On 2nd April 2020, just as COVID-19 brought the country to a standstill and people were worried about their health, their jobs, and their homes, Pemberstone reminded our estate not to forget their unique capacity to destabilise people’s lives… they submitted an appeal against Leeds City Council’s rejection of the planning application.
The grounds for Pemberstone’s appeal are, unsurprisingly, a bit of a rehash of the original application: the properties are deteriorating, they will soon be structurally unsound and unliveable, Pemberstone have “no options available” but to demolish them and build fancy new houses that the current residents won’t be able to live in. Etc. Etc. It’s a bit like saying an out of control cruise ship offers something substantively different to an out of control bus, and hoping viewers won’t notice it’s essentially *the same* plot—only with a higher budget and poorer quality acting.
The clincher in the case of the appeal is that they’re trying to turn our own community’s vulnerabilities against us.
Like some dastardly cartoon villain, Pemberstone are—without shame—saying in their appeal report that they recognise the community’s vulnerabilities (e.g. the fact that nearly 50% of households have someone with a disability) and that EVICTING THEM AND DEMOLISHING THEIR HOMES IS THE ONLY WAY TO PREVENT MORE HARM.
What about bringing the homes up to a modern standard and keeping the tenants on? Pemberstone may have neglected maintenance to date, which is why the houses are in such a state in the first place, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late. We’ve had multiple engineers approach us explaining how easily these homes can be brought up to modern standards of insulation and energy efficiency (and for a fraction of the costs Pemberstone have proposed).
Anyway, you know the plot, you know the characters. Some of it is just too exhausting to repeat.
From our side, we will continue to fight. We will challenge this planning application wherever necessary—with the council, the government or in the courts. We have a fundraiser on JustGiving where so many people have already so generously contributed (thank you!) – if you’re able to donate, your support is really appreciated. We are planning to use this money to get the ball rolling for legal advice as soon as possible.
During COVID-19 this community, like neighbours across the country, have checked on each other, shopped for each other, and offered care and support to those who have needed it. It simply cannot and should not be true in 2020 that the only way to address tenant vulnerability is to demolish these safety nets and push people elsewhere. Let’s see if compassion and social responsibility can prevail over profit.
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!
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.
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.
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”.
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?
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.
At 13:30 this coming Thursday, Leeds City Council Plans Panel will meet to decide the fate of our homes and our community.
Will we get the chance to represent ourselves at this life-changing meeting? NO!
Cllr Caroline Gruen, Chair of Plans Panel, has decided we cannot speak.
In May , we were given just four minutes to speak in defence of our houses, our community and our lives; this time, we are given none.
This is despite Leeds City Council declaring at the last Plans Panel meeting that they needed to learn more about the impact any eviction will have on our community. This is despite the extraordinary impact any decision will have on our lives and the environment. We are not alone in feeling this is a kick in the teeth.
October 3rd is currently, albeit tentatively, scheduled for the next (and possibly final) Leeds City Council meeting where the fate of our homes will be decided. We won’t have confirmation of that date until the 24th or 25th September, just one week before the meeting. This already puts our community at a disadvantage.
While the planning application is part of Pemberstone’s asset portfolio – so they can ship a colleague up from Whittington Hall in Worcester at short notice – we have to try to save our homes around working lives, family lives, and health issues. It is not straightforward to take annual leave at the drop of a hat (nor to waste a day on an unconfirmed date) when you work for the NHS or in a school or have childcare responsibilities. Leeds City Council should know this, as a public institution themselves, and yet here we are.
Now, back to the application at hand. What have been the latest developments? Well at the end of May this year, LCC decided that, in order to come to a decision, more information was necessary and changes to the planning were required:
From a social perspective, they declared the need for more information on the impact it would have on current residents and the housing needs of the community.
From an environmental perspective, they were concerned about the impacts of the proposed demolition and whether the planned development would worsen Leeds’ carbon footprint.
From a structural perspective, they wanted changes in the design and layout of the estate, as they were concerned about the aesthetics of the new houses and the reduced size of the gardens.
On 6 September 2019, Pemberstone added a range of new house designs and a policy statement.
What has changed on paper? Beyond that, what has really changed? Let’s take a deeper look (and be warned: this is a long post).
In a nutshell, Pemberstone have reduced the number of 4-bed houses by 5, adding one more 3-bed and one more 2-bed, but reducing the overall number of houses to 67. They claim that the energy efficiency of the houses will be better, the houses would now be able to accommodate solar panels on the roof, and – although the garden sizes have not changed – they kindly reminded us that such green spaces can be used ‘for horticultural purposes or as a convenient place for fresh air to improve occupier quality of life’. (I do hope they’re not trying to take credit for oxygen). The appearance of the houses, too, has changed – more on that shortly.
Where are the social impact surveys?
One glaring absence on LCC’s Planning Portal is the information around social and community impact.
In January 2019, LCC send around an Equality Information Form for residents to fill in. Not for all residents, mind you – there were not enough copies delivered to the estate, and one of our poor neighbours received letters for 3 other households, with all missing the form itself and the return envelope. Despite this haphazard delivery and distribution, we filled in the forms we had in good faith. What has happened since? Nothing.
We have not been provided any synthesis of the results, no hard data on the vulnerabilities of our community. Of course the personal details on the surveys must be kept confidential, but it is troubling that we have not received any notification of the findings, via mail or on the planning portal. It is troubling for three reasons.
This is our data, that we provided in good faithin the hope that it will contribute to our objections against the planning and the eventual refusal of the application. Even if we cannot see the findings, LCC have at least the obligation to explain how they are using it – at the very least it will reassure us that the information has contributed to something (which we can’t be confident of, given the haphazard way in which they collected it).
It is troubling because it underscores the asymmetry of resources we face in this fight to save our homes. As we have explained in a previous post, Pemberstone have the money to muster up studies to support whatever claim they wish to make. We do not. This survey is of vital importance to our claims of vulnerability, and yet we have had no sight of the findings.
LCC’s lack of data sharing materially disadvantages our case. The only means that we have as a community to fight this application is through the planning portal on LCC’s website. This portal is meant to be a repository where allpaperwork related to planning is shared so that all parties have sight of it and can mount a reasonable argument in support, or against, the application. Pemberstone are able to share any number of documents that enable them to make their arguments. We are not able to see one of the key documents that will enable us to make ours.
ON TOP OF THIS: As part of the deferral decision in May 2019, LCC committed to look into the social impact that eviction would have on 70 low-income families with “protected characteristics”, as they termed it. What this suggests is that Plans Panel members took the results of the January survey seriously, and that they were concerned how our vulnerable community might be affected by mass eviction.
Absolutely nothing has happened since then. No follow up survey to see what the impact might be for each family, no consultation with residents, and still no sharing of the original results.
Has resident vulnerability ceased to matter?
Now onto the changes that are meant to address LCC’s concerns around the carbon footprint of the new development.
Pemberstone have proposed that the new buildings would be more energy efficient than the current properties because of improved insulation and more modern boilers; because the new dual-flush toilets would mean less water wasted per resident; because health and well-being will be improved by gardens and windows; and because some of the properties would now face southwards in order to improve “solar gain”. Let’s take each of these in turn.
What is unsaid in this policy document is that Pemberstone has the authority to make many of these changes already to the current housing stock,which would ultimately be cheaper, faster, and more environmentally-friendly than demolition and rebuilding.
For instance, yes, it is true that the energy ratings of most of our homes are between Energy Efficiency Rating D and E (which is currently the average energy efficiency rating for houses in England and Wales).
However, there are also houses on our estate that are “C” grade, which is a satisfactory level of energy efficiency according to UK guidelines. And, importantly, there are simple ways to improve the energy efficiency rating of the “D” and “E” grade houses to make them “C” and “B” rated, including: double glazing, fitting doors that seal, boiler replacement, and installing an efficient secondary heating source (all things suggested in their plans for the new houses). These changes should have been done to our Airey homes by Pemberstone already. But it is never too late – they can be done now and do not require demolition and refurbishment to achieve.
The same is true for the dual-flush toilets and restricted-flow showers and taps – these can be retrofitted across all 70 properties without delay and this can save dozens of litres of water daily for residents.
A 2014 study by University College London(pdf) found that, “even older, high rise or poorly insulated structures, known as hard to treat buildings, can be retrofitted to achieve high energy efficiency standards”. The real environmental damage in these developments comes from construction. In the same study, researchers reported that:
The construction and demolition sector contributes 35% of all waste in the UK every year. Much of this is due to demolition waste… Recycling demolition waste reduces the environmental impacts of demolition, but refurbishment avoids waste to landfill and many of the environmental impacts of new construction.
In other words, Pemberstone (or LCC) can achieve a positive environmental impact for the area by refurbishing their current housing stock. Demolition and reconstruction will only contribute to Rothwell and Woodlesford’s landfill waste output.
This is important for Leeds City Council’s environmental agenda. Less than a decade ago, Leeds City Council was the only the second local authority in the country to commit to a government-backed scheme to reduce construction waste to landfill (2012 Construction Commitment, Halving Waste to Landfill). Is this still a priority for the Council? If not, why not?
Blue sky thinking
Elsewhere in the updated plans, Pemberstone appear to lay claim to the benefits of fresh air and sky, reporting that these new houses will have gardens that contain fresh air and windows that will enable residents to see the sky.
Beyond the obvious arguments that gardens and windows already exist in the current properties, there is a point to be made about what ecological impacts demolition will have as the properties are redeveloped with much the same benefits. As John Davies(pdf) has cogently argued in his recent objection, existing trees, hedges and green space will all need to be dug up in order to develop these new gardens – destroying already existing habitats and natural buffers against carbon dioxide.
Now for the argument of “solar gain”. Some of the new houses, according to the updated proposal, will be orientated southwards and have roof space for solar panels. Hurrah, the earth is saved! Does this mean Pemberstone will construct them with solar panels? No. Does this mean new homeowners will be obliged to fit solar panels as a condition of purchase? Of course not. What this means is the houses can, theoretically, be adapted to take advantage of renewable energy.
The theoretical part here is important. While renewable energy adaptations to buildings are essential in order for the world to reverse the trend of carbon emissions and fossil fuel usage, we have to be wary of greenwashing (i.e. misleading claims about environmental benefits of a scheme or service). Without new homeowner enforcements (or even incentives) to get solar panels, it is no more likely that new residents will install them than it is they will take up vegan diets or eschew cars in favour of bicycles.
Anything that is down to individual choice cannot be considered in the deliberations around planning.
The concrete facts of these updated proposals are that: all of the energy efficiency measures in the new houses are already possible in the current housing stock, and no evidence has been put forward that the efficiency gains in the new houses will offset the negative environmental impacts of demolition, construction waste, and nature loss.
If LCC consider that the new rooves *may* encourage the use of solar panels, then they must also consider that the increased number of 4-bed middle-class houses *may also* result in a rise in car ownership per household, as we have previously reported. Does solar energy offset car pollution and the impacts of increased traffic?
Last but not least, we come to the new design of the houses.
In the last Plans Panel meeting, LCC members remarked that the original design of the proposed houses left a lot to be desired, with the suggestion that Pemberstone should go back to the drawing board. And re-draw them they did, introducing ‘additional character which draws inspiration from the Airey Housing’ (see picture below).
This part of the proposal is disingenuous to say the least. Part of our campaign to keep our homes is because of their historical value as a uniquely large sample of post-World War II ‘homes for heroes’. As we have written elsewhere, Sir Edwin Airey himself was a local designer and our homes are a standing example of social history. They are distinctive in their design, important for their place in post-war industrial history, and they have attracted a lot of attention nationally and locally.
For the last two years in a row, English Heritage and Leeds Civic Society have organised coach tours of interested visitors to come to the estate, tour our homes and learn about the area’s coal mining and working class past and present.
The idea that any of this working-class architecture and heritage can be replicated or paid homage to by demolition and the construction of a middle-class housing estate is simply laughable. The proposed houses look nothing like the Airey originals, and as soon as the current estate is demolished, Leeds City Council will lose that heritage forever.
Middle-class mimickery of local working-class history doesn’t cut the mustard, I’m afraid.
So, there we have it; Pemberstone’s latest offering: no mitigation of social vulnerability, total greenwashing and Airey imitation.
Will it still be enough to render us homeless?
Join us outside Leeds City Council on 3rdOctober to protest and find out.
On Sunday 15 September, residents of Sugar Hill Close and Wordsworth Drive once more opened their doors to history buffs and post-war architecture enthusiasts with the Heritage Open Day, organised by Leeds Civic Trust and English Heritage.
Dozens of people visited from far and wide to explore the houses, their gardens and the history of the street – guided by Cindy and John Readman and Hazell Field from Wordsworth Drive.
Visitors asked thoughtful questions about the history of the properties. As we’ve shared in previous posts, our Airey homes are as local as they come… Sir Edwin Airey himself was a Leeds man, and the first prototype of this type of house was built in Seacroft.
Cindy and John warmly welcomed the visitors into their home and talked them through life then and now. As well as receiving more visitors across the time-slots than originally expected, the local wildlife seemed to show an interest, too! A tiny hedgehog wandered by.
We’ve had a lot of little hedgehogs in the estate recently, which shows our houses and hedges provide happy homes for more than just our families.
Leeds City Council (LCC) Plans Panel met on the 30th May 2019 to discuss and decide the fate of our community and our homes. To begin the day, members of Plans Panel took a tour of the estate, which is usual practice for planning decisions to help them put an application into context. Physical context, mind you – none of that wishy washy social stuff. As per the laws of planning, Council members are not permitted to interact with residents on a walk around (!), so all our neighbours could do that morning was stand in their windows or gardens and remind Panel members of their human connection to the concrete under assessment. Doing this and not looking creepy is a difficult feat, but we had to remind LCC that this campaign is about homes *and* people, not just houses.
Then, at 13:30, back at Leeds Civic Hall, Plans Panel members sat and listened to points put forward by Pemberstone on the one side, and neighbours, councillors, the National Union of Miners and other supporters on the other. For detailed coverage of particular arguments, see the comprehensive coverage of the session in the Yorkshire Evening Post.
Of particular note was the moment the room burst into scoffs and laughter, as Pemberstone’s representative declared that our houses are under a programme of continuous maintenance, and that they spend “tens of thousands every year maintaining the properties”. Hmmm. Let’s see what those figures translate to:
A UK Government report on private registered providers of social housing recorded that, in 2017, private providers were spending a median of £3,298 per housing unit that year on management, major repairs and maintenance. Taking that as a benchmark figure, this would mean Pemberstone, across 70 houses, should spend £230,860 annually on keeping the entire estate up to decent standard (and the costs are even higher for older housing stock). Even a generous reading of “tens of thousands” doesn’t add up to £230,860.
What did they mean, then? Perhaps they meant *planned* maintenance expenditure only, and not emergency repairs. Well, the average for that, according to the same report, is £1000 per household per year, which would mean Pemberstone should spend £70,000 annually in our estate to keep all of the houses up to a decent living standard. What *planned* repairs have we seen for this amount? Virtually nothing proactive, which has resulted in our homes falling into major disrepair. In recent years we’ve seen:
One neighbour waiting more than 18 months (when she sadly passed away) for a rotten window replacement;
Another neighbour waiting since September 2016 to have broken light fittings repaired;
A neighbour waiting over two years to replace her damaged floors;
Several neighbours waiting weeks and months for urgent replacements of showers, doors and other essential infrastructure. The list continues.
The Council should be asking for records of maintenance and major works expenditure in the estate over the last decade to put into context Pemberstone’s assertions that these houses have received all due care and investment to date.
In the meantime, back to the update on LCC Plans Panel meeting…
After hours of deliberating, the Panel didn’t get beyond community issues to talk about planning. It was highlighted that many members of the community are elderly or have disabilities, which are “protected characteristics”. Many declared the development plans to be a situation of social cleansing that threatens to make vulnerable people homeless. Councillor Caroline Gruen admitted: “This is the most difficult decision the panel have had to make in its history.”
And so make it they didn’t.
A motion was passed to defer the decision. Councillors agreed that they need to receive more information on issues such as the design and layout of the estate, the impact of the development on the community, and the desirability of the housing mix. They also agreed of the need to know more about housing need for the local community.
While we are all grateful that the decision wasn’t an approval for the plans, surely the above information should have been comprehensively sought as soon as the application went in?
We don’t know exactly what will come next, but this deferral has given us additional breathing room and more time to snowball the campaign. It’s is a small win of sorts, so watch this space.
A huge thank you to all those that turned up on the day to support us in the LCC Plans Panel meeting and cover our story. Particularly: Chris Kitchen of the NUM, Stewart Golton of the Lib Dems, Karen and Stuart Bruce of Labour, local news stations, newspapers, other media and all the lovely folks who gave up their afternoon. The fight continues!
This Thursday, 30th May just after 1pm, Leeds City Council will hear the planning application for the demolition of our beloved homes. It’s crunch time.
We’re going to need all the support we can get – not least because we only have 4 minutes to remind the Council of our plight. Just 4 minutes… divided between resident Cindy Readman, National Union of Miners’ Chris Kitchen, and Lib Dem Councillor Stewart Golton. Ninety seconds each.
We’ve had a glimpse of which way Leeds City Council might lean – the Plans Panel officer overseeing this application has concluded that there are no convincing and reasonable planning grounds to refuse the proposal. “Sorry, what?” I hear you say. Indeed.
This recommendation for approval comes in spite of public recognition that the demolition will:
Break upa close knit community of low income pensioners, families, young couples, and individuals who all rely on each other for companionship and daily assistance;
Destroyarchitectural and community heritage – one of the largest Airey estates in the country and still housing many ex-miners and their families;
Not contribute any increase in housing stock in the Oulton, Rothwell and Woodlesford area, contravening the National Planning Policy Framework;
Reduce the number of affordable rentals in Oulton, Rothwell and Woodlesford – an area where ONE family might have to wait over SEVENTY WEEKS in emergency accommodation for a council house to become available;
Add a significant carbon footprint to the area with the years-long construction process and the nature of vehicles that typically accompany inhabitants of executive housing;
Legitimise a culture of “managed decline” whereby landlords undertake bare minimum maintenance while accumulating rents until they decide an asset is not profitable enough.
These objections are not only from the mouths of the residents who potentially face homelessness in a number of months; they have come in the form of 64 third party objections and 2,200 petition signatures.
And these aren’t just any “third parties”.
Pemberstone’s planning application has been objected to by: Conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke, the local Labour Party, the local Lib Dem Party, the Oulton Society, the National Union of Mineworkers, Leeds Civic Trust, Oulton Health Centre, the Twentieth Century Society, Hands Off Our Homes, the Prefbab Museum, the Outer South Community Committee, scores of individuals and more than 2,200 petitioners – AND IT STILL GETS RECOMMENDED FOR APPROVAL?
As we’ve written elsewhere, there is a worrying culture of “Pavements Over People” in council decision-making around housing developments (i.e. planning law cares about width of pavement and height of houses etc much more than the people). But this does not mean councillors have to agree with this status quo – especially when precedent has emerged elsewhere of a different way forward (see Foxhill in Bath).
Pemberstone have of course been attempting to rebut all objections with carefully-timed reports*. One of their latest is a “Travel Plan”, which suggests new inhabitants of these executive houses can abandon their gas-guzzling vehicles by taking advantage of apparently excellent public transport links. These include a bus service in the estate, bus links in walking distance on Wakefield Road and walkable supermarkets.
Excuse me while I choke on my tea.
Paragon Highways, authors of the travel plan, have obviously never actually visited Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close before. And certainly not by the 446 bus. If they had, they might have a better idea of the reality: unreliable buses that fail to turn up on time (if at all); timetables that mean working people have to leave an hour’s commute for somewhere only 20 minutes away by car; expensive daily fares; weekly passes not available on buses but in city centres miles away; and an unsafe crossing to reach the bus stop.
A supermarket in walking distance? Yep, there’s nothing like a 2 mile-round walk to Lidl, up- and down-hill with a zimmerframe. Doesn’t matter how many Public Transport Ticketing gimmicks Pemberstone can offer new executive residents, it’s not going to make the 446 run on time. Or the 153 run to normal office hours.
Terrible public transport, no local shops. For Pemberstone to pretend otherwise is a sham. The fact that there is any sense of community in our estate in these isolated circumstances shows just how precious it is. And it undermines any argument that Pemberstone might put forward about future residents reducing car usage.
Our neighbours already share cars, take the few buses on offer and walk where they can.
These details matter. And they’re what we have to try and get across when we address Leeds City Council on Thursday. Can you support us?
Help us save our homes in four minutes. Join us at Civic Hall on the 30 May just before 1pm.
* Pemberstone’s reports are as reliable and content-rich as the morning’s bowel movements. A week or so before LCC Plans Panel are anticipated to meet (usually at the end of the month), Pemberstone has been known to drop a hefty, and mightily expensive, consultant’s report in the document portal of the planning application. Could this be a tactic to prevent anyone from mounting a decent response (or the council from reading it through in detail)?
Last Thursday saw local council elections that shook the country, as well as our small estate on the outskirts of Leeds. Nationally, the country told the government via the ballot box: things have got to change. The Tories lost a humiliating 1300+ seats, Labour lost over 80, while the Lib Dems, Greens and various Independents swelled their councillor numbers. It remains to be seen whether politics at the top will see much of a change as a result.
Regardless, these were local elections and, locally, we also saw a significant change that reflected the national mood. Last Thursday Karen Bruce, Labour Councillor for the Rothwell Ward, lost the seat she has held since 2011.
A Thank You
Karen has taken a special interest in our campaign. She has worked really hard in public and behind the scenes to make sure our voices were heard and to support us to keep our homes. She has joined us in marches, organised council meetings, supported fundraising and offered the helping hands of her family whenever she could. Karen: thank you for all of your hard work. We appreciate it from the bottom of our hearts. We hope you can still be a part of the campaign whatever you choose to do next, and you will always be welcome on the estate for a cup of tea and biscuits. Thanks to you and all of your Labour colleagues.
Diane has lived in Rothwell most of her life, organising many of the town’s festivals as she sits on the Rothwell & District Carnival Committee. Diane: we really look forward to seeing you on the estate and very much hope you can continue to support the campaign for us to keep our wonderful Airey homes. Do pop over for a cup of tea any time!
It has been a long time since I’ve posted an update and this is because, while nothing has really happened, a whole lot has happened too.
The short of it is that Leeds City Council (LCC) has not yet met to discuss the planning application, and won’t until at least the end of May, possibly later. While this (hopefully) means that LCC are taking time to consider all implications for community, it also means our fate continues to hang in the balance.
The long of it is that life in Sugar Hill Close and Wordsworth Drive stands as a microcosm of wider Britain: anxiously stagnating in the midst of social and political crisis as decisions are taken out of our hands, while health issues and austerity continue to gnaw away at our safety nets.
In our two streets alone, health conditions have immobilised some of our best campaigners; imminent joblessness and under-employment are sapping the energies of our families and neighbours; and all of this while we pile high cardboard boxes out of fear of a sudden eviction. Brexit discussions rumble on, simultaneously boring the nation (and our neighbours) and providing a dangerous distraction from ever-widening cracks in our social system. Take housing…
Housing policy reform and Section 21
Housing policy developments in the last few months have been mixed and hold little reassurance for us in the Oulton Drive estate. You may have read recently about the government putting an end to Section 21 “no fault” evictions, which previously meant that landlords were able to issue an 8-week eviction notice to tenants without giving a reason. Now landlords will have to bring a “concrete evidenced reason already specified in law” in order to issue notice, which is certainly a positive move – especially to prevent “revenge evictions”, where tenants are turfed-out after making a complaint about the condition of the property. However, there is nothing in this law to prevent landlords unreasonably increasing rent to a level that is unaffordable for the tenant and requires them to leave. Low income renters (like us) are particularly vulnerable to this, as the balance between monthly income and expenditure balances on a knife edge. Landlords will also still be able to evict if they want to sell the property (or move back in themselves). More radical tenant protection measures are desperately needed.
An article in the Yorkshire Evening Post last year highlighted that demand for social housing in the region is massively outstripping supply with nearly 800 people bidding for one house in March 2018. With LCC only committing to build 358 new social houses by the end of 2021 (none of which will be in the Rothwell/Woodlesford/Oulton area), it is clear that supply will continue to fall woefully behind need. Where do all of these lack of developments leave us?
Anxiety and Anger
According to recent coverage, the ongoing Brexit saga is making us a nation of angry and pessimistic citizens, frustrated at the sense of a lack of control at our own fate, no matter what side of the spectrum we fall. This is compounding the sense of anxiety and frustration we are feeling day-to-day about potential homelessness from our eviction threat, as well as our everyday struggles with health, jobs, and education.
This is the news of no news. And if you find it boring and a little bit depressing – try living it. (Sadly, I’m sure many of you do…).
If there’s one thing we can be sure about in this current period of uncertainty is that things rarely stay still for long and there is much to be learnt from history. At a national level, we have seen a large-scale transformation of labour protections and social housing after Thatcher closed the mines and sold off council housing stock in the 1980s. Since then, our post-industrial towns in West Yorkshire have largely declined in opportunity for the working classes cut off from major commuter routes and housing ownership. For the city-focused, service-orientated middle classes opportunities have arguably soared, as they have benefitted from lower property prices and, in the Woodlesford/Rothwell/Oulton area, decent transport links to the growing urban powerhouse of Leeds.
To say things haven’t always been this way would be to state the obvious. The region’s working class coal mining history is well known, and is of course what birthed our post-WWII Oulton estate of Airey houses. But what about earlier than that? Was the creation of our 1950s council housing estate a bolt out of the blue inflicted upon a middle class region by a post-War reformist Labour government? The answer is a resounding “NO!” and — as with all rhetorical questions that preface a longer blog post — the rest of this short history explains why.
At the end of the 19th century and across the first quarter of the 20th, the area of Rothwell, Oulton and Woodlesford was a hotbed of radical politics seeking to transform the establishment’s conservative approach to issues such as housing, health and education. Local co-operative man Thomas Henry Killingbeck was a key figure in much of this period and it is Howard Benson’s recent post about Thomas that inspired this blog today (I urge you to take out some time to enjoy this long read, which covers far more than this post’s potted history). What is relevant for us is the turbulent times between the 1890s and 1930s.
Taking back control: from private landlords to government housing
In 1893 Queen Victoria had already been on the throne for 56 years (!), William Gladstone was Prime Minister under a minority Liberal government, the UK saw its first national coal strikes, and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) was formed in Bradford. This party sat to the left of Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Party and sought working class representation in political office. As a centre of radical grass-roots worker politics, Rothwell quickly formed its own ILP branch that same year and the party’s policies – such as free education and healthcare, social housing, a welfare safety net for the poor and disabled, an eight hour working day, and the abolition of child labour – are ones we now take for granted today.
Social housing came to the forefront of the Rothwell branch’s political agenda in the first decades of the twentieth century. The opening of Water Haigh colliery and Armitage brickworks in the local area had brought significant numbers of workers and their families to the region but housing construction did not meet demand. As Howard Benson explained:
“Many of the older houses, built from local stone, were cramped, infested with vermin and with only basic gas and water pipes. Practically all of them had outside toilets, or privies, often shared, which were just holes in the ground covered by a board with a hole in it. Ashes from the kitchen fire were spread on the human waste before it was collected by council workmen and taken to a local dump. Some cottages dated back to the 1780s and the early years of the 19th century. Built as investments by quarry owners many had been sold on to landlords who had no connection with the area and were only interested in collecting the rent.”
For years there was talk in the council that “private enterprise” would fill the housing gap, but projects and houses were not forthcoming, leaving workers with excessively long commutes or inhumane living conditions. While some of the town’s prominent figures, such the brickworks Armitage family, put a lot of time and effort into improving sanitation and utilities access for ordinary people, especially their workers, it was insufficient to meet overall need.
Even back then, government legislation enabled local councils to buy land for housing and borrow money for construction costs at cheaper rates but there was an ‘innate conservatism’ among council members who were reluctant to back a policy that would see an increase in their voters’ “council tax” bills as a result of such construction. But it was causing a local housing crisis affecting the poorest the most. The ILP and prominent local figures from across the political spectrum railed against such inequalities. In 1915, one year after the start of World War I, Thomas Killingbeck (a prominent member of the co-operative movement, ILP supporter and soon-to-be local councillor) wrote to the local newspaper stating that:
“Sir, I notice in your issue of July 31st that the miners have sent a complaint to the Executive of the Yorkshire Miners’ Association at Barnsley about the exorbitant rents charged to them at Woodlesford and district. One would naturally have thought this would be a most inopportune time to take advantage of the scarcity of houses, when all sections of the community are expected to show their patriotism by making some sacrifice for the benefit of the country… greedy property owners have been able to raise the rents to [a great] extent…
If a man can borrow money to build houses with, and make a profit on the transaction by letting the houses to the workers, surely the district council can borrow the money which is required, especially when we realise that local authorities can borrow at a far cheaper rate than any private individual can…
A couple of years ago the Local Government Board were anxious to help councils to build where there was a great scarcity of houses such as there was in this district. Had we elected two progressive representatives to the district council we might have had a large number of houses erected by the council before the war.”
Killingbeck’s observation’s and critiques of government inertia were astute. Just two years later, as Prime Minister Lloyd George became increasingly fearful of a 1917 Russia-style socialist revolution in Britain, the government embarked on a series of housing reforms which saw councils being given more subsidies and greater powers to borrow money for construction at lower interest rates.
Homes fit for Heroes
In a now-famous speech Lloyd George declared that “slums are not fit homes for the men who have won this war” and coined the phrase “Homes fit for Heroes”, foreshadowing the post-WWII housing drive that saw the creation of our homes on Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close. Before WWI was over, in 1917, the government gave the go-ahead for 100 new homes to be built in the Oulton Woodlesford area (though plans were sat on for many years). Then, in 1924, a minority Labour government led by Ramsay MacDonald and supported by the ILP managed to pass the Wheatley Housing Act, which increased government subsidies to local authorities for house building for low earning workers.
While social housing numbers may not have grown enough to fully meet demand for growing industry in the area, these reforms on a national scale were recognition that the private housing sector, with its greedy landlords, was not equipped to offer the country what it practically needed, if workers were to live in adequate conditions within a reasonable distance of their jobs. More than that, it was recognition that the private housing sector, and its greedy landlords, were not suitable to offer the British people what they deserved: homes fit for heroes. In the early 20th century these heroes mined Britain’s coal and fought Britain’s battles in the First World War.
Today’s heroes in Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close also mined Britain’s coal until the mines closed in the 1980s. And they now staff Britain’s hospitals, teach Britain’s children and work for Britain’s armed services. Today’s heroes have spent decades contributing to this country’s economy in all manner of workplaces and through bringing up families. They deserve a secure and affordable roof over their heads, close to their workplaces and families. Private rental rates in Oulton and a lack of social housing might soon make this impossible.
What Oulton’s early 20th century history teaches us is that private landlords have rarely provided meaningful housing protections or an affordable roof over the heads of Britain’s workers. Government and local councils must step up and take responsibility. It also provides valuable lessons about the difference a radical grassroots politics can make (in all party colours) to everyday life for Britain’s workers – we wouldn’t have social housing, national healthcare, free education and abolished child labour without it.