There’s a hole in my electricity meter, dear Liza, dear Liza
On the first day of the new decade, I spent the evening wrapped in a blanket drinking lukewarm tea by candlelight. Fun though that sounds, it was a necessary step to stop the house burning down from a fire caused by an aging electricity meter that would overheat if asked to deliver more than the most basic amounts of electricity to our home – lights, heating, cooker, washing machine, reality TV, toaster, kettle… that type of thing.
Normally, this would be a fairly easy issue to solve. In the warming glow of hindsight I can tell you that the flickering lightbulbs, the hot-to-the-touch meter and the burning plastic smell under the stairs were all caused by a single loose cable gradually melting away and, theoretically, fixable in half an hour. The job involves unscrewing the meter housing, replacing the burnt cable with a fresh one, and screwing it all back up again. However – and here’s where it gets complicated – the mains fuse needs to be removed first.
We rent from a private leaseholder who bought the house from Camden Council many years ago. Camden still own the estate and are responsible for some of the shared amenities but, most of the repair jobs are left to the landlord (i.e. we end up doing it). Camden have created a kind of ‘us and them’ scenario in which we get discriminated against because ‘they’ can’t be arsed to help ‘us’. At least I think that’s their reasoning.
So it’s New Year’s Day, due to be followed by the weekend leading into the first day back at work after Christmas – naturally we’re keen to get things up and running, but very few people are actually at work and able to help. Following a recorded message from our (new) power company, we speak to someone at the local electricity board who tells us to turn off the electricity and wait for things to cool down. If things don’t cool down, we’re to call the fire brigade. We’re now classing this as an emergency.
The electricity board send round Electrician #1, who arrives and establishes what the problem is. He also tells us that he can’t do the job because he can’t get to the mains fuse and isn’t authorised to carry out repairs. It turns out the electricity meter belongs to the power company; the loose cable belongs to the landlord; and the mains fuse belongs to Camden. Camden also own the padlock that stops any of us getting into the basement where the mains fuse is held. Electrician #1 leaves, telling us to contact Camden to open up the lock, and then hire a private electrician.
With the power still off, we tentatively book Electrician #2 for tomorrow and get some sleep.
Tomorrow comes. Despite some unpleasant dealings with Camden in the past, I put my faith in what they call the ‘Emergency Repairs’ team, which turns out to be a call centre filled with people who spend their working days inventing new ways to say ‘It’s not my fucking problem, sir’. My phone is now rapidly running out of battery and I’ve a nagging fear that if I try to charge it, I’ll cause the Great Fire of London II. After an unpleasant conversation with a fool, I get bumped onto the supervisor who tells me that Camden’s electrician can access the mains fuse but can’t be authorised to do what they are forced to classify as a private job. They will not send him to us for any amount of money or pleading.
After efficiently establishing that it’s not their fucking problem, I ask them as kindly as my fuming head will allow, to come and at least open the padlock so that the private electrician we’re expecting can come round and do his job without dying. They tell me they’ll send the local caretaker round to open the padlock as soon as we have an electrician on site. He’s 5-6 minutes away, and ready to leap up and save us. Hooray.
Electrician #2 turns up and we call to book the caretaker who is, of course, not 5-6 mintutes away. In fact, they don’t know where he is. We entertain Electrician#2 at a very reasonable £150 per hour and wait for Camden to send someone else around, who we are assured is a mere 30 minutes away. This turns into an hour and, as the winter sun sets, Electrician#2 glances once more at his iPhone, makes his final apologies and leaves to do another job in another part of town. He’s kind enough not to charge us for drinking our lukewarm tea, but we are left without a skilled worker.
I phone Camden and tell them what’s happened. They ‘apologise’ and assure me that they’ll open the padlock tomorrow as long as I give them at least 30 minutes notice. Slightly more honest but it does mean another night by candle light. We venture to turn the power back on long enough to charge our phones and heat some food up. The house doesn’t burn down but the meter gets hot, so we go back to candles.
On day three, we go through a very similar process. Electrician #3 can’t get hold of the right type of cable to do the repair (I can picture the guy but am struggling to fit him into the chronology – I think the power board sent him in response to our frustration at Camden) so we send him away. Electrician #4 looks like Bubbles from The Wire and we manage to keep him talking long enough for Camden’s guy to arrive with the key.
Bubbles is so keen to leave that I’ve practically got him in a headlock as I push out to find Camden’s guy. Camden’s guy is a welder. He has absolutely no idea why he’s here. He doesn’t know that electricity is involved, he doesn’t have the key, and he doesn’t even know where the door is that needs to be opened. Bubbles shrugs and leaves. We’re still at square one. I feel like I’m in a surreal nightmare where consequences no longer follow actions and problems never get solved.
Camden’s welder goes to get reinforcements while we book Electrician #5. Electrician #5 is the most helpful so far but it’s still a struggle to get him to coincide with the welder. He too leaves us, just in time for Camden’s van to arrive, out from which pours a value version of the A-Team: Bob the welder, a carpenter, Electrician #6 (whom Camden will not authorise to fix the loose wire) and an all rounder with a crowbar. This motley crew find their way into the basement, where they spend the dwindling daylight hours trying to figure out which fuse to pull out. Electrician #5 comes back and twiddles his thumbs at another reasonable hourly rate, waiting for them to figure out. Together they come through and pull the fuse. The job itself takes 20 minutes, and costs £90.
Camden’s electrician has to come back and replace the fuse. He tells me he could have done the whole job on day one for £60 and yet, for some reason, Camden’s pointless bureacracy left us stranded in a David Lynch-directed episode of a Franz Kafka sitcom for three cold days. I have no sympathy for the petty official.
I don’t think anyone at Camden specifically wanted to hinder us – I don’t think any of the idiocy or false promises were calculated or malicious. I just think councils as a rule are victims of their own red tape. After one phone call, they could have sent an electrician round to do an urgent repair job in less than an hour. Instead what happened is that a bunch of civil servants sat around with their thumbs up their arses trying to figure out which box to tick while a series of skilled workers popped round for cold tea and frustration. Thanks, Camden. Happy New Year.