Further to yesterdays blog post please find below a comprehensive piece written by Jessica Field the daughter of one of the residents who face being made homeless. A daughters plea please ensure that you share this post and show your full support don't let this plea be ignored in favour of corporate greed. Rememeber that this can happen to you. Thank you for reading
The silent housing scandal: what’s happening to us could happen to you next!!
Last November, Pemberstone (Oulton Properties) Ltd submitted a planning application to develop 71 new family homes in a town near Leeds. They are in a quiet housing estate near a high school and with good transport access to the nearby cities. A small percentage of them will be “affordable” too. Hurrah! The only catch? Seventy families currently living there will have to be evicted first. As covered in the latest blog here on Homeless Reunite, these families, which include my own, have lived there for a long time – some were miners and moved there when they were owned by the coal board back in the 1950s. It’s a community. And a predominantly low-income and retired one at that. Very few are guaranteed rehousing, only those that are “lucky enough” to have the (now non-existent) assured tenancy agreements (and even then, they could be moved to the outskirts of Leeds). Even fewer are eligible for the types of mortgages the new development will require. That’s why they’re living in low rent in the first place. My family moved there twelve years ago, relieved to find something affordable and safe after we lost our home at short notice and weren’t offered any council house options suitable for a family of four, even on the priority list. Our story isn’t unique in the community.
Figure 1: Wordsworth Drive, Oulton. Photo credit: Hazell Field tw: @dunstable08
Sugar Hill Close and Wordsworth Drive are essentially a 21st century council estate – old council housing stock sold off for a quick budget-win, or as part of the home ownership promise, in the 1980s. Remarkably, they’ve remained low rent this long. It’s the only safety net non-home owners can hope for in an age of ever-unaffordable deposits and mortgages. And yet, here we are. Months away from the streets, again.
Two of Pemberstone’s key arguments that this redevelopment is necessary and unproblematic are that i) the houses are not fit for purpose and ii) it’s a transient rental population anyway. Both arguments are not only wrong, but wilfully misrepresent the community.
Mining Heritage and a Connected Community
The history of our estate is a rich one, with the development of houses and a community closely interlinked with the development of mining in the region. In the 19th century the land was owned by a dominant sandstone family, the Blayds (nee Calverley), whose quarried sandstone produce came to define the town. As well as being an important site for sandstone quarrying, Oulton and Woodlesford has been key sites of coal mining for centuries.
In 1955, the Calverley family sold the land on which Oulton Estate now sits to the National Coal Board (NCB), as coal production had been nationalised by the Labour government nine years earlier. The Calverley’s owned much of the land in Oulton, and their vision for the area surrounding the estate was that it should be residential and community orientated. Wordsworth Drive, Sugar Hill Close and the surrounding streets were designated in the covenants of the sale for “dwellinghouses” only – no commercial properties, except two shops. Neighbouring fields were sold with the proviso that they remain recreational for one hundred years after transfer (and there remains a rugby club and sports fields on this site).
Figure 2: The Oulton Drive Estate being constructed in the early 1950s. Image courtesy of Howard Benson.
There was a housing shortage for miners in the area, so the NCB soon designated these houses as homes for nearby pits, including Water Haigh Colliery. Construction had begun around 1953 and the estate was rapidly filled with miners and their families (see Fig. 1. For a picture of the early years of the estate. More archive images and local history can be found here: http://newwoodlesford.xyz/).
These new NCB homes were “prefabs” (or prefabricated houses) made in Airey design, named after Sir Edwin Airey, a Leeds-born construction magnate and one-time Lord Mayor of Leeds. Airey houses and other prefabs sprung up in significant numbers across the country after the war, as there was an urgent need for an expanded housing stock and a shortage of materials. Originally built with a lifespan of a few decades, they have broadly proven themselves to be robust and comfortable houses, with countless surviving to the present day. Many cite their listing under the Housing Defects Act of 1984 as justification for their demolition, but this was originally passed to provide assistance to those who wanted to buy and repair them under the Right to Buy. Thousands still exist across the country, most of which have been brought up to modern standards at a relatively little cost – some for less than £10,000 per house by local housing associations and councils (thanks to the PreFab museum for this information)… renovations that Pemberstone is unwilling to do in our case.
The residents of the Oulton estate were unfortunately (and, some argue, scandalously) not given the right to buy their homes from the NCB, when other council houses across the country were being sold off to their tenants. Citing structural reasons, many residents were informed that they would not be able to get insurance or a mortgage. This history is certainly contested, with NCB archive documents from 1983 suggesting that the inspections up to that point had not turned up any defects in the properties. Nonetheless, individual sales never occurred and the NCB finally sold the estate to a private company in 1986. Just a few years later the whole estate was partitioned, with Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close remaining as affordable rentals in their original Airey design, and Oulton Drive and the rest of the estate being redeveloped to market value semi-detached houses.
Despite these ownership controversies, and the redevelopment of a large part of the estate, the original tenants – the coalboarders as they were known – have remained a tight knit community. Many coalboarders who lived there from the 1950s and 60s have kept in contact via social media long after leaving the estate, and have welcomed new members and new memories as people have moved in. A few old coalboarders I have spoken in recent months told me of being born in the front rooms of these houses, or meeting their future spouses as children in the neighbouring streets.
Several miners and their families remain in Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close. And among the other households who have moved in since the NCB sold it in the 1980s, that community connectedness remains. Neighbours socialise with each other, assist with odd-jobs around the house, looks after pets on holidays and offer help when illness strikes. This is why everyone rallied together and so quickly formed a Residents Action Group to fight this eviction – there is no disconnectedness, no transience here. At least five of the families have lived here more than four decades, with the remaining majority being long-term rents.
This is a community. A connected community with historic roots to the town, living in iconic post-war houses. And they, my family and the 69 other families currently renting from Pemberstone, have nowhere else to go. The new houses will be as unaffordable as the developments were in neighbouring streets a decade or so ago. Other rentals in Oulton are not only significantly more expensive, but they are not clustered together and are insufficient in number to comfortably rehome everyone near schools, work-places, family and friends. The council’s only available “safety net” is a 72 week+ waiting list once everyone is already homeless.
The silent scandal
The decision over the fate of Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close is due in the next few months. I worry that my family’s eviction won’t make the same headlines as other council estate evictions have made over the years. When these coal board houses were sold decades ago, with it was sold the rights of any future tenants to a long-term home. Everyone expects the market to be cruel, for developers to care more about profit than people. The Landlord’s Right. People roll their eyes in empathetic pity at the state of private housing in this country and shrug their shoulders when we ask them if we have a chance of fighting it. But why is it any different to the other scandals?
Mass evictions by private landlords do not make news because we are still talking about state responsibility for housing as if that’s the way the majority of low income families have a roof over their heads. It should be, but it’s not. It’s not for my family, I bet it’s increasingly not for yours either.
We are in the final months of this battle, and we would appreciate your support in any way possible. Help us prevent this unnecessary eviction happening. Sign our petition, tweet our story #SaveOurHomesLS26, email or tweet Sajid Javid, MP Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government about our case.