Pemberstone revives “demolition by neglect” tactics – it’s 1989 all over again

In January 1989 the Rothwell Advertiser carried a story: “Tenants move out of Oulton Estate“.

Just a few years earlier, the estate had been bought by private company Renshaw & Sons Ltd from the National Coal Board, but the new owners invested little in the maintenance of the houses. Broken glass, rotting wood, and ‘mountains of rubbish’ were reportedly left to fester visibly in streets where children played and families tended their gardens.

‘[T]he new owners are just waiting for everyone to get fed up and leave so they can knock the whole lot down and rebuild’, said Mr Allott to journalist Kim Clayton. At the time the article was written, only 96 of the original 210 houses were occupied and visible dereliction was forcing more to consider leaving.

In what feels like a re-run of this Thatcher-era tactic, current residents of Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close have, this week, witnessed the boarding up of neighbouring houses on the estate.

No-one looks at boarded houses and thinks: community, safety, welcome, and warmth (words that have long-described our Oulton community). Instead, boarded-up houses are a kind of urban visual code for poverty, neglect, danger, unwelcome.

These visual statements are often not facts about an area, they are performative acts designed to meet certain ends. In 2021 the ends are the same as in 1989: to get the residents out. Oulton families are being made to feel unwelcome, to feel neglect, and even danger. It is the very opposite of gentrification in order to enable gentrification (how very 2021).

Carrot and Stick

We should have predicted that the “carrots” some residents recently received in the post (i.e. the legal letters offering discretionary house-moving assistance) would be accompanied by some kind of stick.

I use the term “carrot” loosely here, of course (imagine one of those shrivelled, furry ones at the bottom of your fridge) because the cash “assistance” to move out is subject to a tight timeframe and limited conditions. Not everyone will be eligible and the money is hardly worth it with today’s current rental rates.

Pemberstone have also recently deployed “carrot 2.0” for residents who haven’t yet been given an eviction notice. Several families in Pemberstone’s “Amber” designated houses received letters last week stating that seemed to say they, too, might get some money to move if they get out before February, and this isn’t yet an eviction notice, but funds are limited and discretionary. In other words, a pre-eviction notice notice; get the funds now while (if) you can. Yummy carrot indeed.

While the ultimate “stick” of eviction is being held at bay as residents refuse to heed these notices, it seems that Pemberstone have turned to the 1980s for inspiration about how to force people out of their homes anyway. It’s not broken glass and rotten wood; this time it’s cheap MDF wood over windows and doors. Without a hint of irony, this investment company has rapidly boarded up vacant houses, when undertaking essential repairs on occupied homes seem to take years.

It’s funny how a Government Inspector gives planning permission with strict conditions that a community forum must be created to consult with, and inform, our neighbours about things like eviction notices or the boarding-up of vacant properties – and this condition can be ignored without any consequences. (Where are Leeds City Council on this?)

It’s also funny how we’re in the midst of an affordable housing crisis, and a landlord is boarding up empty homes it refuses to refurbish or rebuild for low-income families.

None of this is actually funny, of course. It’s deeply, deeply distressing for residents on our Oulton estate – neighbours who are faced with a Christmas fighting in the courts for the right to stay in their home, a Christmas surrounded by boarded-up houses and fewer neighbours to exchange gifts and food with.

Limited options

In this deadlock, everything feels completely out of our control. Leeds City Council recently voted down a motion put forward by Cllr Stewart Golton calling on the council to buy the estate – leaving residents in a limbo, wondering what’s going to happen next.

Negotiations to keep the community in their homes may well be happening behind the scenes, but residents always seem to be the last to know – creating a sense of powerlessness as time races towards eviction and demolition.

Pemberstone won’t stop their march towards redevelopment, so what we need is Leeds City Council to step up and halt the demolition-by-neglect tactics while alternative solutions are still being negotiated. Leeds City Council need to force Pemberstone to honour the condition of creating a community forum so residents’ voices can be heard. We also need Leeds City Council – made up of our elected representatives – to inform everyone what’s going on behind the scenes so we can stop living in daily fear of what comes next.

Today, neighbouring houses were boarded over. Tomorrow, who knows…?

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