began to come down.  The string of cyclists had thinned out, as the gap between the faster and the slower grew.  Kate’s front light and my back light ran out of battery power before the sun came up, and Gabby was tired, with an aching back.  We stopped in a village to rest.  When we were ready to go again, I found my front tyre was flat.  I fixed it, and that was when we started singing to keep our spirits up, working our way through our shared repertoire from The Beatles via Oliver! to school hymns.

I was back in my brain for those last 20 miles, concentrating on keeping my legs pushing, choosing the right gear, finding the route with fewer fellow cyclists to follow, what to sing next, how many miles were left, whether or not I needed to eat, the effort of finishing stopping me from letting my brain freewheel.

But then we were nearly there.  The four of us laughed like drains, on the right side of hysteria, but only just, when the distance marker to Dunwich said 71 miles at first glance, at second glance the extra ‘1’ added with electrical tape.  We’d run out of songs we all knew by that point, but we were nearly at the beach.  And then we swam, ate and queued for the buses home.

Chrissie Wellington, a three-time Ironman world champion, has been straightforward about her addictive relationship with sport, dependent on the chemical effects it has on her body and brain.  I’ll never be a world champion, and I’m pretty sure I’m not an addict.  But when a woman leaned out of her car window on the way out of London last Saturday to ask me what I was cycling for, the only answer was that these days is I don’t know any more reliable and efficient way to feel so happy.

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03
May 14

Thousands of tiny triumphs, thousands of tiny tragedies

When I woke up this morning, I had only one goal for the bank holiday weekend – to beat my personal best in my local Saturday morning Parkrun.  I’ve been working hard on my running over the last month – focusing on my technique and training three times a week on top of my normal swimming and cycling. I was pretty sure that my running form and my general fitness had improved, I’d had a good night’s sleep, and I’d only had one drink when I was out on Friday night. I was feeling pretty confident that I could take a chunk off my previous best 5km time, and I was imagining how happy I’d feel after I’d done it.

I was one of thousands of people getting ready to do the same thing up and down the country. While I was drinking my coffee and putting on my trainers, I was looking at everyone else’s tweets about getting geared up to run. When I got to Mile End, on a scrubby patch of grass between a football pitch and a road, scores of people were preparing, jogging and stretching. The same scene must have been replicated at every one of the hundreds of other 5km Parkruns that happen every weekend in the UK.

There isn’t much ceremony to the whole thing – it’s completely free and organised by volunteers, and the runners range from teenagers to pensioners, club athletes to people interspersing jogging with walking. You just have to register online and print out a barcode if you want to get your time, but there’s nothing to stop you from just turning up and joining in.  It isn’t a race, and it doesn’t feel like one – some people are jockeying with others for position, but basically everyone’s there to do their own run. At Mile End, everyone gathers between two lamp-posts, someone shouts go, and everyone goes. As you finish your time is recorded. Everyone drifts off to get on with their weekends. Times are published on the Parkrun website a few hours later.

I tried as hard as I could this morning. The run is two laps of the same course on footpaths through the park, and while no one could call it properly hilly, it isn’t flat. I tried to remember what I’d been told about picking up my knees, keeping my shoulders relaxed, lifting up my heels, maintaining my form on the upwards slopes and recovering on the way down. I tried to strike the right balance between pushing myself and staying composed enough to keep going. But I couldn’t do it. Judging by my own watch, I was at least ten seconds off my previous best, and the official times confirmed it when they came out a couple of hours later.

And you know what? I was gutted. I really wanted it. I would have been so proud of myself if I’d done better than I ever had before, and I would have felt glad for all the effort I’d put in over the last month. I would have really enjoyed telling my coach and my triathlon club friends about it.

But also, at exactly the same time, I didn’t mind at all. No one is going to love me more, respect me more, pay me more when I can run faster. I’m active enough that I don’t need to get any fitter to ward off health problems. I’ll never be a great runner. I doubt I’ll ever even be a good one – I’m too late starting, there are too many other things I want to do, and I don’t think I’m physiologically made for it.

And I think that’s part of what I have come to love so much about doing it. Objectively speaking, for me and the thousands of others who pulled on our trainers this Saturday morning, the whole thing was completely pointless. Being ten seconds faster or slower makes no real difference to anything else. But at the same time, we genuinely care and we really try. Looking through the Mile End results from this morning, the fastest person set a new personal best of 16:50, on his 8th Parkrun. So did the person who came 76th, edging just under 25 minutes on his 85th Parkrun. I wonder which was prouder or more satisfied. And I wonder who of the majority of people who didn’t set new PBs was as disappointed as me, or more so. All over the country, thousands upon thousands of people are thinking about what they did or didn’t manage this morning, and feeling real emotion about it.

For me, that thought is very moving in itself. Like watching the tens of thousands of people pushing themselves beyond what they thought they were capable of in the London Marathon last month, streaming past for hours after the elite, professional runners were already recovering in their ice-baths. Or seeing Hackney Marshes full of Sunday League football teams genuinely doing their best to win games which no one except the participants will ever pay attention to the results of, before going to the pub to watch a Premiership match.

Just like children and baby animals need to play in order to learn how to do the things they’ll have to do for real when they’re grown, maybe sport is an outlet for the emotion that’s harder to cope with in situations that objectively matter. I can safely feel a bit sad about this morning’s run, and admit that I tried and I failed. It’s harder to do that over a failed job interview or relationship, an exam or a funding pitch, where there are so many complicating factors, so many other things to blame than yourself, and so many consequences of things going well or badly.

And it’s also safe and easy, with running, to tell myself that if I keep training, keep caring, keep pushing myself, then over time I will get incrementally better. And perhaps by the end of the year, I’ll get to the goal I’ve set myself. And if I don’t, then maybe next year. And if never, then I’ll have given it the best go I could have. And if that’s true for running, then perhaps also it’s true for the other things I do, which are harder and which matter more.

But I might let myself have a lie-in next Saturday morning and a couple more drinks next Friday night instead of battling those ten seconds again just yet.

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03
Mar 14

Deconstructing the mythic bipolar structure of conventional football – more fun than you might think

“Wow, fun!” might not be your first reaction to the idea of a game invented by a Danish philosopher in the 1960s intended to illustrate the nature of class struggle in the state and to deconstruct “the mythic bipolar structure of conventional football.” Your enthusiasm might dwindle even further when you gathered that the game had never actually been played in real life until 1993. Before I’d played a game, I thought three-sided football would be a curiosity, worth a go for the novelty value and out of love for 60s ideas, but probably less good than the real deal, and likely to be played exclusively by philosophy geeks.

But after going down to New Cross on Sunday for a game, I reckon I was wrong on all counts. It turns out that three-sided football is a genuinely good game in its own right. Teams of five or six play on a hexagonal pitch, with three goals arranged on alternate sides. The winner is the team which concedes the fewest goals, not the one that scores the most. So each of the teams have an interest in seeing goals scored against both of the others, meaning that alliances between teams emerge to gang up on an opponent – only for these alliances to be broken as the situation shifts. This adds mind-games to the match – you have to calculate whether you can trust an opponent to help you or to turn and try to score against you in the split second you have to make a pass. And it’s a game of three thirds, of course, with two third-time breaks when the teams rotate round the goals, not one half-time rest.

I particularly liked some practical things about the game – the pitch is big enough and there are enough people on it that you don’t get that pin-ball feeling you sometimes get with 5-a-side, where the ball is just ricocheting around and all the players are constantly sprinting. The pace is more similar to 11-a-side where there are plenty of moments when the action is not in your patch, and you just need to keep your eye on things and jog into a good position for when the situation changes, meaning that it’s not too demanding to play for 60 minutes we did on Sunday, or more even. Also, for someone who’s better at playing in defence, like me, it was much more fun having an opponent’s goal closer than it would be on an 11-a-side pitch, so you can have a go at attacking without being dangerously far from your own goal.

The other nice surprise was how mixed the other players were. My friend Tom and I were put on one of the regular teams, Strategic Optimists FC, who were missing a couple of players, and we were all the kind of 30-something graduates I’d been expecting. But we were up against a team of Poles who lived nearby and a team of south London lads called Philosophy Football FC, and there was another game between three other diverse teams going on at the same time. I was the only woman, but the oldest player must have been in his 50s, and the youngest was probably about 12. And the level of competitiveness was pretty ideal too – everyone was there to win, but not at any cost, so no one was at much risk of getting hurt.

So I reckon three-sided football deserves a place alongside Chessboxing (first imagined in a graphic novel and now something hundreds of spectators pay to watch) in the small category of new sports which are invented because they’re conceptually interesting but which catch on with people who don’t give a stuff about the concepts because they’re properly good.

Our match on Sunday ended 5-5-2, with Philosophy Football FC winning. There’s a game at 2pm in Fordham Park by New Cross station on the first Sunday of every month except during summer, and – regardless of your feelings about the Situationist International, Marxist Dialectics and class struggle – if you fancy a genuinely fun and welcoming game, you should probably head along.

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