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.

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).

Trellick Tower.jpg
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.


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