We Saved Our Homes!

(For now…)

VICTORY

On Thursday 3rd October Leeds City Council councillors unanimously overturned the Council Policy Officer’s recommendation to approve Pemberstone’s plans. In short: we won!

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It was such fantastic news for the community, and showed that there is strong support across the country for putting people before development. We are beyond delighted and the first thing we want to say is THANK YOU!

  • Thank you to everyone who signed our petition, who shared our tweets, who wrote to local councillors, who posted such excellent objections, who stood outside Leeds Civic Hall with us and for us, come rain or shine. We could not have done this without you.
  • Thank you to the councillors, past and present, who supported us, raised our voices where it counted, gave us tips and encouragement when obstacles seemed too high, and ultimately who sat around Leeds City Council’s table and defended our right to continue to live in our homes.
  • Thank you to the civil society organisations who have provided us with so much support and encouragement and from whom we have learnt so much: Hands off Our Homes, National Union of Miners, Leeds Sisters Uncut, and everyone else. Your solidarity and experience made all the difference.

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This is a good news post and I hope it gives heart to other organisations. I will shortly add a page to the website that details some of the techniques we used so that you might be able to learn from our challenges and successes, too.

In the meantime, here’s a little more detail on how the Plans Panel went and some of the extraordinary developments that happened over the course of that cloudy afternoon.

*            *            *

From the Public Gallery

A rather large crowd of us had gathered outside of Leeds Civic Hall before we were instructed to go in, collect passes and make our way to the Plans Panel meeting room. We were informed that there was to be strictly no photography and directed to rows of seats on the left of the room. On the right was the rectangular table for the fifteen or so members of LCC that would deliberate on the application. In between us, a no-man’s land of about 6 feet that contained four load-bearing columns, which blocked the view of the panel members for the majority of the audience.

Whether deliberately designed to keep the public at arm’s length, or whether it was a misjudged attempt to inject an ancient Grecian spirit in this space of public accountability, it certainly meant we knew our place.

Our Resident’s Association Chairperson Cindy Readman took a seat near the end of the Plans Panel table as Cllr Caroline Gruen had finally relented and allowed us, and Pemberstone, to say a few more words. A decision well-made (thank you).

The discussion was to proceed as follows: an overview of the updated plans, an opportunity for Cindy and Pemberstone to speak, questions for Cindy and Pemberstone, a discussion amongst the Councillors with clarification from various heads of divisions, and a final vote.

A mouthpiece 

First up was the Planning Officer (PO) for LCC. The PO was responsible for reviewing Pemberstone’s updated proposal, determining whether the landlord had done enough to meet LCC’s demands, and advising a decision on the planning application.

And I think we can safely say that if she ever decided to leave LCC, the PO would find happy employment in Worcester at Pemberstone. Not because she supported Pemberstone’s updated application and recommend approving the development – after all, a Planning Officer has to come down one way or another depending on the merits of the proposal. But because she did a better job than Pemberstone’s representative Peter Mondon at skimming over problematic aspects of the proposal and answering councillors’ questions on the development.

For instance, we were presented once again with the problematic and offensive statistics on the transitory nature of the community. While the statistics they presented showed that many tenants have been there for less than five years (and the PO declared that to be “proof” of a transitory community), the figures:

i) excluded those on protected tenancies who have been living there for decades and have deep friendships with the later arrivals; and

ii) didn’t account for the fact that the majority have moved into this estate from nearby streets because rents elsewhere in Oulton are unaffordable.

Hazell, for example, has known two of her neighbours for over twenty years – before any of them moved on to the estate. They all moved to the estate at various times because high rents in the area forced them out of their previous homes. That’s hardly transitory – these friends have stuck together despite market forces trying to disperse them. The fact remains that Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close are the last bastions of affordable rentals in the whole area

The PO also parroted the arguments that the new homes would have “Airey-inspired” features. She spent a lot of time emphasising the “high quality appearance” of the proposed houses, even ending her presentation with a picture of the computer-generated design. This image was then left as the backdrop to the rest of the panel debate, serving as a crass reminder of the aspiration that councillors shouldn’t vote against.

The presentation would not have been so galling, however, had the PO not been forced to answer questions directed at Pemberstone.

Peter Mondon was asked by one of the councillors – “As per council policy, 10% of the energy for the new houses has to come from renewables. How will you do that specifically?”. Peter’s response? “Perhaps the Planning Officer can answer that as I don’t know off the top of my head and do not have the details in front of me”.

Eyebrows hit the ceiling.

“Couldn’t find a climate change expert”

That wasn’t even Mondon’s most cringeworthy response. Here are some of my favourites, in descending order:

3) When asked what the exact tree loss would be with the demolition, Mondon and his fellow representative from Pemberstone admitted that they yet again did not have figures to hand, but if we could wait a moment, they could count the trees in the pictures on their application. *Awkward silence ensues while they rustle through pages and count out loud, slowly, to seven*.

2) When asked what exactly Pemberstone will do to ensure the properties meet minimum climate standards, Mondon replied, (and I paraphrase here): “well, what typically happens is that you give us the approval and we decide these things later down the line”. To which a Cllr Finnigan enquired to the Planning Officers: “Does that then mean the council have the capacity to test the houses and then tear them down again if they don’t comply?”. Erm, no, not really.

Eyebrows once again hit the roof.

1) But the winner is this elegant race to the bottom came quite early on in the questioning. A councillor put to Pemberstone: “The Council requested, as part of this process, that you provide information on the climate cost estimates of refurbishment versus demolition and new build. You did not comply. We did not receive the information and this meant that Planning Officers in the Council had to do your work for you. Why did you not comply”?

Pemberstone’s answer: “We could not find any consultants for this so we couldn’t do the assessment”.

Come again?

Pemberstone, a multimillion pound corporation involved heavily in the development sector, could not find one single expert to do a climate cost estimate on a tiny part of their portfolio?

Eyes in the room could not have been wider.

(Peter, if you’re reading this pal, here’s a bit of info to get you started).

Joking aside, the climate change impact of these development plans was a vital consideration in the council’s deliberations, and rightly so. As we have previously argued (alongside scores of academics and developers), refurbishment has a much lower climate cost than redevelopment. While our houses were assessed to have ‘only’ 50 years more of life with full refurbishment, the new development would have a minimum 60 year lifespan – just ten years more. That is simply not good enough. An additional ten years of usability would be nowhere near long enough to mitigate the climate cost of the construction waste and carbon emissions that would result from a full redevelopment. It genuinely makes more climate sense to refurbish.

The Council indicated that their climate targets and building standards are actually set to get more stringent towards the end of the year, and that they wish to be ahead of the curve in making climate-protective development decisions, not simply waiting for the policy to have sign-off before considering them. This is the first step to making these targets a reality.

A turning tide – community matters

Climate change concerns built momentum, and then the panel turned to the issue of community. As the discussions progressed, and so many councillors shared the difficulty of this particular case, the tide seemed to be turning:

Cllr Brooks: “I’m concerned about the loss of affordable rental housing and the impact a mass eviction would have on an already stretched council”.

Cllr Finnigan: “Planning should be about people… houses should be designed around people”.

Cllr P. Gruen: “I think it is right to take the impact on the community as a material planning matter”

Cllr Heselwood: “I am concerned about the loss of affordable rental housing – we are obviously in deficit. We support affordable housing for public sector workers”.

These councillor interventions are significant. So many historic decisions around development have been made strictly on the basis of physical concerns, such as: are the driveways large enough for a car, does the building overshadow any other building? etc etc. This is how panels have long been pushed to understand the law.

But as Cllr Finnigan rightly pointed out, what sits behind those considerations are people. It has to be people. After all, houses are not designed for the mice that inhabit their skirting boards or the sparrows that occupy the eaves.

Chair of the panel Cllr Caroline Gruen noted the shift stating that, “community cohesion seems to be the big tip”. And when she took a vote, it was unanimous. The recommendation to approve the proposal was overturned and the development rejected.

In addition to the issue of community protection, councillors also cited the reason for refusal that – as a nod to more conservative understandings of planning law – 14% of the gardens still remain smaller than the guideline minimum. (Come on Pemberstone, that could have been an easy win, surely?)

And then it was done.

We filed out of the room flabbergasted and delighted in equal measure.

This is a HUGE victory for the campaign, but it’s not quite the end. Pemberstone can appeal the decision, which we will find out in due course. And ultimately, the rejection of the development plans still doesn’t enhance our protection as tenants – we continue to live in a country that puts rental profiteering before tenant protection.

But it’s a significant step in the right direction – and one that we are damn proud of.

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