Joining the Justice for Grenfell March in Leeds

A year ago yesterday was the devastating fire in Grenfell Tower, London, that took 72 lives and shattered hundreds more. It’s hard to find the words to talk about this deeply sad event without confronting an array of emotions: anger at the apparent management negligence of this council property, disbelief that fire safety was either deliberately disregarded or negligently overlooked, distress when reading about the wonderful people that lost their lives that night, empathy for the families that have to pick up the pieces, and solidarity for the survivors and the wider community fighting for justice.

A public inquiry is under way that will explore what led to such a tragedy, and how to prevent another. This is running alongside a criminal investigation, which is looking into possible individual and corporate negligence. The results of these investigations will not be out for many years, but we don’t need them to know that something is desperately wrong with the housing sector in the UK.

We have discovered since the Grenfell fire that many more tower blocks are clad in this cheaper, but highly flammable, material. We are also seeing, a year on, that so many families who survived the disaster are still in temporary accommodation. This situation speaks to a wider problem with which we are all familiar: there is simply not enough council housing across the country. Not in overall numbers, and especially not in boroughs with high land value.

Solidarity marches were held across the country yesterday to commemorate the tragedy and raise a collective voice demanding justice and change. SaveOurHomesLS26 Campaign Activists Cindy Readman and Hazell Field attended yesterday’s march in Leeds attended on behalf of our community and raised their voices to share our story about housing insecurity in Oulton.

The victims of Grenfell and their families deserve justice. And we all, as a nation, deserve housing that is available when we need it, and that is safe and secure over the longer term.

March for our homes!

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Cindy giving a brilliant speech on the steps of Leeds Art Gallery

On what turned out to be a glorious sunny day in Leeds city centre yesterday, residents from Sugar Hill Close and Wordsworth Drive joined Leeds Trade Union on a march through the city. We had placards, banners and even four-legged supporters – and it was really great to see so much interest and support for our campaign to prevent Pemberstone from demolishing these historic, affordable family homes.

Chair of the Resident Action Group gave a fantastic speech which got much applause, and our leaflets were snapped up. We are so happy to be a part of such a vibrant Leeds community focused on issues of social justice – long may it continue!

Thanks to all of those who turned out in solidarity for our campaign, and who listened to our concerns. And a huge thank you to Leeds Trade Union, who invited us on this demo. The fight continues!

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Mark, Mavis, Sue, Robert, John and Leia the protest dog with our banner
Cindy speech
Cindy telling the crowd about our campaign
Dog and billboard
Leia the protest dog showing her solidarity
Marching
March for our homes!

 

 

 

 

The mental health impacts of the eviction threat

The UK’s housing crisis is at the top of the news a lot these days, and rightly so. Home ownership has plummeted in recent years, rents have skyrocketed, and there are simply not enough new houses being built. As property has become a lucrative investment, we are seeing more and more landlords like Pemberstone, booting families out and “redeveloping” to increase the value of their assets – too often at the cost of poorer people.

But, as well as the economic costs that households have to absorb in these situations, there is the hidden cost of mental health, too.

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It seems like stating the obvious that this eviction threat has created chronic anxiety in our Oulton estate. But what does that actually mean, day to day? It has manifested itself differently for different people here and, while it’s a difficult subject to speak about given its deeply personal nature, it must be acknowledged as a fall out from Pemberstone’s redevelopment plans.

Firstly, many on the estate are feeling a form of constant, unrelenting unease and stress. This is hitting children, the elderly, and residents with dependents the hardest. Neighbours have reported that their children are struggling to sleep, as they feel powerless in the face of something they don’t understand. For them, it’s not just seeing a worried mum or dad that makes them upset, it’s the potential of changing schools, losing friends and changing what they’ve known their whole life.

Others have reported that the stress is worsening existing health conditions, both physical and mental. One of our neighbours, who has lived on the estate his whole life, and who currently cares for his elderly parents, says that he has previously experienced poor mental health, and the eviction threat is once again pushing him to the edge: he is more angry, more upset, and drinking more, because he doesn’t know how else to cope with this relentless anxiety. Another neighbour feels that the constant sense of unease and fear is worsening her chronic back condition, which is contributing to more sleepless nights, difficult days in the office, and a tearfulness that the slightest thing can provoke.

The eviction threat is putting strains on family relations and friendships, as everyone’s concerns rebound off each other, creating an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. Problems that might previously have been shared (and halved) among close relatives, become secrets, hidden to shield them from the additional burden. In one family, a son kept his redundancy secret from his parents for fear of adding to their woes, just hoping that he could find a job in the meantime. He couldn’t.

There is also that constant guilt that many feel about not doing enough for the campaign. Refreshing the campaign Facebook page, sending more Tweets, writing more emails, trying to get more news coverage. They always feel switched on, thinking :”what if that one more makes all the difference – how can I turn off my computer now?” It is eating away at family time, and means that residents never have a moment of peace.

Anxiety, stress, tearfulness, sleeplessness, anger, secrets, guilt. Suffering doesn’t start at the moment of eviction. For the residents of Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close it began the moment the pamphlet dropped through the letterbox last September.

 

 

Pemberstone’s PR contradictions exacerbate uncertainty

Save our homes sign

In the wake of the significant national coverage that our eviction threat and campaign have recently received, Pemberstone have started responding to media requests for comments. And what they’ve said has largely left us scratching our heads in confusion. None of us on the Oulton Drive estate are Public Relations experts of course, but our instincts tell us that the first rule of public commentary surely must be: get your story straight. Sadly, they seem to have fallen at the first hurdle.

Let’s have a look at what they’ve said:

  • In response to the Financial Times article that covered our campaign last week, Pemberstone’s agent said: “the company needed to secure planning permission before it could decide on the tenure of the new homes on the Oulton Drive estate”.
  • To The Guardian: If no [social housing associations] are found, Pemberstone intends to carry out the development in phases, building around six homes at a time over the next three to 15 years. “Given the natural turnover of properties and the long-term nature of the redevelopment, it is highly unlikely that any tenants would be asked to move from their home without being offered an equivalent alternative on the same estate,” the company said.
  • ITV Calendar: “Social housing organisations will be asked if they want to take over the development, and … it’s unlikely that any tenants will be forced out before the end of their existing agreements”.
  • BBC Newsnight: “All tenancy agreements will be honoured, and it’s unlikely that any residents will be expected to vacate their property and leave the estate, just because of natural turnover”

This means that in less than 7 days, Pemberstone has flip-flopped between no decision on tenure, to having a construction plan of six homes at a time over a 3-15 year period (where current tenants will apparently be offered an “equivalent alternative on the same estate”), to declaring that no-one will have to leave their current homes unless they want to. The first possibility offers nothing but prolonged uncertainty. The second and third options are, at best, contradictory and confusing (and, at worst, disingenuous and misleading).

Nowhere is it written into their Planning Application that we would have first refusal of the new homes and that they would be what we, as a low-income tenant community, could afford. In fact, Pemberstone have been careful in their Statement of Community Involvement not to answer those specific questions when they were directly asked by residents. What does seem to be evident (as you can see in the screenshot of part of their planning application below) is that they are making provisions for homes to be sold – 85% at market rate, 15% at an “affordable” rate for new homeowners. Very few families from our community will be in a position to get a mortgage on an “affordable” home, let alone a market rate one.

Screenshot 2018-04-11 22.08.20If a social housing association can purchase the estate, that would be great! But as we have already addressed in an earlier blog, we fear this is unlikely given the projected market value of the new properties. Are negotiations actively happening on this front? Unfortunately, we still have no idea.

And none of these options address the concern that the heritage of the estate needs to be preserved as much as the community. These are iconic post-war Airey prefab houses, and the last of their kind on such a scale. Their demolition without considering possibilities for refurbishment would be an affront to modern British social history.

Finally, we are forced (again) to rebut Pemberstone’s assertions of transience, which is implicitly hinted at in their declaration of “natural turnover”. At least 3 families have lived on the estate for over 50 years. Many more have lived on Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close for more than a decade. Those who have lived here just a few years have children in local schools, jobs within commuting distance, or are retired. Unless Pemberstone have a secret 100-year plan for redevelopment that they’re not telling us about, then they need to stop peddling this nonsense that the residents will suddenly dissipate like students on a halls of residence contract at the end of semester.

We are long-term renters. These are our homes. We’re happy for you to wait until we decide to leave, but be warned Pemberstone: you might be waiting a while.

BBC Newsnight visits Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close to cover the campaign…

… and as well as stories of anxiety and fear about eviction, they saw the evidence of systematic neglect by the landlord Pemberstone and management agent Watsons over the years. This is not a story about a developer demolishing houses not fit for purpose, it’s a story about a private investment firm taking insufficient care of people’s homes over decades, and then seeking to kick families out when they no longer want the responsibility for refurbishment and prefer to chase a profit (despite these homes still being comfortable and cared for by the tenants).

Importantly, the BBC also saw the powerful determination of a community trying to stop the demolition from happening. Even the sun was on our side yesterday. Hurrah for Spring!

We’ll update you soon on when the report is likely to air.

“Don’t worry about it, you won’t be evicted just yet…” Pemberstone offers hollow words of reassurance

Letter to AS

Pemberstone has finally responded to some of estate’s concerns – though it’s a shame they wrote to local MP Alec Shelbrooke, rather than the residents themselves. In the letter there were a lot of words, but few reassurances. While stating that they are open to considering “whether a housing association or other registered social landlord may wish to acquire the Estate” (which is ideal if everyone retains their right to live there and some of the historic architecture is preserved!), there were no details on value, the negotiation process, timescales, whether current residents would be able to stay in the estate if this happened, or the other commercial options they are also exploring.

This raises many questions. Are Pemberstone actively seeking a housing association/social landlord to purchase the estate, or are they just expecting housing associations to seek them out? [If you’re reading this social landlords – please do take the initiative!] It also raises questions as to sales price. If a housing association can, in best case scenario, offer only market rates and a private company offers above that, what will they choose? As yesterday’s Financial Times article covering our story pointed out – the estate is too well located (near schools, a sports centre, a motorway and green space) not to be heavily sought after by wealthy property development companies.

Pemberstone also failed to provide assurances on length of stay. They repeated in various ways that this redevelopment will be a drawn out process and that:

“[A]ny steps that might be taken in future to bring such tenancies to an end so as to obtain vacant possession are a long way off…”

How should we quantify “long way off” exactly? Leeds City Council understand this to mean 18 months to 3 years. I’m not sure what definition of “long” Pemberstone are using, but three years is no time at all. You can’t see your children through high school in that time. You can’t save enough money for a mortgage deposit in that time. When you’re on low income or a pension, like most of the families on Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close, it can even be difficult to save the few thousand pounds required for a deposit and administration fees on a new private rental in that time. And this doesn’t even begin to touch on the psychological effects of insecurity and having the inevitability of eviction lingering over your head. You can’t make future plans in terms of family, work – and even something as basic as home refurbishment and doing up the garden – if you know you are going to have your life turned on its head with an eviction in a few short years.

The final, slightly baffling, comment that raised an eyebrow was that, apparently, “some of the elderly residents who have been regulated tenants for many years … welcomed the plans, particularly the prospect of warmer, modern, replacement homes“. The total number of Regulated Tenancy households on the estate is nine. I’m not sure what proportion of nine households said they welcomed the new properties, but even if it was half, (any more than that and it would be a “majority” and not “some”), that equates to only 6.5% of the entire estate. Hardly a statistic that sits in their defense.

More importantly than that, this comment suggests that the Regulated Tenancy households will actually get to stay on the estate and live in the new “warmer, modern, replacement homes”. This is not guaranteed, and from what we have heard from the Council and other advisers, highly unlikely.

At the end of the letter Pemberstone declared that they have undertaken what they feel to be an “appropriate level of engagement and communication” with residents. All this (and their “reassurances” as a whole) tells us is that their bar for self-assessment is clearly set very low.

The campaign gains momentum…

It has certainly been a busy couple of weeks for everyone on Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close – and that’s not even counting the snow. Residents have continued tweeting and emailing anyone and everyone who could offer support or guarantees of protection, and we managed to get our story featured in The Guardian. The response to that story was fantastic with over 1000 shares and 400 comments. As a direct result of this we heard from the Foxhill community in Bath who have recently won their 4 and a half year battle against a similar redevelopment proposal (hurrah!), experts in crowd sourced fundraising offering to help our cause, and general well wishers who sympathised with the situation. One of the positive things to come from this campaign is that it has connected us to so many great people and organisations across the country who are offering their advice, solidarity and friendship.

Following on from this story we’ve had further interest from the media, with (hopefully) more stories to follow. There might also be a bit of good news on the historical preservation front: Leeds City Council have recognised the heritage value in our Airey homes. On a report uploaded to the planning portal, they acknowledge that, not only are our homes one of the largest remaining Airey housing sites in the region (if not the country), but also that Sir Edwin Airey, the designer, was a Leeds lad himself. Watch this space for follow up on these developments!

This is just a quick post with a brief update to say thanks to everyone for your continued support – it is really making a difference.