Left to rot: Wordsworth and Sugar Hill besieged by scrappies and fly-tippers

Over the past few months, eviction notices and possession orders have finally torn this close-knit community apart. Some neighbours have managed to find insecure private rentals a few miles away so they can keep their local jobs and maintain contact with friends on the estate (but in the process of forced downsizing, they’ve had to give or throw away irreplaceable family belongings accumulated over a lifetime – and they’ve lost thousands of pounds in the process). Some neighbours couldn’t find anything suitable nearby and have moved hundreds of miles away to rid themselves of the bad memories of the last few years and start a new life elsewhere. Other residents have long-overstayed their eviction notices because there’s simply nothing available to home themselves, their children, and their pets.

There are also nearly a dozen households still living on Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill because they are the miners’ generation with protected tenancies. Pemberstone are duty bound to provide these residents with equivalent homes in the new development. Sadly, that duty doesn’t seem to extend to maintaining a safe environment while evictions and re-development are underway.

Vultures circling

We’ve reported previously on Pemberstone’s practice of boarding up the vacant properties – effectively placing a sign on the front of the house saying: “thieves and squatters welcome”. Multiple vacated houses have been broken into in the last few months, and whatever was left that had any value and was moveable (or rippable from the walls and floors), has gone.

Other vultures circling the estate are scrap metal vans. When Hazell was packing up her home on Wordsworth Drive a few weeks ago, she counted at least six different vehicles driving around searching for scrap in just a few hours. Some drivers have turned unpleasant when challenged by residents about what they’re up to. Mavis, who still lives on the estate, said the ‘scrap men have eyes everywhere. You daren’t leave anything out’.

Ordinary people, too, have made their way to the estate, hoping to get something that Wordsworth and Sugar Hill residents have been forced to leave behind. Flowers are being dug up from the gardens of vacant homes, and residents receive regular enquiries about the availability of this or that on their driveways. Of course, there are also those that don’t ask. In early April, a minivan was stolen from a lay-by in our previously quiet cul-de-sac estate.

Wordsworth Drive has also become the target of fly-tippers in recent weeks. In the dead of night, vans arrive and dump old washing machines, fridges, garden waste and other rubbish in the front gardens of boarded houses. This used to be a safe estate that children and pets would play freely on, without supervision or fear. Now they are streets filled with strangers.

Left to rot

Anxious residents and local councillor Stewart Golton have raised these security concerns repeatedly with Pemberstone, who have responded in turn with hollow reassurances. According to Pemberstone, their managing agent sends staff to the estate weekly to check vacant buildings are ‘secure’ (through putting up that well-known impenetrable material – the MDF panel – to keep thieves out). When they are made aware of fly-tipping, Pemberstone explained, they organise for its removal (though not in any rush, it seems – the garden waste took over a month to be removed).  This sounds very much like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. 

At the very least, ‘we need some notices up saying “Private Property: Keep Out. No Fly-Tipping!”’ says Mavis, who is yet again reporting these concerns to Pemberstone in an upcoming forum. Lawbreakers need to know they risk being identified and prosecuted for dumping waste on the estate or stealing from the houses – but there’s no fear of that at the minute.

Mavis and other remaining residents – predominantly pensioners and families – now feel trapped in an estate that’s being left to rot. Losing their friends and neighbours, surrounded by boarded-up houses, and encircled by opportunist scrappies, fly-tippers, and thieves. This is the human cost of Pemberstone’s redevelopment, and I doubt very much this will appear in the glossy sales booklets that will market their forthcoming executive houses.

“Do the right thing” Leeds City Council asked in passionate deputation for #SaveOurHomesLS26

Bob Ward is a Leeds resident and longtime friend and supporter of the #SaveOurHomesLS26 campaign. On Wednesday, Bob gave a passionate deputation to Leeds City Council members, calling on them to act with sense and compassion, to stop the ongoing evictions, and to purchase the houses to add to Leeds’ woefully inadequate housing stock. “It is social injustice writ large in the way in which ordinary good people can have their lives completely overturned by the pursuit of financial gain”, he said. During the deputation, Bob was accompanied by Robert Walker, Hazell Field, and Linda Elsworth – neighbours who are desperately clinging on to their homes and their community.

The Yorkshire Evening Post covered the deputation in an online article today, and below we have summarised some key highlights.

Bob stated that:

  • Pemberstone claim the houses are dangerously deteriorating, yet they have not published studies to sufficiently evidence this apparently “rapid” deterioration over time. Independent inspections in June 2021 organised by the campaign have failed to locate some of the defects previously reported by Pemberstone – raising questions about their existence in the first place. ‘Was this the “Miracle of Oulton”? Cracked posts that healed themselves?’ Bob asked. There are clear inconsistencies here.

  • Residents are now being evicted and the Council is assisting some to secure temporary accommodation in order to support the vacation of the entire estate. Promises have been made to residents by the Council that, when the new estate is built, many evicted residents will have the chance to move back into some of the “affordable” properties on a local lettings policy. Even if this were true, Bob pointed out, it will take a minimum of three years to get to that point: “Not a prospect to be relished by residents in their seventies, thrown into a scarce, scattered, expensive and discriminatory housing market“.

  • Bob also pointed out that, with this mass eviction going ahead, it is worsening the already desperate local social housing situation. If the council purchased the estate, then everybody wins as “70 houses would be added to the council’s stock”.

Bob’s closed his deputation with a powerful request…

Lord Mayor and elected members – please look these proud people in the eye and try to imagine, as you return to your secure homes this evening, how they must be feeling.

These people are NOT pieces on a chessboard.

They are dignified human beings and deserve and need your support, and need it urgently.

This is a matter of conscience and justice.

Lord Mayor and elected members

Stop using the “fig leaf” of Section 21

Do the right thing.

Stop any further evictions.

Put yourselves on the right side of history.

Thank you for your time and kind attention.

His speech was followed by a standing ovation from many members of Leeds City Council. Councillors then voted to refer it up to senior officials and the Council will return to look at the proposals at a later date. Though, as Bob said in the Yorkshire Evening Post today, “it’s probably the equivalent of being kicked into the long grass”.

You can watch the webcast of Bob’s speech here. Fast forward to around 28 minutes in:
https://democracy.leeds.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=111&MId=11486&Ver=4

Thank you Bob, for your continued support of our campaign. We only hope they listen!

‘Losing Your Home – The True Cost’ ITV Tonight programme features our plight

On 17 March, ITV’s Tonight programme covered the private rental housing crisis in Britain today. The end of the episode featured Cindy, John, Sue, and Linda, who shared their experiences and fears about being evicted from Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close and having nowhere to go. As John said, the landlord has made a lot of money from us over the years – and now everyone is being forced out of their beloved homes with nowhere to go… all so Pemberstone can make even more.

The show puts rental challenges in a national context, and the outlook is depressing. Fewer than 6,000 social houses were built last year, which is nowhere near enough to absorb the 1 million+ people on council housing waiting lists, or the 250,000 currently in emergency accommodation. Presenter Daniel Hewitt also highlighted that competition for private rents has increased by 94% in the last year – and with hikes in private rental rates, the bulk of that competition will be concentrated around the smattering of “affordable” rented properties. That’s exactly what we’ve experienced, as residents have been turned away time and again for rental viewings (let alone applications!) because estate agents have already had “too much interest”.

Some of our neighbours have moved out of the Oulton estate already but, just like other people featured in the programme, they are now paying rent rates that are unaffordable and unsustainable over the longer term. As Linda explained – “It’s just as if the rug has been fulled from under your feet, there’s nothing to do, nowhere to go, and no help’s coming”.

You can watch this show on ITV hub for three more weeks: https://www.itv.com/hub/tonight/1a9757a0123

Tonight

Losing Your Home – The True Cost – Tonight

Series 24 – Episode 9– Millions in the UK rent privately, but with a growing cost-of-living crisis emerging, there are warnings that a new wave of evictions could be imminent.

‘We are England’ BBC documentary about our community’s fight and loss

The BBC have an ongoing documentary series exploring issues faced by people across the country. One of their latest episodes, aired last night, is about our community and the fight to save our homes. BBC Producer Elliott and his team spent several months filming Cindy and John, Linda, Mavis and Barry, and other neighbours on our estate as they approached, and overstayed, eviction day.

It’s available to watch on BBC iPlayer now – please watch and share. The BBC team have done a wonderful job in showing our close-knit community and the stress the whole eviction process has created for residents (thank you Elliott!). There are also beautiful birds-eye shots of the estate and residents’ homes… this footage will be some of the last that captures our historic two streets before they are demolished.

Watch on BBC iPlayer: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m00157j4/we-are-england-a-place-called-home-fighting-for-our-homes-leeds

We Are England

A Place Called Home: Fighting for Our Homes – Leeds

Neighbours on a Leeds housing estate fight to keep their community together when faced with eviction from their privately rented homes, that have stood since the 1950s. 

The residents’ battle highlights the strength of community in working-class neighbourhoods and speaks to issues of gentrification seen across the country. This film follows several residents on the estate in the weeks leading up to their eviction, as they desperately fight for more time and for their community to stay together.”

Judicial Domicide calls for urgent action to #SaveOurHomesLS26

The housing campaign organisation Judicial Domicide have written a letter to Leeds City Council in support of Councillor Stewart Golton’s motion that:
“The existing £4.9m within the Council House Growth Fund (CHGF) should be re-allocated to purchase and refurbish properties on the Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill in Oulton. (‘estate’)

This move would be a way to save our beloved Oulton estate from demolition. Most importantly, it would keep a community of close-knit neighbours together with roofs over their heads – a basic human right.

Read their letter in full below.

Many, many thanks to Judicial Domicide for their continued support during these very difficult times.

#SaveOurHomesLS26

Trapped between eviction and discrimination

Last week, a new round of eviction notices were issued to residents in the ‘amber’ houses, giving these families just two months to find a new home.

This week, residents whose eviction notice ended in December have been served with a claim form for possession by the court. This is not just a legal letter, it comes with punishing costs: £355.00 in court fees and £69.50 in legal costs… Residents are being ordered to pay for their own eviction! £424.50 is no small sum for low-income households. Pemberstone are pursuing every means they can to force families out of their homes.

But to go where?

Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close residents are stuck between a rock and a hard place, as options are limited and many other private landlords are refusing to rent to them.

Supply and cost crisis

Council house options remain a non-starter, as there are so few available and they have hundreds of bidders. Cindy and John recently shared that they were 693rd on a list for one house they bid for.

Two and three-bed rentals in the LS26 postcode are in critically short supply, too. A search on Rightmove for rental properties within a 3 mile radius of our Oulton estate brings up just 14 options. That’s nowhere near enough to house the dozens of families currently being forced out of our estate. Moreover, many of these rentals are not on bus routes that enable people to easily get to work or maintain care responsibilities for their wider families.

Screenshot of rental options on Rightmove, 20 January 2021.

In addition to supply issues, rental costs of these houses remain prohibitive. There are just 6 three-bed houses in that list of 14, and their rents start at £795 per month and go up to £1,100 per month – that’s at least a 65% increase on what families are paying in Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close. Even if some residents downsize from their three-bed to a two-bed, they’ll still be paying hundreds more than their current rates and will lose a significant amount of personal space. Such rent hikes are a scary prospect when we’re all at the cliff edge of a cost-of-living crisis in food and energy prices.

Discrimination

On top of all of that, even when a property is available in the right location at a manageable price, residents are being turned away by other private landlords.

Some won’t allow pets, forcing people into agonising decisions about what to do with dogs, cats and other furry companions who aren’t just members of the family, but have been vital emotional support during the pandemic.

Other landlords won’t even consider tenants who are being helped by the Council or are in receipt of housing benefits.

Discrimination against housing benefits claimants risks breaking the law. Two high profile cases in 2020 saw judges rule that refusal to let to someone because they receive housing benefits can be “indirectly discriminatory on the grounds of sex and disability contrary to sections 19 and 29 of the Equality Act 2010”. Yet it is still happening because landlords can cloak prejudice in affordability checks.

Neighbours in our Oulton estate have been told directly and indirectly that they are not being considered because landlords don’t believe they can afford the rents, or that landlords don’t want to deal with tenants in receipt of benefits or other Council support. Even when residents come with guarantors – i.e. family or friends who agree to be a back up for rent – they are still being turned down.

People on this estate have a long history of paying rent on time to Pemberstone and no record of rent arrears elsewhere. Yet this doesn’t seem to matter.

The brutal irony is that the longer this discrimination goes on, the longer tenants will be forced to overstay their eviction notices and breach their tenancy, rendering them ‘poor’ future tenants for future landlords. It’s a Catch-22 where our families have zero options.

i Newspaper journalist Vicky Spratt reports on our eviction hell

Vicky Spratt – activist journalist from the i Newspaper – recently visited Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close to listen and help tell our story. We shared our fears with her, describing the impact that this eviction and gentrification process is having on our lives, health, and futures. Vicky and our neighbours also tell the wider story of tenant precarity and the unaffordability of private rentals in Leeds.

Read Vicky’s Long Read reporting here: https://inews.co.uk/news/long-reads/leeds-gentrification-breaking-up-former-mining-community-1361018

Watch her 6 minute video on Twitter:

It’s Eviction Day… but we’ve got nowhere to go.

Today is eviction day.

The final day of the notice period issued by Pemberstone four months ago.

The day that several residents, including Linda Elsworth and the Readman family, are being told to vacate their much-loved homes. Just a few weeks before Christmas.

Are they leaving?

Are they heckers! Well, they can’t – they have nowhere to go.

The absence of choice

Since receiving eviction notices a few months ago, anxiety is rife. Everyone is desperately awaiting a lifeline from Leeds City Council, but nothing is forthcoming. Meanwhile, Linda, Cindy, John, Hazell and others are also frantically searching for private rental options elsewhere in Oulton/Woodlesford/Rothwell, just in case of the worst. This is what Pemberstone wants, right? This is what tenants apparently should do in the housing marketplace, right? Landlords own houses and tenants must move on when landlords say so. Simple.

Only, it’s not that simple. A quick search on Rightmove shows that current rentals for an equivalent 3 bedroom property in the area are priced at £995 per calendar month. NINE HUNDRED AND NINETY FIVE GREAT BRITISH POUNDS. That’s double the cost of rent in the Oulton estate for a similar property.

More pertinently, £995 per month is over 80% of monthly income for someone on the minimum wage. It’s around 70% of monthly income for someone earning a Band 2 or Band 3 NHS salary (i.e. administrators, drivers, healthcare assistants, porters). It’s almost 70% of a monthly income for someone working as a teaching assistant in Yorkshire. A state pension doesn’t even cover it.

Imagine: 70-80% of your income going towards rent when the average price for petrol is £1.47 per litre, a monthly bus pass costs £60, and gas and electricity now cost £150 per month. That’s not even considering rising food prices. This is the reality that residents of Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close are faced with.

It’s not a choice to ignore the eviction notices. It is the absence of choice. They have nowhere else to go.

A stressful day

Linda will soon be 72 years old and has had to deal with this housing nightmare alongside increasing health issues. She has lived on Wordsworth Drive for six and a half years. Linda’s friends on the estate are as close as family – with regular visits, shopping trips together, shared birthday celebrations, pet feeding on holidays, and grocery shopping during the pandemic. Every year, Linda spends Christmas day with Hazell and her family – eating a Turkey dinner, pulling crackers, and exchanging gifts. Linda originally moved to the estate nearly seven years ago to be closer to Hazell, as they have been good friends for many years.

Left Photo: Hazell (L) and Linda (R) after a long day speaking with reporters about eviction day. Right Photo: Linda standing defiantly in her cherished home.

Linda should have moved out today. But Linda had no choice, nowhere to go. She has to stay and fight.

“Today has been extremely stressful, not knowing what Pemberstone would do“, Linda explained. “I’m expecting a letter from them and then I’ll no doubt be taken to court. I hardly slept last night. We’ve had TV interest all day, and I am completely emotionally exhausted”

From here on, Linda says she is going to be afraid of every knock on the door and letter dropping through the letterbox in case it’s a court notice, a fine… or worse.

The campaign must go on

TV crew from the BBC, Calendar, and Leeds Live have been in and around the estate all day trying to capture the anguish that residents are going through. Hazell hasn’t received her eviction notice yet, but is expecting it before Christmas. She spend the day with Linda, supporting her and speaking to reporters.

Today has been hard“, said Hazell. “I’m trying to make sure my friends and neighbours aren’t stressed too much as anxiety levels are through the roof at the minute. I’ve seen many TV crew people here today, and this attention to our cause is so important. It has been a really tiring day, but the campaign must go on“.


WATCH Linda, Hazell and John’s interview on ITV Calendar News this evening about the eviction: https://www.itv.com/news/calendar/2021-09-24/catch-up-itv-news-calendar-north

Why I made ‘Hanging On’: Director Alfie Barker on the award-winning film about our plight

Hanging On is a powerful documentary about Pemberstone’s plans to demolish our homes and destroy our community. This moving 10-minute short depicts residents hanging in the air, literally clinging to their homes, hoping to prevent eviction and demolition. Hanging On has already garnered a lot of international attention and recognition, winning awards and being selected for prestigious film festivals.

We spoke to Director Alfie Barker about his experiences making the film and helping to keep our campaign in the spotlight.


Documentaries can sometimes be made by an individual, but ours was made with an incredible crew in collaboration with a community – who it wouldn’t have been possible without ~ Alfie Barker, Director. 


~Why did you choose our community’s story over everything else that’s happening in the world?

AB: ‘Hanging On’ holds an urgent message that speaks to experiences that so many people around the world are going through – it’s shocking. I found the story by chance on the Yorkshire Evening Post and followed it over the course of a few months, trying to think of the best way to make a film. 

This community is from Leeds, which is where I’m from, and they have lived in Oulton almost all their lives. They’re slowly being evicted at a time when everyone needs their homes the most and I found it heartbreaking. People around me didn’t know about it and I wanted to try change that. I’ve seen lots of interviews about coal-mining towns and villages but I wanted to make something that represented what these places and these communities look like today, not something from an archive.

Alfie and the team hoist residents up on a crane to show that they are, quite literally, hanging on to their homes by their fingernails. Photo credit: Anastasia Arsentyeva

~What was your inspiration behind the style and direction?

AB: We had the intention to make something cinematic that stood out from all the Covid-19 news everyone was hearing. Our central concern was: what visual would capture attention? I wanted the audience to get the same feeling I got when I learnt about their plight, and I wanted do this in as few words as possible. 

During the time of the production, I had my own issues with where I was living in my flat, to the point where I literally stopped paying rent as nothing was being sorted by the landlord. I just kept thinking, how can this government ask us to stay at home during the pandemic, when where I’m living is uninhabitable? It really angers me.

It’s been a privilege listening to everyone’s stories within this community – yet it amazes me that Pemberstone, who owns the land and the houses, hasn’t even bothered to meet the residents in person. There seems to be a lack of landlord accountability and security that affects the lives of people in rented accommodation across the whole country.

~How have you felt about the film’s growing profile and audience reactions?

AB: The original intention was to make a film for the people of Leeds, to draw their attention to what was happening. Then, being selected for TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) changed everything, as it brought the film, and the community’s story, to a global audience. It shows how the film is resonating with audiences everywhere, and it’s been overwhelming.

~What longer-term impact would you like the film to have in the future?

AB: The best thing that could come from the film and this growing international attention is that it contributes to a resolution where the community can stay together in Oulton in their homes. 

There have been a lot of negative things happening in the world recently and attention is easily directed elsewhere, but this story is still on-going outside of our film. I said before screening the final film to the residents that, regardless of what happens, this film captures a moment in time when people came together to fight for what was right – and that in itself – is a beautiful thing.


Huge thanks from SaveOurHomesLS26 to Alfie Barker and the filming team for capturing our plight so powerfully.

You can stream Hanging On for free until the 17 October. Visit the BFI London Film Festival website.

Hanging On has been selected for a number of prestigious film festivals: 

At Encounters, Hanging On won two top awards:

Pemberstone revives “demolition by neglect” tactics – it’s 1989 all over again

In January 1989 the Rothwell Advertiser carried a story: “Tenants move out of Oulton Estate“.

Just a few years earlier, the estate had been bought by private company Renshaw & Sons Ltd from the National Coal Board, but the new owners invested little in the maintenance of the houses. Broken glass, rotting wood, and ‘mountains of rubbish’ were reportedly left to fester visibly in streets where children played and families tended their gardens.

‘[T]he new owners are just waiting for everyone to get fed up and leave so they can knock the whole lot down and rebuild’, said Mr Allott to journalist Kim Clayton. At the time the article was written, only 96 of the original 210 houses were occupied and visible dereliction was forcing more to consider leaving.

In what feels like a re-run of this Thatcher-era tactic, current residents of Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close have, this week, witnessed the boarding up of neighbouring houses on the estate.

No-one looks at boarded houses and thinks: community, safety, welcome, and warmth (words that have long-described our Oulton community). Instead, boarded-up houses are a kind of urban visual code for poverty, neglect, danger, unwelcome.

These visual statements are often not facts about an area, they are performative acts designed to meet certain ends. In 2021 the ends are the same as in 1989: to get the residents out. Oulton families are being made to feel unwelcome, to feel neglect, and even danger. It is the very opposite of gentrification in order to enable gentrification (how very 2021).

Carrot and Stick

We should have predicted that the “carrots” some residents recently received in the post (i.e. the legal letters offering discretionary house-moving assistance) would be accompanied by some kind of stick.

I use the term “carrot” loosely here, of course (imagine one of those shrivelled, furry ones at the bottom of your fridge) because the cash “assistance” to move out is subject to a tight timeframe and limited conditions. Not everyone will be eligible and the money is hardly worth it with today’s current rental rates.

Pemberstone have also recently deployed “carrot 2.0” for residents who haven’t yet been given an eviction notice. Several families in Pemberstone’s “Amber” designated houses received letters last week stating that seemed to say they, too, might get some money to move if they get out before February, and this isn’t yet an eviction notice, but funds are limited and discretionary. In other words, a pre-eviction notice notice; get the funds now while (if) you can. Yummy carrot indeed.

While the ultimate “stick” of eviction is being held at bay as residents refuse to heed these notices, it seems that Pemberstone have turned to the 1980s for inspiration about how to force people out of their homes anyway. It’s not broken glass and rotten wood; this time it’s cheap MDF wood over windows and doors. Without a hint of irony, this investment company has rapidly boarded up vacant houses, when undertaking essential repairs on occupied homes seem to take years.

It’s funny how a Government Inspector gives planning permission with strict conditions that a community forum must be created to consult with, and inform, our neighbours about things like eviction notices or the boarding-up of vacant properties – and this condition can be ignored without any consequences. (Where are Leeds City Council on this?)

It’s also funny how we’re in the midst of an affordable housing crisis, and a landlord is boarding up empty homes it refuses to refurbish or rebuild for low-income families.

None of this is actually funny, of course. It’s deeply, deeply distressing for residents on our Oulton estate – neighbours who are faced with a Christmas fighting in the courts for the right to stay in their home, a Christmas surrounded by boarded-up houses and fewer neighbours to exchange gifts and food with.

Limited options

In this deadlock, everything feels completely out of our control. Leeds City Council recently voted down a motion put forward by Cllr Stewart Golton calling on the council to buy the estate – leaving residents in a limbo, wondering what’s going to happen next.

Negotiations to keep the community in their homes may well be happening behind the scenes, but residents always seem to be the last to know – creating a sense of powerlessness as time races towards eviction and demolition.

Pemberstone won’t stop their march towards redevelopment, so what we need is Leeds City Council to step up and halt the demolition-by-neglect tactics while alternative solutions are still being negotiated. Leeds City Council need to force Pemberstone to honour the condition of creating a community forum so residents’ voices can be heard. We also need Leeds City Council – made up of our elected representatives – to inform everyone what’s going on behind the scenes so we can stop living in daily fear of what comes next.

Today, neighbouring houses were boarded over. Tomorrow, who knows…?