Radical politics with a social housing agenda in early 20th century Woodlesford – lessons to learn from

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.

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“Homes for Heroes”. These houses on Green Lea, now demolished, on were built by the Hunslet Rural District Council after WWI. This photo, looking east, is from a postcard sent from Woodlesford in 1923. The rest of the street, towards Highfield Mount in the distance, was completed by the Rothwell Urban District Council in 1939. Source: New Woodlesford

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.

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Lloyd George giving a speech. Photo source: World War I Centenary

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.

What a year!

A look back over 12 months of hard campaigning, small victories, and lots of community spirit.

While the winter of 2017 can be described as one of shock, as we found out our landlord wished to demolish our beloved 70 homes and evict a long-established community, the year of 2018 can be described as one of fight back, determination, and solidarity. As the year draws to a close, here’s a look back over some of our happier memories.

#SaveOurHomesLS26 Residents Action Group formed

We came together to form a Residents Action Group almost immediately as there was no way we’d take this eviction threat lying down. It only solidified our sense of community.


Representation and Advocacy

We’ve had the honour and the privilege to represent our campaign at a number of forums. In the last 12 months we have petitioned Leeds City Council to standing ovation, spoken at a Housing Advocacy meeting in Parliament, advocated councillors in their offices and hosted them on our estate, spoken to Housing Campaign Groups across the region, called into LBC to demand answers from then-Housing and Communities Secretary Sajid Javid, and many many more.


Stop the press!

Over the course of the year – but particularly in March and April – we were covered by the UK’s biggest news outlets: BBC local and national, the Guardian, Financial Times and ITV Calendar, as well as a range of smaller and/or local news outlets.

Our shining moment was an in-depth feature on BBC Newsnight on the 9th April 2018.

Power of protest

We’ve been known to hold a march or two (or three, or four… ahem) and this year we’ve really waved the banners! We’ve joined and made protests from Rothwell to Leeds – and we’ve even taken our case down to housing meetings in London.

Fundraising and Petitions

Our online petition gained over 2,200 signatures, with hundreds more gathered by the Residents Action Group on Paper. We have also managed to raise a few pennies on stalls, through our online giving page, and through generous donations from the Miners and Hands off Our Homes – a huge THANK YOU to everyone that contributed.

Twitter Takeover

Since joining Twitter, our Residents Action Group has tweeted nearly 3,500 times, and our Social Media whizz Hazell Field has added an additional 4,000 to that number. With thousands more from residents and other supports, that takes us to 10,000+.

Through Twitter we’ve reached councillors, MPs, other housing groups and ordinary citizens also concerned with our plight. Add to our momentum by tweeting #SaveOurHomesLS26

Airey Heritage

It has also been a historic year for the estate for other reasons (forgive the pun). This year we delved deeper into the rich history of Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close, and have learned more about Sir Edwin Airey – Leeds-born designer of these iconic 1950s Airey Houses. We’ve also shared what it means to still have connections to mining history, decades after the mines have closed. Meet some of our ex-mining residents on our “Meet the Residents” page.

Local Solidarity

Right from the outset we have been inundated with local support: from councillors representing all the major parties (especially Karen Bruce of Labour), Miners groups in Leeds, local news publications (such as the brand new LS26 Local), and neighbours from across Oulton, Woodlesford, Rothwell and beyond. THANK YOU ALL.

What a year!

2019 may be a big year for us too – the Planning Committee are aiming to meet in January and February and the legal battle may then commence.

Whatever lay in store, we are going to enter 2019 with as much oomf as we started 2018.

HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!

The cliff edge of despair: our Oulton estate is a homelessness crisis in waiting

One of today’s top stories is a black mark against our country: nearly 600 homeless people died last year, and there has been a 24% rise in the deaths of homeless people since 2013. Shocking statistics and entirely preventable tragedies. The people behind the numbers are not just rough sleepers, but also people staying in emergency night shelters and hostels. The Office of National Statistics has reported that more than half of these deaths have been caused by the “diseases of despair”: suicide, drink problems or drug abuse.

If we take into account the wider definition of homelessness – i.e. people living in temporary bed and breakfasts or sleeping on friends’ sofas – the number is likely to be much, much higher. After all, mental health problems and the “diseases of despair” do not go away just because you have a friend’s sofa to sleep on rather than a hostel bed or park bench. As of March 2018, the UK had 79,880 families living in temporary accommodation– a 64% increase since 2010. 

And what about those on the cusp of homelessness? What about those, such as the families in our Oulton estate, who are in a position of protracted housing insecurity with eviction looming on the horizon? I say this not as a means to jump on the bandwagon of a serious and sobering news story, but to join the dots of where we have got to as a society when it comes to housing and mental health.

On the cusp of homelessness

Last week Pemberstone sent around a letter of apparent reassurance to tenants – timed, as always, at the 11thhour (i.e. just before the Planning Committee meet to judge the application in January). It offers little in the way of detail, just a few italicised quotations from their May newsletter

For residents who have the oxymoronically-labelled “Assured Shorthold Tenancy” agreements it offered just one new titbit: if planning permission is given, Pemberstone will give a two-month window for tenants to extend their leases for two more years. A whole two years! No mention of rent rates during that period, no buffer against eviction in the end. 

What does that mean in practice? Three things spring immediately to mind:

1. The only power this gives tenants is to sign up to extending their own insecurity.There are no guarantees that families will be able to stay near their social and economic safety nets (family, friends, jobs, schools) beyond the two years. 

2. The truth about (un)“natural turnover”. Pemberstone have proposed a “phased” development model, which requires vacant homes at each stage of the process. Pemberstone’s exclamations that they expect “natural turnover” to free up these houses is disingenuous. By putting in this planning proposal in the first place (with its inevitable evictions), Pemberstone are creating an environment of acute insecurity, which pushes many people out – some long before demolition day. This is not “natural” turnover no matter how you repackage it.

3. Current residents may be able to get the new “affordable homes” – if they can wait until 2034. Pemberstone have also outlined that redevelopment may take up to 15 years, with no guarantee about which houses will be built first. Even if we take Pemberstone’s proposals at face value that *some* current residents *might* have preferential access to the “affordable houses” on the estate through a housing association, there is no indication when they will be built over that 15-year period. If it is left until the end, then there is no chance that the existing tenants will have a chance to claim them, because that means up to 15 years of families surviving on sofas, in temporary accommodation, or maybe being moved elsewhere by the council. In the end it all means that the community is well and truly broken. Will there be legal recourse to protest any delay once planning permission is given? I doubt it. As long as the development is underway, the landlord will at least be meeting their “affordable housing” obligation on paper.

The cliff edge of despair

Reactions to this letter within the community have been mixed, with some grateful for a small bit of breathing space (pushing off homelessness worries from 2019 to 2021). Others are furious that this disingenuous letter has come just before the Leeds City Council Planning Committee meet to decide residents’ fates, as if to pretend that there is some security for residents on the horizon. Overall, community responses can be characterised as ones of “despair”, which leads us back to the headlines.

Today’s story of the shocking rates of death among homeless people in Britain is part of a bigger story about the protracted housing insecurity and situations of despair that people face long before having to sleep on a park bench or in an emergency hostel. It’s not a giant logical leap to see the mental health and substance abuse impacts our eviction threat is already having on our community turn into the range of homelessness tragedies that dominant the news cycle this week.

As we keep saying on this website and elsewhere on social media, Leeds City Council have the chance to break this cycle of structural violence – which is not just enabled by Pemberstone’s actions, but also by years of the government’s social housing inertia. Turn all of our homes into protected social housing, and prevent dozens more families falling off the cliff edge of despair.

Leeds Outer South Community Committee Meeting – Update

In late November, residents of Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close had another fantastic opportunity to speak out about our fight. This time we met members of the Leeds Outer South Community Committee and put forward our concerns about Pemberstone’s proposed development.

The meeting was chaired by Cllr Karen Bruce and attended by senior planning and housing officers, including Victoria Hinchliffe Walker and Gerard Tinsdale, as well as other local councillors, including Judith Elliot, Stewart Golton and Neil Dawson. See the full list of Councillor attendees here.

Leeds Outer South 1

From the residents, the meeting was attended by Cindy Readman, Hazell Field, and Susan Gould. Pemberstone was invited but, unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), declined the invitation.

Cindy gave a powerful speech explaining the sense of community in our two streets and how, more than 12 months since the planning application was submitted, the anxiety is really taking its toll on residents’ physical and mental health. She shared stories of the impact of sleep deprivation as a result of the constant worry, and the physical and financial impact that campaigning to save our homes is having on so many members of this low income community. In response, the Committee showed overwhelming support.

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Cindy presenting to the Committee

Stewart Golton and Carmel Harrison of the Lib Dems put forward a recommendation that Leeds City Council look into buying the estate, seconded by Judith Elliot (Morley Borough Independents) and amended by Neil Dawson (Labour) to make it even stronger. We feel so heartened to have support from all the parties represented in the wider area. Karen Bruce (Labour) also recommended that the Committee put in an objection to the application, which adds vital ammunition to our fight.

It wasn’t all good news, though. A representative from the council confirmed that there is currently a 3 year (!) wait for a 3-bedroom council house in our area if the demolition goes ahead. But our hope and our fight is that this never has to become a reality, as temporary accommodation across the country is notoriously unsafe with health and security risks.

When Cindy asked about whether the council was taking into account equality, diversity and special needs within the community, they confirmed that a form would soon be coming round to collect that data. While we would also love Pemberstone and the Council’s whole Planning Committee to actually come over and meet us all over a cup of tea to find out in person about out lives, an official form documenting this is certainly a good start. We shall keep you updated as to what comes out of this meeting, and everything else.

As ever, the fight continues.

And with the Planning Committee meeting that decides our fate postponed again, we at least hope to enjoy one more Christmas in our homes.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word. ‘Politics’, not so much…

15 Oct

On Monday 15thOctober,* six members of the Save Our Homes LS26 group and Cllr Karen Bruce met with Mr Peter Mondon, a representative from Blue Marble. Sorry, Pemberstone. Well, Blue Marble and Pemberstone. And, according to Companies House, a range of other companies to boot: Astwood Contracting, Meteor West Developments Ltd, Meteor Chapel Developments Ltd, Wishaw Construction (Midlands) Ltd, Harper Group Management Ltd, PNM Services Ltd, and Harper Group PLC, J. Harper & Sons (Leominster) Ltd, Harper Group Construction Ltd.

Busy man.

Peter Mondon is the project manager for Pemberstone’s planned redevelopment of our estate and had to face the group of us himself. David Annetts, Director of Pemberstone, had a last-minute emergency that prevented him from attending. Which was a shame, as we have yet to meet someone of Pemberstone proper. And last time we met Peter Mondon (with his Blue Marble hat on at the Sports Centre community consultation last year) we seemed to have different understandings of ‘consultation’. Oh well, you know what they say about community engagement… tomayto, tomato, po-tay-to, po-tah-to.

Anyway, I digress.

This meeting was an important one as it was the first time ever that we’ve sat down face to face. It was not instigated by Pemberstone, but called for by us, in the hope that we might be able to get some clarity and guarantees. And I’m delighted to say that…*drum roll please*… tea and coffee was available throughout the entirety of the meeting. Yes, that was the only concession offered (and it was Council-provided). Maybe that’s not completely fair, but we didn’t get off to the best start.

An ITV journalist who wanted to sit in the meeting was refused permission by Mondon because Pemberstone hadn’t been given prior notice. Well, we hadn’t planned for her to be there either but thought it good for her to see the full discussion after interviewing us outside. Moreover, not only did Mondon conspicuously not say the word ‘sorry’ throughout the meeting (even when acknowledging that Pemberstone got the communication completely wrong in the early months), he was also not able to offer any reassurance about the future for current tenants post-planning decision.

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Pemberstone’s rationale, as Mondon explained it, was that the houses are defective, and are deteriorating as per the results of their survey (see previous post for comments on that). Pemberstone have had to make a commercial judgement based on an assessment of the cost of refurbishment versus redevelopment. The company are adamant that these houses do not have enough historical value to warrant saving and, although some housing associations are interested, these organisations apparently won’t even countenance taking the houses over until planning permission has been granted.

Even the Leeds City Council members present were talking about what could happen if permission was granted. They noted that it might be possible to work on a “local rent policy”, which may would mean that the (over 150) residents could potentially get first refusal on the 11 affordable houses to be built in the estate (do the maths). Neil Evans, Director of Resources and Housing, said that the Council can set up an engagement forum to manage the development and communication between Pemberstone and the community throughout the redevelopment process.

It seems like a done deal!

Except we must have rattled Pemberstone. Mondon didn’t seem totally convinced they were on to a winner.

Maybe it was the campaign t-shirts we wore to the meeting and the protest we made outside. Maybe it was the journalist coming to report our story. Maybe it was the social media mobilisation we have managed to date.

Whatever it was, Mondon seemed rattled enough to state at the end:

“I don’t know if we will get planning permission – it might be refused for technical or political reasons. If it’s turned down and the reason is technical we will address that. Though if it is turned down, then I suspect it will be for political reasons. After that we would have to take stock and appeal to the Secretary of State”. 

‘Technical’ or ‘political’. Apparently, these are the only two reasons why a planning application might get refused. It seems like Mondon missed the memo about social vulnerability being a legitimate concern for overturning eviction threats. Social isn’t synonymous with political.

Here’s the rub.

All Pemberstone sees in this application is an investment. They purchased the estate nearly two decades ago with a view to make money. And – with a rental sector as unregulated as Britain’s – money-making through this type of investment has been as simple as:

  • charging rents
  • undertaking minimal maintenance
  • and asset-sitting until the properties are too expensive to repair, or the land becomes too valuable to sit on.

Any move (especially by a government) against a company’s right to discharge their asset as they see fit is seen as a political move designed to undermine their right to make money. That’s their black and white. But it’s not the only side of the story.

What we hope the council won’t forget in this process of being razzle dazzled by the prospect of new executive housing in an ex-Coal Board estate, is that there are real social vulnerabilities to take into account. And in the face of ever-decreasing council house options for low income families, private landlords must be held to a high standard of tenant protection.

We have heard time and again that councils across the country fear turning a development planning application down on anything other than technical grounds, because the corporation will launch a costly appeal with their army of well-paid lawyers. And in this age of austerity, councils can’t risk their budgets by fighting a losing cause.

But don’t let tricksy words like ‘politics’ fool you. This isn’t a ‘technical’ or ‘political’ binary choice. There is a real human concern behind the redevelopment plans.

Chair of the Resident’s Association Cindy Readman couldn’t have laid out the case better in our meeting when she named a number of families and individuals on the estate who have physical health issues, mental health issues, mobility difficulties, and financial struggles – all worsened because of the anxiety this application has caused. Our neighbours and friends, our own families – people that Pemberstone and the Council don’t know beyond a name on a tenancy contract.

Pemberstone may not have offered us much by the time the meeting was over, but I hope we’ve given them and the Council some important food for thought.

Technicalities, politics, social vulnerabilities. Tomayto, tomato, po-tay-to, po-tah-to, ?

#SaveOurHomesLS26

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Details of the meeting:

Meeting:         Save Our Homes LS26 Residents Association meet with Pemberstone

Date:               15 October 2018

Location:        Leeds Civic Hall, Labour Party Offices

 

*Present:

Save Our Homes LS26 Residents Association

Cindy Readman

Susan Gould

Mavis Abbey

Hazell Field

Robert Walker

Jessica Field

 

Labour

Karen Bruce, Councillor – Rothwell Ward

 

Pemberstone

Peter Mondon, Oulton development Project Manager (Blue Marble/Pemberstone)

 

Leeds City Council

Martin Farrington, Head of City Planning

Sarah May, Housing Growth Team

Richard Lewis, Executive Member for Regeneration, Transport and Planning

Neil Evans, Director of Resources and Housing

 

Apologies:      David Annetts, Director of Pemberstone, who had an urgent issue that prevented him from being able to make the meeting.

 

 

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.

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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).

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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.

 

Who’d live in a house like this? David, it’s over to you…

Through Heritage Open Days, we will be opening two of our wonderful Airey homes for you to visit. You will get a guided tour by residents of the estate fighting to save their homes, and learn everything you wanted to know (and many things you never thought to ask) about these historic prefabs.

Book your place now on Sunday 9th September at 10:30am, 11:30am or 12:30am by emailing Cindy Readman at: cindyreadman@hotmail.com. Places are limited (10 per slot) so don’t delay!

For those that have read up on the history the estate, you will know that there is much to discover in and around these houses – their roots in the post-war rebuilding of the country, their connections to local mines, and their long-standing role as homes for inter-dependent communities. The facades of these houses haven’t changed much over the decades, and in the tours you will get to see some original pre-fab features both inside and out. Judge for yourself how sound they are in construction, and what they offer in terms of comfort and garden space, and learn more about how these homes have become the bedrock of a long-standing community.

Sadly we won’t have Loyd Grossman there to take us through the keyhole, but you’ll still manage to find plenty of clues as to the rich history and families of these homes.

We look forward to seeing you there.

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