Heritage isn’t just castles and stately homes

Last Tuesday the appeal inquiry opened and we watched four days of intense debates from all sides. Many from our Oulton estate were only able to take off one or two days from work, but thanks to the amazing @Jdomicide‘s live tweets of the events, we could catch up along the way.

Opening Statements

The opening day, Tuesday, was perhaps the most intense. All sides put forward their opening statements through legal representatives (Save Our Homes LS26, Leeds City Council and Pemberstone). Pemberstone’s lawyer Sasha White argued that, as landlords, Pemberstone had the right to evict under law: “They [the residents] will lose their homes because they are private sector tenants just like any other tenant across the country“. Don’t we know it. Charities have recently highlighted that tenant evictions under the Section 21 “no fault” clause are the leading cause of homelessness in Britain.

Leeds City Council’s legal representative Constanze Bell highlighted that the proposal is not socially sustainable – and that’s what needs to count here. There are 39 children on the estate (which make up 27% of all residents – a higher portion than the 19% of both neighbouring Rothwell and the rest of the country), and of course they all go to nearby schools and clubs. Many more of the 121 residents have other protected characteristics. As Mr Brooks of Leeds Planning pointed out on Friday, Pemberstone’s proposals for eviction undermine the planning system’s own development policy because of its impact on the community, let alone the Equality Act. “I am of the opinion“, Brooks explained, “that the impact socially is so significant on people’s lives, that it outweighs any financial benefit for Pemberstone“.

Complementary to this, Save Our Homes LS26’s lawyer Jenny Wigley pointed out that the Planning System already does work in ways that protect communities and this is rightly a priority. For example, Planning Panels can refuse development proposals to protect community assets, such as parks and pubs, and “only the most spiteful landlord” tries to get around this after refusal. Everyone under law has the right to a decent home, she pointed out. (Which, incidentally, someone should explain to the right honourable Housing Secretary, MP Robert Jenrick, who seems to think it’s only applicable to his and his pals’ constituencies).

Coal Mining Heritage

As well as focusing on the vulnerability of the community, we had the chance on Tuesday to share the wonderful heritage of this estate – connected to the region’s coal mining history and to Leeds’ contribution to national post-war housing through Airey designs.

Chris Kitchen of the National Union of Miners shared his knowledge of the estate’s history and his own personal experiences of growing up in a mining community. The Oulton estate, Kitchen explained, created much-needed homes for miners in the area in the 1950s. “They were built to be social in every sense of the word” – miners had to work closely together and they had to get on with each other for the mines to work safely. The design of the estate fostered that – and it’s a point of national pride that the construction method and design itself was Leeds origin. Kitchen added that it was never an issue that residents couldn’t get a mortgage on their homes, as that was never the intention. Residents were happy to have a decent affordable house to bring their families up in.

Rent book used by tenants on the Oulton estate in the 1950s

Consolidating these points, planning expert John Lynch explained that the heritage aspect of the estate must be considered as threefold: i) in the community itself, ii) in the Airey construction method, and ii) in the final aesthetic of the houses.

Sadly, these arguments were drowned out somewhat by the audible — and inarguably rude — laughing and tutting of Pemberstone’s own heritage representative, Dr Romona Usher. “Just because they [the houses] have some aesthetic value, doesn’t mean they should be allowed to stay up“, Usher declared. I imagine the same arguments weren’t put forward when, in 2016, the government committed £7.6 million of taxpayers’ money to restore Wentworth House, England’s largest private home and the house of MP Jacob Rees-Mogg’s mother-in-law. While we wouldn’t for a moment argue that one of Britain’s foremost stately homes shouldn’t be considered for protection and refurbishment, we would hope for similar courtesy and consideration when it comes to regional and national working class heritage, too.

But, Dr Usher declared, “no-one even cared about this heritage until the planning application was submitted“! Hmm. Perhaps built heritage organisations and their consultants should spend more time looking for working class history.

For years a social media group of Coalboarders have shared photos and memories of the estate since it was built around 1955. A local historian has featured aspects of the area’s earlier history in his regular blogs (and he greatly supported the writing of our history pages!). And you can find news clippings, correspondence and other records about our streets and homes in local archives about Rothwell and Oulton’s coal mining community.

As soon as our estate hit the national headlines, we were overwhelmed with local, regional and national interest. We have welcomed coach tours of history buffs visit in 2018 and 2019, we’ve been covered by the Twentieth Century Society, had student interest, received enquiries from documentary makers – and that’s in addition to all of the mainstream news interviews about the community and built heritage.

The only reason our reach wasn’t bigger until now is because, like working class communities across the country, residents enjoyed the heritage locally and didn’t have the resources and attention to celebrate it at a national scale (until it came under threat!). Working class, coal mining heritage is not less socially and culturally valuable just because there aren’t preservation and exhibition resources behind it.

Thankfully, so many great people were on our side and raised these crucial points across last week. Community connectedness is a national priority and is part of the regional and local development agendas — it’s not just a desperate plea from 60+ families to stay together in their historic homes.

The inquiry restarts for its second week tomorrow. Cindy Readman, Chair of the Residents Association and all-round awesome neighbour, will be one of the first up, championing the residents’ rights to a decent, affordable home and a community safety net.

See you there! Thanks as always for all of your support.

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