The good, the bad and the Airey

These last few weeks have seen no developments on Pemberstone’s planning application, but a lot of activity and news around the sides.

The Good

There was fantastic news from down south, as the Foxhill Residents’ Association won their court battle against Bath and Northeast Somerset Council. The council had approved plans submitted by housing association Curo to redevelop the estate, which would have caused a loss of more than 200 social houses. The campaign was given a further boost as the High Court ordered the Council to pay the Residents’ Association £14,000 in compensation.

In what might prove to be very relevant for #SaveOurHomesLS26 as we continue our challenge against Pemberstone’s redevelopment plans, Mr Justice Lewis of The High Court stated that “the council did not in fact have due regard to the impact on the elderly and disabled persons of granting an application which might lead to demolition of their existing homes“.

Huge congratulations to campaigners in Foxhill! We are motivated by your victory and will take lessons from your approach. Take note Leeds City Council, tenants’ voices must be heard.

The Bad

Unsurprisingly, this award goes to Pemberstone. This time, though, the news comes from across the Pennines in Manchester.

As tower blocks across the country are found to have the same dangerous flammable material cloaking their exterior as Grenfell, removal becomes a top safety priority. But who should pay? Surely it should be the developers, property owners or councils that decided on the use of flammable cladding material, that own the properties, and/or who have reaped millions of pounds in profit from renting/leasing flats out? Not according to Pemberstone.

The multimillion pound investment company are taking hundreds of residents to court to force them to pay £10,000 each, rather than footing the bill themselves or approaching the original property developer LendLease for the money. The leaseholders and tenants in Vallea Court and Cypress Place towers in Manchester’s Green Quarter are understandably livid but fear business interests will win out as the local government are failing to show much support.

Pemberstone reportedly was not aware of the dangers of the cladding when they purchased the towers – an admission of ignorance that sounds wearily familiar to residents of #SaveOurHomesLS26, who experience the daily realities of Pemberstone making assumptions of the condition of their homes without, as far as we are aware, ever having visited themselves or conducted full surveys.

Either way, ignorance is not an excuse for a property owner to push risk, responsibility, and costs onto tenants when the issue is about something as serious as fire safety. We stand in solidarity with Vallea Court and Cypress Place residents as they challenge this in court.

The Airey

On a lighter note, we were visited by the wonderful C20 society this weekend – an organisation dedicated to the preservation of 20th century architecture. Several months ago they wrote a strong objection to the Planning Application, citing the rarity of this number of Airey houses in modern Britain and explaining their significance in the nation’s post-war history. You can see their press release here.

The sun came out for us again, as Residents’ Association Chair Cindy Readman and other neighbours walked them around, talking them through the history of the houses and our community. We were also joined by the Leeds Civic Trust who offered their support and excellent ideas for the campaign.

We are delighted to have such important local and national organisations on our side, seeking to preserve architectural heritage and a community that is itself a key part of local coal mining and labour history. More updates to follow on this visit, but in the meantime, here are a few photos of the day:

Glossy obfuscation from Pemberstone

A few weeks ago we received a glossy “Update” leaflet from Pemberstone about the development. I use the term “update” lightly here, as it mostly contained recycled PR from their previous statements and very little new information, let alone reassurances.

Still, it provides Pemberstone with brightly-coloured proof to the Council that they’re keeping the community informed, right? Erm, no. It only proves that their Communications Strategy hasn’t moved beyond “drop a leaflet through the letterbox and run before they see you”.

So, what did it say within these inappropriately cheery coloured boxes?

There’s Something About Airey

The general gist is that these Airey houses have reached the end of their life span and must be replaced by more modern homes that meet contemporary specifications. But none of these assertions are based on concrete evidence of the state of the properties. There have been no structural surveys of the occupied properties. If they have occurred in the vacant ones, Pemberstone has not shared the results, which suggests either no surveys have been done, or the buildings are structurally sound.

As we have highlighted previously, so many of Pemberstone’s assertions about the structural quality of our homes is based on general information about some Airey houses in the UK. There are also many Airey homes across the country that are structurally sound and happily occupied. Airey houses are listed under the Housing Act 1985, which was formulated mainly to legislate the provision of refurbishment grants and assistance for people who had bought them under Right to Buy prior to 1985 – it was never intended to be justification for demolition (information source: Prefab Museum).

The quotation Pemberstone gives from Martin Farrington, Director for City Development at Leeds City Council, inadvertently undermines their case as it admits that “full surveys [on the Oulton estate] have not taken place”. So how can Pemberstone or LCC know that these houses are not structurally sound? Either commission a survey or accept residents’ experiences of living in these homes for decades. These unsubstantiated assertions should stop until then.

[As a side note, in the interests of fairness given that the planning application is ongoing, it should be a concern for Leeds City Council that Pemberstone are misusing a quotation from Martin Farrington of LCC in support of their assertion of structural weakness when there is no evidence of such.]

It Ain’t Half Cold Mum

A second statement not backed up by sufficient evidence is that the property manager, Watson, have overseen a “programme of rolling maintenance”. This ambiguous statement cleverly offers no indication of frequency or activities. Elsewhere on the leaflet they state that Pemberstone “recently carried out work to replace windows, heating systems and install extra insulation”. But that certainly hasn’t been on all of the properties.

What they appear to be referring to in the examples they give are the improvements they make to vacant properties in order to let them out. Long term tenants, however, have experienced no such regular maintenance.

One long term resident noted that, since 1990, her house has only been painted twice. She asked for double glazing ten years ago, and finally received it this year after repeatedly chasing. As far as we are aware, no houses on the estate have all double glazed windows, and many are still waiting for heating system upgrades.

Another resident reported a broken boiler and no hot water to Pemberstone’s management company Watson on 29 January 2017 (a freezing month). It took two more days for them to send a plumber, only for the family to be told that the boiler was irreparable, must be taken away (causing no heating), and a new one can’t be brought for another couple of days. A week with no hot water or heating.

Elsewhere on this blog we shared the recent story of a burst pipe in the vacant No. 50. Water was gushing through the ceiling and the outside wall for several days and the emergency plumber had to break in to turn it off, as they couldn’t get the keys from a non-responsive Watson. Without repairing the property, the management agent then put a “To Let” sign up.

Perhaps this sight is why Pemberstone are struggling to rent the vacant homes…

Thus the concerns Pemberstone expressed in the leaflet over meeting basic energy and maintenance standards ring a little hollow.

Energy Efficiency Ratings on a sample of the properties (on the EPC website) suggest only basic remedial work needs to be done to get them up to Energy Performance Standards. Why has this not been done on a rolling priority basis for all houses in the years Pemberstone have owned the properties? Only they can answer that. But in the meantime, Pemberstone must stop asserting that these houses are not fit for purpose.

No Country for Old Tenants

The third and final thing we will deconstruct (though there are many more points of contention) is their mustard-coloured reassurance text box: “What will happen if planning permission is granted?” The short answer to this question is: still no bleedin’ clue. Despite the header suggesting we might get some concrete answers, the only concrete we can be certain of is the walls of our houses. In fact, the box is littered with words like “potential”, “could be”, and “may be”. Hardly reassurance.

In the details of the box it falls back on the old chestnut of “natural turnover” and fails to take into account the significant proportion of tenants have been there long term. If the houses are to be demolished in phases over 15 years, does that mean those on protected tenancies will have to move around the estate several times before they get one of the “affordable” homes? This is not feasible for retirees in their 60s, 70s and 80s. What about those not on protected or regulated tenancies, who make up the majority of tenants? The leaflet seems to be avoiding the word “eviction” but that’s exactly what will happen to dozens of families who don’t fall under tenant protections and who stand in the way of Pemberstone’s bulldozer, no matter how “phased” the demolition might be.

The point we have repeatedly made is that families on this estate have nowhere else to go – there are no council houses in Leeds and market rentals near our schools and jobs are now unaffordable on a minimum wage or pension.

And as for those in protected tenancies, their assurances and numbers don’t add up. While they state in this leaflet that the 13 households on regulated tenancies will get the “affordable houses” on the estate, they are only offering to build 11 of them. Are they proposing a house share for some of the families? And there are two levels of tenant protection that families in those 13 households share, will both levels get guaranteed rehousing in the estate? But then there’s actually no certainty that the “affordable” homes within the new development will be rented out – legislation only speaks of affordability in sales terms and Pemberstone (or whoever owns them hence) might choose not to let.

So, all in all, this “update” wasn’t worth the glossy paper it was printed on. Residents will continue to worry about the security of their future within the homes and in the community, and Pemberstone will continue as planned.

Joining the Justice for Grenfell March in Leeds

A year ago yesterday was the devastating fire in Grenfell Tower, London, that took 72 lives and shattered hundreds more. It’s hard to find the words to talk about this deeply sad event without confronting an array of emotions: anger at the apparent management negligence of this council property, disbelief that fire safety was either deliberately disregarded or negligently overlooked, distress when reading about the wonderful people that lost their lives that night, empathy for the families that have to pick up the pieces, and solidarity for the survivors and the wider community fighting for justice.

A public inquiry is under way that will explore what led to such a tragedy, and how to prevent another. This is running alongside a criminal investigation, which is looking into possible individual and corporate negligence. The results of these investigations will not be out for many years, but we don’t need them to know that something is desperately wrong with the housing sector in the UK.

We have discovered since the Grenfell fire that many more tower blocks are clad in this cheaper, but highly flammable, material. We are also seeing, a year on, that so many families who survived the disaster are still in temporary accommodation. This situation speaks to a wider problem with which we are all familiar: there is simply not enough council housing across the country. Not in overall numbers, and especially not in boroughs with high land value.

Solidarity marches were held across the country yesterday to commemorate the tragedy and raise a collective voice demanding justice and change. SaveOurHomesLS26 Campaign Activists Cindy Readman and Hazell Field attended yesterday’s march in Leeds attended on behalf of our community and raised their voices to share our story about housing insecurity in Oulton.

The victims of Grenfell and their families deserve justice. And we all, as a nation, deserve housing that is available when we need it, and that is safe and secure over the longer term.

March for our homes!

Cindy speech 2
Cindy giving a brilliant speech on the steps of Leeds Art Gallery

On what turned out to be a glorious sunny day in Leeds city centre yesterday, residents from Sugar Hill Close and Wordsworth Drive joined Leeds Trade Union on a march through the city. We had placards, banners and even four-legged supporters – and it was really great to see so much interest and support for our campaign to prevent Pemberstone from demolishing these historic, affordable family homes.

Chair of the Resident Action Group gave a fantastic speech which got much applause, and our leaflets were snapped up. We are so happy to be a part of such a vibrant Leeds community focused on issues of social justice – long may it continue!

Thanks to all of those who turned out in solidarity for our campaign, and who listened to our concerns. And a huge thank you to Leeds Trade Union, who invited us on this demo. The fight continues!

Mark, Mavis, Sue, Robert, John and Leia the protest dog with our banner
Cindy speech
Cindy telling the crowd about our campaign
Dog and billboard
Leia the protest dog showing her solidarity
March for our homes!





The mental health impacts of the eviction threat

The UK’s housing crisis is at the top of the news a lot these days, and rightly so. Home ownership has plummeted in recent years, rents have skyrocketed, and there are simply not enough new houses being built. As property has become a lucrative investment, we are seeing more and more landlords like Pemberstone, booting families out and “redeveloping” to increase the value of their assets – too often at the cost of poorer people.

But, as well as the economic costs that households have to absorb in these situations, there is the hidden cost of mental health, too.

Street shot.png

It seems like stating the obvious that this eviction threat has created chronic anxiety in our Oulton estate. But what does that actually mean, day to day? It has manifested itself differently for different people here and, while it’s a difficult subject to speak about given its deeply personal nature, it must be acknowledged as a fall out from Pemberstone’s redevelopment plans.

Firstly, many on the estate are feeling a form of constant, unrelenting unease and stress. This is hitting children, the elderly, and residents with dependents the hardest. Neighbours have reported that their children are struggling to sleep, as they feel powerless in the face of something they don’t understand. For them, it’s not just seeing a worried mum or dad that makes them upset, it’s the potential of changing schools, losing friends and changing what they’ve known their whole life.

Others have reported that the stress is worsening existing health conditions, both physical and mental. One of our neighbours, who has lived on the estate his whole life, and who currently cares for his elderly parents, says that he has previously experienced poor mental health, and the eviction threat is once again pushing him to the edge: he is more angry, more upset, and drinking more, because he doesn’t know how else to cope with this relentless anxiety. Another neighbour feels that the constant sense of unease and fear is worsening her chronic back condition, which is contributing to more sleepless nights, difficult days in the office, and a tearfulness that the slightest thing can provoke.

The eviction threat is putting strains on family relations and friendships, as everyone’s concerns rebound off each other, creating an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. Problems that might previously have been shared (and halved) among close relatives, become secrets, hidden to shield them from the additional burden. In one family, a son kept his redundancy secret from his parents for fear of adding to their woes, just hoping that he could find a job in the meantime. He couldn’t.

There is also that constant guilt that many feel about not doing enough for the campaign. Refreshing the campaign Facebook page, sending more Tweets, writing more emails, trying to get more news coverage. They always feel switched on, thinking :”what if that one more makes all the difference – how can I turn off my computer now?” It is eating away at family time, and means that residents never have a moment of peace.

Anxiety, stress, tearfulness, sleeplessness, anger, secrets, guilt. Suffering doesn’t start at the moment of eviction. For the residents of Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close it began the moment the pamphlet dropped through the letterbox last September.



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