The tyranny of commissioned expertise

Fighting with unequal means

It is more than a little disheartening to read through Pemberstone’s latest uploads to Leeds City Council’s Planning Portal. In recent weeks they have added studies conducted by consultancy companies that say our homes are structurally unsound, too expensive to repair, that they have limited heritage value, and that the bird, bat and other wildlife that inhabit the wall tops and hedges are either too common to raise much conservation concern, or too sparsely spread to warrant protection.

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Birds in the garden of No. 8 Wordsworth Drive. Photo credit: Hazell Field

These reports aren’t disheartening because they offer incontrovertible evidence that our homes should be demolished. No. They are dispiriting because they underscore the asymmetry in power and resources that our two sides have that enable us to fight for our competing claims to truth: one side, a large private company with enough money to commission surveyors to assess and write professional reports on the basis of their assumptions and priorities; the other side, a community with only money enough to get by, and no idea of the connections or consultants needed to get their assumptions and priorities translated to the type of legalese that Planning Law demands.

Cracks and cavities

Take, for instance, Pemberstone’s commissioned report on structural integrity, which says that ‘these properties are exhibiting signs of ongoing deterioration’. While this report offers a (jargon-heavy) bullet point list of defects — that seem to suggest that it’s a miracle any of the properties are still standing! — what it misses is a note on the significance of the sample. Only 5 out of the 70 houses were assessed, and one of these was the infamous no. 50 Wordsworth Drive, which you may remember featured in a previous post about severe flooding, roof collapse and wide damage exacerbated by the managing agent’s inaction. Assessing 7% of the housing stock may be a sufficient sample size for some surveys, however this low number becomes problematic when you take into account what has previously been highlighted by the PreFab museum – that Airey houses must be surveyed on a house-by-house basis, as the level of defection can vary significantly between properties.

What is also missing from this report is a clarification about whether the surveyors were assessing the repairs needed to make these properties mortgageable, or whether they were also looking at what is required to make these properties liveable. These are different standards of repair with very different cost estimates and levels of work needed. The second standard is the property condition sought by the tenants, and is what might enable heritage preservation, and yet this assessment appears to be missing from the surveys.

Local vs national?

Continuing the topic of heritage, it was not surprising to see that the consultants hired by Pemberstone to assess the significance of the houses’ historic value found that these Airey homes ‘would lie at the bottom of the spectrum’ of non-designated heritage assets. This study found that the historic value of our homes had diminished because: they are of local rather than national interest; they were an incomplete set with the other half of the estate redeveloped in the 1990s; and they are listed under the Housing Defects Act, 1984. Again, we are faced with a lack of contextualisation and subjectivity masquerading as “fact”.

It is easy enough to challenge the consultant’s relegation of these houses to “local” interest, given their post-war importance in the UK as “Homes for Heroes” (i.e. returning WWII soldiers) and their connection to coal-mining communities (a significant part of Britain’s industrial heritage). However, I’m not sure the argument deserves even that much of a rebuttal… from a historian’s perspective, it is a disturbing logic.

What exactly makes this estate only locally and not nationally significant? And why should “local” be any less significant than “national” anyway? Is Erno Golfinger’s Trellick Tower “local history” because the architect grew up in London and his most famous designs are located there? Equally concerning is the argument that, because half the estate was redeveloped in the 1990s, the other half does not now warrant saving. If that logic prevailed, we would no longer have The Vaults in Edinburgh – 18th and 19th century chambers beneath the city’s South Bridge which used to house cobblers, merchants and criminals (many of which have since been developed to entertainment venues).

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Trellick Tower, London. Photo credit: Mark Ahsmann (CC)

There is no denying the historical value of our homes, even with their minor renovations. Leeds City Council have recognised it by referring to the estate as ‘non-designated heritage’; Leeds Civic Trust and the Twentieth Century Society have recognised it and directly support the cause; and ordinary people have recognised it, visiting our estate in coach loads earlier this month for our “Heritage Open Day”.

Thatcher’s ideological legacy

Finally, a note on defects.

The Housing Defects Act 1984 was implemented to give prefab homeowners easier access to government grants and support for repairs in order to take them up to mortgageable standard. It did not unequivocally declare all Airey houses as structurally unsound and unfit for habitation, but was part of a Conservative government package of measures to transfer publicly-owned housing assets into private hands in the 1980s, and to make sure they were mortgageable – i.e. fit for (re)sale. Whether they were liveable or not had little to do with it – the emphasis for the Tory government in the 1980s (and the current Tory government now) was on private home ownership and a prosperous housing market.

This ideology is what has fed the weak legal protections tenants have in the UK and has enabled the managed decline of our estate and other tenanted estates around the country – repairs are kept to a bare minimum to reduce maintenance costs and maximise rental income until such a time as it becomes more profitable to sell the asset/land than keep it on the books.

Approving the demolition of our homes without fair consideration of liveability (rather than mortgageability) for the hundreds of people facing homelessness risks reinforcing this unjust practice and the legacy of Thatcherite housing policy. Moreover, it would undermine the utilitarian principles and philosophy of Planning Law, which is rooted in ‘maximising happiness’ for a given population.

A tyranny of expertise and absence of fairness

So, as Leeds City Council move to make a decision on the application in the coming weeks, we ask them to consider these counter-arguments to Pemberstone’s professional reports, which we do not have the resources to professionally contest:

  • The arguments on which Pemberstone’s consultants base their case for demolition are riddled with omissions and subjective assumptions, which are problematically framed as objective evidence. Particularly concerning assumptions include:
    • i) that a tiny sample of houses can be generalised to a whole estate when these particular houses can vary significantly from house to house;
    • ii) that local built heritage apparently has no national significance, when both national and local history societies have underlined their architectural and social importance; and
    • iii) that all houses must be mortgageable for resale and not simply liveable. This is rooted in Thatcherite concerns for homeownership and a buoyant housing market, not the liveability of the property and quality of life of the tenants.
  • A decision on the planning application must of course be made on the basis of Planning Law, but such a process should not rule out considerations of tenants’ rights, welfare and justice. To paraphrase Lord Bingham, law is not an arid legal doctrine but is the foundation of a fair and just society.

 

Who’d live in a house like this? David, it’s over to you…

Through Heritage Open Days, we will be opening two of our wonderful Airey homes for you to visit. You will get a guided tour by residents of the estate fighting to save their homes, and learn everything you wanted to know (and many things you never thought to ask) about these historic prefabs.

Book your place now on Sunday 9th September at 10:30am, 11:30am or 12:30am by emailing Cindy Readman at: cindyreadman@hotmail.com. Places are limited (10 per slot) so don’t delay!

For those that have read up on the history the estate, you will know that there is much to discover in and around these houses – their roots in the post-war rebuilding of the country, their connections to local mines, and their long-standing role as homes for inter-dependent communities. The facades of these houses haven’t changed much over the decades, and in the tours you will get to see some original pre-fab features both inside and out. Judge for yourself how sound they are in construction, and what they offer in terms of comfort and garden space, and learn more about how these homes have become the bedrock of a long-standing community.

Sadly we won’t have Loyd Grossman there to take us through the keyhole, but you’ll still manage to find plenty of clues as to the rich history and families of these homes.

We look forward to seeing you there.

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Objection! Objection! Objection!

WE NEED YOUR OBJECTIONS (AGAIN)!

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This week Pemberstone submitted a few revisions to their planning application. It was a clever move, just before the Leeds City Council Planning Panel have to sit and approve or reject the case, as it doesn’t leave much time for objections. But object we must!

What they have proposed is a removal of 5-bed properties altogether, a decrease in 4-bed properties from 43 to 26, an increase in 3-bed properties from 16 to 25 and an additional 9 2-bed properties.

This shows that the company recognise that luxury executive housing (5 bedrooms!!!) is not appropriate for the area, which is populated by hard-working families who could only dream of earning enough to afford such homes. Thus, the change could potentially be a good one.

But does it pass the #SaveOurHomesLS26 ethical development test? Let’s check the main criteria:

  • Does it increase the number of affordable houses? NO
  • Does it guarantee that “affordable” refers to rental rates as well as sales? NO
  • Does it guarantee that current residents will get first refusal for tenancies on the new development (with affordable rental rates)? NO
  • Does it change anything at all about the situation of current residents for the better? NO

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 Our survey says EH-EURGH. 

Unsurprisingly, these adjustments offer no assurance to the current residents, no protections for their families, and nowhere to go when the tenancy is up.

The only thing it offers is some amelioration for Leeds City Council, who may have raised questions about how exactly Pemberstone’s apparent “like for like” replacement of 70 two and three beds involves building dozens of four and five beds (?!).

This is why we need your help again.

Please help us show Pemberstone and Leeds City Council that this is simply not good enough. They both need to start putting residents’ concerns and interests first – and that involves protecting and refurbishing 70 perfectly good, historically valuable, affordable family homes.

Submit a new objection for us through the Leeds City Council comments section here:

https://publicaccess.leeds.gov.uk/online-applications/applicationDetails.do?activeTab=summary&keyVal=OY9I3AJBKSW00

OR by searching the reference 17/06933/FU on the Leeds City Council Planning website.

THANK YOU!

 

Please donate to our campaign!

We have recently set up a community bank account and have started raising funds for the campaign. Please visit our Save Our Homes LS26 JustGiving page (click here) to donate some pennies and pounds. Every little helps :).

All funds raised will be spent on campaign materials, advocacy and seeking legal advice – we will of course keep you regularly updated on how your generous support has helped in our fight against eviction and homelessness.

Huge thanks in advance for all of your generosity!

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Affordable schmordable

Channel 4’s Dispatches programme tonight (“Getting rich from the housing crisis“) focused on one part of the many housing issues plaguing the UK: how Housing Associations (and their executives) are getting rich from selling off social housing stock or through rather elastic interpretations of “affordable”. While these narratives are certainly not new, the show offered an interesting angle with its focus on the dubious practices of organisations that are meant to protect social tenant welfare. And it showed experiences that we could really empathise with: tenancy insecurity, isolation, social cleansing, to name a few.

The programme itself was timely but, overall, poorly executed – there was too much of a focus on the executives’ pay cheques (which were admittedly shockingly high), and not enough of a focus on root causes: government cuts, over reliance on “the market” to fill gaps, a housing policy skewed towards ownership, and a society obsessed with properties-as-investment.

However, the quality of the journalism of the programme is not the focus here, it’s the messages that we want to explore.

“Affordable” has lost all of its meaning

Dispatches explained that what affordable means in the case of housing is a sale at 80% of its market value. As with our experiences in WD and SHC, there is no way many tenants here would be able to get a mortgage, let alone be able to pay what classes these days as an “affordable” rent.

“Affordable” in these parts today would see some of the 3 bed houses on the estate being sold for £200,000, as the current average house price in LS26 8 is £307,000. For renting, the market average is £750 – with a 20% “social rent” cut taking that to £600 per calendar month. Add to that the costs of living (below) and you would have monthly house-running outgoings of £899, which doesn’t even include bus passes/car costs, food shopping and child care. These rates are utterly unaffordable for many of the residents here, who are on minimum wage or a pension.

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Costs taken for a current property on Shelly Crescent in the Oulton estate, via Zoopla

And as far as Pemberstone’s current development plans stand, only 15% of the 71 new houses (11) would meet this criteria anyway. The rest will be £300,000+ with a £15,000 minimum deposit or, if they are rented out, £750 pcm+ rents.

Seriously, how have we got to a stage where, by the logic of the 15% “affordable” housing policy, 85% of buyers/renters are apparently happy and able to pay “unaffordable” rates for their homes? I can’t imagine that’s a word often used in the windows of estate agents.

Death by vacancy

Theme two that struck home was the instrumentalisation of the empty property.

There is a housing crisis in England… Homelessness is on the rise. The number of individuals and families living in “temporary” emergency B&Bs while waiting for council properties has exceeded 51,500. One woman in the show waiting for a council property had 95 people above her on the list. All of these lists are going to get 70 families higher if Pemberstone’s planning application is approved.

Such worryingly high numbers. And yet…

So many of the Housing Association (HA) apartment blocks featured in the programme had vacant flats. Why? Because the HAs were biding their time until the remaining residents sell or die, so that they can knock down the blocks and redevelop or sell them on. This under-utilisation of vacant homes owned by (ostensibly) social organisations is utterly shameful and inexcusable in a period where social housing stock is declining.

In our case here in WD and SHC, tenant turnover and vacant homes are used to make assertions about the desirability of the properties: “See! No-one wants them!” Pemberstone have said on more than one occasion. Well, if you ignore maintenance issues until breaking point, neglect refurbishment, and keep tenants in a state of insecurity, then it stands to reason people are reluctant to take on or stay in some of the properties.

But… Just as a good workman should never blame his tools, a good investment fund should never blame their assets. The vacancies are not a justification for demolition, but evidence of poor maintenance and management. In management-speak this could be read as managed decline (where companies run down work to minimise costs as they’re winding up an operation).

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Cuts, deregulation and distance

As well as highlighting these (ever-growing) examples of companies putting profits before people, it’s also important to dig deeper and look at the roots of problem. While companies like Pemberstone and the HAs featured in tonight’s Dispatches are certainly acting with their executives (rather than their tenants) in mind, “the market” they freely operate within isn’t some autonomous entity that they connivingly manipulate.

It’s a socio-economic system enabled by government policies (or lack thereof).

This is done through, among other things: cuts that have forced many councils to sell their housing stock in order to plug other gaps; deregulation or no regulation around tenancies; and a decades-old political ideology that frames a home (rented or owned) not as a human right, but as an economic opportunity for private landlords, and a cash cow for big investors.

Looking at some of those executives in the show, and even Emily Thornberry, Labour MP and Shadow Foreign Secretary, some of the roots of those regulatory gaps and the incessant trust of (mainly Tory) governments in “the market” must come from the sheer distance these decision-making individuals have from working class life in an unprotected tenancy on a low income/pension, with a family. Maybe that’s an unfair assumption about their personal histories, but I’m not sure what a more generous reading of the situation would look like.

Either way, it’s clear that a full change of direction is needed if we’re to get housing back on track to being a humbly enjoyed right for everyone, not a money-making opportunity for the few.

 

 

 

Fundraising success!

This Saturday saw our first efforts at campaign fundraising at a Rothwell Carnival, and we were privileged to have our first champion fundraiser: Esme, daughter of Labour Cllr Karen Bruce and her husband Stuart.

Esme the ‘nasty landlord’

We are all too familiar with the figure of the ‘nasty landlord’ and Esme kindly volunteered to dress up as one (sporting a fantastic curly moustache – a sure sign of nastiness). Carnival-goers threw wet sponges at her for a small fee, and she raised a brilliant £13.60 for the cause, which got us off to a great start.

John Davis presenting Cindy Readman the cheque from Unite

We were also honoured to be presented with a cheque of £100 from Unite the Union for our campaign. This was presented to us by John Davis from Hands off Our Homes, a tireless supporter of #SaveOurHomesLS26.

Huge thanks to Esme, Unite, John and all the sponge-throwers at the carnival. It will enable us to keep fighting this planning application at the local and national level.

If you’d like to donate, we’ll be updating the ‘How to Help’ page with our account details shortly. If you wish to donate right away, or have any great ideas for future fundraising activities, get in touch on the ‘Contact’ page.

Paul and Liz Murgatroyd of Wordsworth Drive. Liz was our star signature-gatherer!

The good, the bad and the Airey

These last few weeks have seen no developments on Pemberstone’s planning application, but a lot of activity and news around the sides.

The Good

There was fantastic news from down south, as the Foxhill Residents’ Association won their court battle against Bath and Northeast Somerset Council. The council had approved plans submitted by housing association Curo to redevelop the estate, which would have caused a loss of more than 200 social houses. The campaign was given a further boost as the High Court ordered the Council to pay the Residents’ Association £14,000 in compensation.

In what might prove to be very relevant for #SaveOurHomesLS26 as we continue our challenge against Pemberstone’s redevelopment plans, Mr Justice Lewis of The High Court stated that “the council did not in fact have due regard to the impact on the elderly and disabled persons of granting an application which might lead to demolition of their existing homes“.

Huge congratulations to campaigners in Foxhill! We are motivated by your victory and will take lessons from your approach. Take note Leeds City Council, tenants’ voices must be heard.

The Bad

Unsurprisingly, this award goes to Pemberstone. This time, though, the news comes from across the Pennines in Manchester.

As tower blocks across the country are found to have the same dangerous flammable material cloaking their exterior as Grenfell, removal becomes a top safety priority. But who should pay? Surely it should be the developers, property owners or councils that decided on the use of flammable cladding material, that own the properties, and/or who have reaped millions of pounds in profit from renting/leasing flats out? Not according to Pemberstone.

The multimillion pound investment company are taking hundreds of residents to court to force them to pay £10,000 each, rather than footing the bill themselves or approaching the original property developer LendLease for the money. The leaseholders and tenants in Vallea Court and Cypress Place towers in Manchester’s Green Quarter are understandably livid but fear business interests will win out as the local government are failing to show much support.

Pemberstone reportedly was not aware of the dangers of the cladding when they purchased the towers – an admission of ignorance that sounds wearily familiar to residents of #SaveOurHomesLS26, who experience the daily realities of Pemberstone making assumptions of the condition of their homes without, as far as we are aware, ever having visited themselves or conducted full surveys.

Either way, ignorance is not an excuse for a property owner to push risk, responsibility, and costs onto tenants when the issue is about something as serious as fire safety. We stand in solidarity with Vallea Court and Cypress Place residents as they challenge this in court.

The Airey

On a lighter note, we were visited by the wonderful C20 society this weekend – an organisation dedicated to the preservation of 20th century architecture. Several months ago they wrote a strong objection to the Planning Application, citing the rarity of this number of Airey houses in modern Britain and explaining their significance in the nation’s post-war history. You can see their press release here.

The sun came out for us again, as Residents’ Association Chair Cindy Readman and other neighbours walked them around, talking them through the history of the houses and our community. We were also joined by the Leeds Civic Trust who offered their support and excellent ideas for the campaign.

We are delighted to have such important local and national organisations on our side, seeking to preserve architectural heritage and a community that is itself a key part of local coal mining and labour history. More updates to follow on this visit, but in the meantime, here are a few photos of the day: