I’m sorry, but it’s time for a personal whinge. I’m going to tell you the story of a particularly painful and ludicrous Army admin procedure.
I’m currently staying in Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire for my final resettlement training course before leaving the Army. When I booked myself on the course, I also had to arrange for some accommodation. I wasn’t looking forward to it, as I’d had dealings with Catterick accommodation before…
In 2011, I was part of a regiment based in Catterick, and living in their Officers’ Mess. That summer, I was posted to a different job, commanding the Army Recruiting Team in the same location. Since it was unconnected to the regiment I’d been part of, who were strapped for accommodation in their mess, I had to move out elsewhere. There was a Garrison Officers’ Mess meant for housing non-regimental officers like me, so I phoned their Mess Manager to get either a room, or a non-availability certificate: the paperwork required to authorise and initiate the process of finding private rented accommodation which is then paid for by the MOD.
Me: Could I have a room in the Garrison Officers’ Mess, please?
Her: No, I’m afraid I don’t have any available.
Me: Could I get a non-availability chit then please?
I was pretty taken aback. That’s not how the system is supposed to work. Either she has a room available, in which case she provides me one, or she doesn’t, and gives me a non-availability chit. What she was basically saying was, “I’m not going to give you a room, but I’m also not prepared to sign my name to anything that says I’m not giving you a room.”
Her excuse was that a room might become available later. I explained that that wasn’t very helpful to me, since I wouldn’t have anywhere to live after being kicked out of my current room, while waiting for one of hers to become free. I couldn’t live in a hotel, as to authorise that I’d need… a non-availability chit. Eventually I had to get my boss to phone her – I watched with amusement as she went through the same tortuous, Catch-22-esque circular arguments all over again – and eventually brokered a deal in which I got a room which became vacant a couple of months later, and had my tenure in the current one extended until then.
So it wasn’t with a lot of optimism that I phoned her again recently to ask for a room for the duration of this course. The conversation began in much the same way:
Me: I’m on a course in Catterick on [dates]. Can I have a room, please?
Her: No, we don’t have any available for that week.
Me: Can you give me a non-availability chit?
Me: *sigh* Why not, if you don’t have rooms available?
Her: Because there are other messes in Catterick. You have to try them first.
There are at least half a dozen different messes in Catterick, belonging to different regiments and battalions, and for no apparent reason not included in the Central Booking Service that the mess contracter Sodexo provides for the rest of the country. So she’s now expecting me to ring around all of them to find a room. It’s almost certain none will have one, since Catterick has a chronic accommodation shortage and every regiment already has many officers living out in private accommodation rented by the MOD.
Also, note the strange fact that she wants me to do it. If I ring back in half an hour and say they’re all full too, will she then take my word for it and issue the non-availability chit? It seems unlikely given how reluctant she is to give them out, and also wide open to abuse, since I could easily ring back later for the chit without having checked at all. So is she then going to ring around all the messes again herself to check my story? That would make my ring-around completely pointless, since she might as well have done it in the first place. Either possibility – whether she checks the other messes herself, or not – makes the system absurd.
I couldn’t be bothered to ring all the messes, nor did I want to act fraudulently. Instead I rang the Garrison Support Unit, which effectively runs a local central booking service for soldiers’ accommodation in Catterick, and explained that I was fed up with the lack of service from the mess, wasn’t fussy about rank, and just wanted a roof over my head for four nights, whatever the condition. So here I am in Catterick’s glamorous transit accommodation block, in my prison cell room, with waterproof mattress and stained sheets:
This is the standard of room given to soldiers staying in Catterick for courses, and I’ve even had soldiers under my command who were accommodated permanently in rooms like this for up to two years. The MOD’s housing shortage in Catterick is still chronic, and isn’t going away: the garrison’s budget is so crippled by the private rental and hotel bills that it can barely afford the infrastructure projects needed to build new and refurbish old accommodation up to habitable standard. To exacerbate the problem further, units are moving back here from Germany over the next few years.
Still, I don’t mind roughing it here for a week, and at least it gives me the opportunity to have a bit of a moan on the blog.