Pemberstone’s PR contradictions exacerbate uncertainty

Save our homes sign

In the wake of the significant national coverage that our eviction threat and campaign have recently received, Pemberstone have started responding to media requests for comments. And what they’ve said has largely left us scratching our heads in confusion. None of us on the Oulton Drive estate are Public Relations experts of course, but our instincts tell us that the first rule of public commentary surely must be: get your story straight. Sadly, they seem to have fallen at the first hurdle.

Let’s have a look at what they’ve said:

  • In response to the Financial Times article that covered our campaign last week, Pemberstone’s agent said: “the company needed to secure planning permission before it could decide on the tenure of the new homes on the Oulton Drive estate”.
  • To The Guardian: If no [social housing associations] are found, Pemberstone intends to carry out the development in phases, building around six homes at a time over the next three to 15 years. “Given the natural turnover of properties and the long-term nature of the redevelopment, it is highly unlikely that any tenants would be asked to move from their home without being offered an equivalent alternative on the same estate,” the company said.
  • ITV Calendar: “Social housing organisations will be asked if they want to take over the development, and … it’s unlikely that any tenants will be forced out before the end of their existing agreements”.
  • BBC Newsnight: “All tenancy agreements will be honoured, and it’s unlikely that any residents will be expected to vacate their property and leave the estate, just because of natural turnover”

This means that in less than 7 days, Pemberstone has flip-flopped between no decision on tenure, to having a construction plan of six homes at a time over a 3-15 year period (where current tenants will apparently be offered an “equivalent alternative on the same estate”), to declaring that no-one will have to leave their current homes unless they want to. The first possibility offers nothing but prolonged uncertainty. The second and third options are, at best, contradictory and confusing (and, at worst, disingenuous and misleading).

Nowhere is it written into their Planning Application that we would have first refusal of the new homes and that they would be what we, as a low-income tenant community, could afford. In fact, Pemberstone have been careful in their Statement of Community Involvement not to answer those specific questions when they were directly asked by residents. What does seem to be evident (as you can see in the screenshot of part of their planning application below) is that they are making provisions for homes to be sold – 85% at market rate, 15% at an “affordable” rate for new homeowners. Very few families from our community will be in a position to get a mortgage on an “affordable” home, let alone a market rate one.

Screenshot 2018-04-11 22.08.20If a social housing association can purchase the estate, that would be great! But as we have already addressed in an earlier blog, we fear this is unlikely given the projected market value of the new properties. Are negotiations actively happening on this front? Unfortunately, we still have no idea.

And none of these options address the concern that the heritage of the estate needs to be preserved as much as the community. These are iconic post-war Airey prefab houses, and the last of their kind on such a scale. Their demolition without considering possibilities for refurbishment would be an affront to modern British social history.

Finally, we are forced (again) to rebut Pemberstone’s assertions of transience, which is implicitly hinted at in their declaration of “natural turnover”. At least 3 families have lived on the estate for over 50 years. Many more have lived on Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close for more than a decade. Those who have lived here just a few years have children in local schools, jobs within commuting distance, or are retired. Unless Pemberstone have a secret 100-year plan for redevelopment that they’re not telling us about, then they need to stop peddling this nonsense that the residents will suddenly dissipate like students on a halls of residence contract at the end of semester.

We are long-term renters. These are our homes. We’re happy for you to wait until we decide to leave, but be warned Pemberstone: you might be waiting a while.

BBC Newsnight visits Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close to cover the campaign…

… and as well as stories of anxiety and fear about eviction, they saw the evidence of systematic neglect by the landlord Pemberstone and management agent Watsons over the years. This is not a story about a developer demolishing houses not fit for purpose, it’s a story about a private investment firm taking insufficient care of people’s homes over decades, and then seeking to kick families out when they no longer want the responsibility for refurbishment and prefer to chase a profit (despite these homes still being comfortable and cared for by the tenants).

Importantly, the BBC also saw the powerful determination of a community trying to stop the demolition from happening. Even the sun was on our side yesterday. Hurrah for Spring!

We’ll update you soon on when the report is likely to air.

“Don’t worry about it, you won’t be evicted just yet…” Pemberstone offers hollow words of reassurance

Letter to AS

Pemberstone has finally responded to some of estate’s concerns – though it’s a shame they wrote to local MP Alec Shelbrooke, rather than the residents themselves. In the letter there were a lot of words, but few reassurances. While stating that they are open to considering “whether a housing association or other registered social landlord may wish to acquire the Estate” (which is ideal if everyone retains their right to live there and some of the historic architecture is preserved!), there were no details on value, the negotiation process, timescales, whether current residents would be able to stay in the estate if this happened, or the other commercial options they are also exploring.

This raises many questions. Are Pemberstone actively seeking a housing association/social landlord to purchase the estate, or are they just expecting housing associations to seek them out? [If you’re reading this social landlords – please do take the initiative!] It also raises questions as to sales price. If a housing association can, in best case scenario, offer only market rates and a private company offers above that, what will they choose? As yesterday’s Financial Times article covering our story pointed out – the estate is too well located (near schools, a sports centre, a motorway and green space) not to be heavily sought after by wealthy property development companies.

Pemberstone also failed to provide assurances on length of stay. They repeated in various ways that this redevelopment will be a drawn out process and that:

“[A]ny steps that might be taken in future to bring such tenancies to an end so as to obtain vacant possession are a long way off…”

How should we quantify “long way off” exactly? Leeds City Council understand this to mean 18 months to 3 years. I’m not sure what definition of “long” Pemberstone are using, but three years is no time at all. You can’t see your children through high school in that time. You can’t save enough money for a mortgage deposit in that time. When you’re on low income or a pension, like most of the families on Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close, it can even be difficult to save the few thousand pounds required for a deposit and administration fees on a new private rental in that time. And this doesn’t even begin to touch on the psychological effects of insecurity and having the inevitability of eviction lingering over your head. You can’t make future plans in terms of family, work – and even something as basic as home refurbishment and doing up the garden – if you know you are going to have your life turned on its head with an eviction in a few short years.

The final, slightly baffling, comment that raised an eyebrow was that, apparently, “some of the elderly residents who have been regulated tenants for many years … welcomed the plans, particularly the prospect of warmer, modern, replacement homes“. The total number of Regulated Tenancy households on the estate is nine. I’m not sure what proportion of nine households said they welcomed the new properties, but even if it was half, (any more than that and it would be a “majority” and not “some”), that equates to only 6.5% of the entire estate. Hardly a statistic that sits in their defense.

More importantly than that, this comment suggests that the Regulated Tenancy households will actually get to stay on the estate and live in the new “warmer, modern, replacement homes”. This is not guaranteed, and from what we have heard from the Council and other advisers, highly unlikely.

At the end of the letter Pemberstone declared that they have undertaken what they feel to be an “appropriate level of engagement and communication” with residents. All this (and their “reassurances” as a whole) tells us is that their bar for self-assessment is clearly set very low.

The campaign gains momentum…

It has certainly been a busy couple of weeks for everyone on Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close – and that’s not even counting the snow. Residents have continued tweeting and emailing anyone and everyone who could offer support or guarantees of protection, and we managed to get our story featured in The Guardian. The response to that story was fantastic with over 1000 shares and 400 comments. As a direct result of this we heard from the Foxhill community in Bath who have recently won their 4 and a half year battle against a similar redevelopment proposal (hurrah!), experts in crowd sourced fundraising offering to help our cause, and general well wishers who sympathised with the situation. One of the positive things to come from this campaign is that it has connected us to so many great people and organisations across the country who are offering their advice, solidarity and friendship.

Following on from this story we’ve had further interest from the media, with (hopefully) more stories to follow. There might also be a bit of good news on the historical preservation front: Leeds City Council have recognised the heritage value in our Airey homes. On a report uploaded to the planning portal, they acknowledge that, not only are our homes one of the largest remaining Airey housing sites in the region (if not the country), but also that Sir Edwin Airey, the designer, was a Leeds lad himself. Watch this space for follow up on these developments!

This is just a quick post with a brief update to say thanks to everyone for your continued support – it is really making a difference.

Signs of Neglect

No. 50 Wordsworth Drive has a “To Let” sign outside. Strange, you might think, given that Pemberstone is hoping to demolish the houses asap. Still, every penny helps for a private investment company, eh? At least they keep the houses to a decent standard before evicting the community and knocking them down. Oh wait…

No. 50 has been empty for a few weeks. About a week ago it developed a serious leak; a pipe had burst, water began cascading through the kitchen and the ceiling collapsed. In this recent cold snap, it turned into a sheet of ice on the wall. This, and the fact that the cascade was still flowing, was reported to the managing agent Watsons on Monday 5th March. It had already caused serious damage to No. 50 and could potentially spread to neighbouring houses. No response. Someone came by on the Thursday — not to fix it, or even assess the damage. They put up a “To Let” sign. Water features may increase the rental prospects of some properties, but surely not this one.

Residents (re)reported it to the managing agent today and (re)stated the urgency. An emergency plumber was (finally) dispatched but, as Watsons doesn’t open on a weekend – or, apparently, have the protocol for a key-handover during a weekend – the plumber was forced to break in through a window. At least we know our homes will only be demolished during working hours!

This is the current state of the property (photos below) – thousands of pounds of damage. Much of which could have been mitigated by an immediate response to the reported problem a week ago. No. 50 is a great symbol of the situation of our estate: a wonderful home and an iconic post-war prefab building left to rot because the managing agent and the landlord just have other priorities (and that’s the generous reading of the situation).

This systematic neglect has got to stop. #SaveOurHomesLS26

70 families face eviction – help us to save our homes

Wordsworth Drive Today

In November 2017, Pemberstone (Oulton Properties) Ltd submitted a planning application to develop 71 new market-price houses in Oulton, a town near Leeds. This will result in the demolition of 70 houses, which are currently the homes of 70 low-income families and pensioners. It must be stopped – please help us to #SaveOurHomesLS26.

Council
Members of the Residents Action Group made a deposition to Leeds City Council