- Interview by
- Lily Gordon Brown
Residents of the Oulton Estate in south Leeds have been engaged in an unrelenting battle to save their community since 2017, when property management company Pemberstone Ltd began attempting to demolish their homes to make way for executive housing. Originally built by the National Coal Board to house miners following post-war nationalisation, the estate is home to a tight-knit community of more than 60 working-class families that has stood for almost 70 years.
Pemberstone’s plans – described as “social cleansing” by local politicians and campaigners – have met with considerable opposition. The campaign launched by the residents of LS26 is one of tenacity and collective spirit; illustrating the inter-connectedness that bonds the community together. As soon as the investment fund made their intentions known, the community came together and launched what is now known as the ‘Save Our Homes’ campaign.
Action against Pemberstone has taken many forms including media outreach, peaceful protests outside the Civic Hall and fundraising at local events. The LS26 campaign also saw the emergence of the local Residents Action Group, concerned chiefly with safeguarding the homes of the families who still occupy the area. This attempted destruction of a longstanding working-class community is indicative of a wider trend across the UK’s housing landscape, and the campaigners have received solidarity from people and groups across the country – from trade unions, engineering companies, planning experts and individuals offering expertise, funding and messages of support.
Despite an initial victory for the LS26 community in 2019 – when Leeds City Council (LCC) rejected the planning proposals – Pemberstone lodged an appeal, throwing the weight of their money and power against the council as well as the residents. In the midst of the appeal, taking place as we speak, ACORN Leeds got a chance to catch up with some of the campaign’s leading figures.
Here LS26 activists Cindy Readman and Jo Robinson speak with Leeds ACORN’s Lily Gordon Brown. You can support the LS26 campaign on their crowdfunder.
The History of LS26
I’d like to get an idea of the histories of your community. I understand that the homes which now comprise Sugar Hill Close and Wordsworth Drive were initially built as ‘short-term’ housing, and often housed those who moved to the area to work at the mining colliery in Rothwell.
The houses were built in the 1950s, designed by a Leeds man Sir Edwin Airey [a construction magnate of the city]. They quickly needed housing stock after the war. Originally, they were meant for miners that worked in the area. In the 1980s, part was demolished, rebuilt and sold off to a private company, leaving the 70 which remain now. There was talk of the tenants buying up the properties, some even had mortgages secured, but the offer was pulled at the last minute; it was then in private rent, but they were guaranteed a home. The estate was sold to Pemberstone around 2004.
Where did Pemberstone suddenly get the incentive to proceed with demolishing your houses in 2017?
There was no indication prior to 2017 that this was their thinking. We know that they recently paid off a loan, which could have something to do with the decision to proceed with demolition. There were still some regulated tenants occupying the estate following the initial privatisation, and I guess that provided us with a false sense of security.
I really can’t understand why they have made such a sudden decision.
Do you think this bears any relation to the political trends in the country, particularly the likes of Jenrick pushing forward the prospect of “sustainable growth” in these communities? Is this an attempted “justification” for what both the government and investment companies are trying to achieve?
I wouldn’t say it’s entirely related to Jenrick. I think we’ve gone through four Tory housing ministers since the campaign started. We start a dialogue with one of them, and then they leave. Which has definitely hindered the process.
Beyond the estate itself, have noticed a rise in housing prices or a gentrification of the area?
Oulton and Woodlesford is classed as quite a “nice” area. The estate backs onto fields, surrounded by countryside, which could be seen as profitable. That could’ve certainly impacted their decision.
Getting on to the campaign, and the appeal, could you tell us about your past dealings with Pemberstone, and the series of events that triggered your organising against them since 2017?
In September 2017, we received a flyer through the door, though it came with a number of others, so not everybody noticed it. The flyer was inviting us to a “consultation: evening. “Consultation” was a very loose term. As we headed to the Sports Centre, where it was being held, we were confronted with loads of big pictures of nice new-builds, 3-4-bedroom houses. I immediately asked the one person who was there representing Pemberstone, “these houses aren’t going to be us, they are not going to be for rental”, and she just shrugged. That’s all we got. The only thing we were given was a small questionnaire. It wasn’t a consultation.
No, it wasn’t a consultation at all. They were just there to tell us what was happening, and that we were essentially ‘getting in the way.’
Taking on Pemberstone
Did the ‘Save Our Homes’ campaign emerge quickly following the initial ‘consultation’?
Yes, we got on to the phone immediately to the local council. We had a meeting with Leeds City Council (LCC) Housing. We knew how quickly we had to get started with it, and the campaign grew from there.
Was there already a strong sense of community prior to Pemberstone’s action in 2017 or has this campaign brought you together in a way that was previously inconceivable? And has this strengthened the campaign in any way?
I think it has brought us closer together. But there has always been a community here. We have always got on well with our close neighbours, as well as people down the street. And we have been here for 15 years. Our children played out on the streets, everyone looked out for them, made sure everybody was alright. You get to know your neighbours really well. The way that the houses and gardens are laid out. It has definitely strengthened the campaign.
What modes of organisation have you undertaken since the campaign begun?
To begin with, we took advice from whoever we could, because we had very little knowledge of organising, we’d never run a campaign before. We took advice from whoever offered it. We set up a Twitter and a Facebook page. Hazel runs the Twitter page really well, always on it, always tweeting! That is how we got going at first, through that we got introduced to other people. We also did a few news reports to start with. We were invited to the Leeds May-Day trade union march. That helped us meet lots of people and organisations.
Are there any organisations in particular who you’d like to highlight here?
How has Covid affected the campaign?
The main thing the pandemic has affected is our fundraising. We have in the past been down to local fairs in Rothwell, and conducted a tombola to raise money. We’ve now had to rely on social media, reaching out to people and unions.
On that point, have you had much response or support from some of the larger, national unions?
It has been the local branches that we’ve contacted. We’ve had donations from the GMB, from Unite, from various branches of the Labour Party and the National Union of Miners (NUM). We got a massive donation from the NUM; they gave us the ability to pay for our legal costs in the first place. That was a big weight off our shoulders, they paid the first instalment which got the campaign up and running. We need the support; the legal costs are £20,000. And we need it, she [legal adviser] has been absolutely amazing both before and during the enquiry.
It has been a rocky road for the campaign. The win in 2019 must have brought you some alleviation. But Pemberstone came back with a blow. How has this constant oscillation affected the psychological well-being of the community?
It is definitely affecting the community’s mental health. Especially me, I feel sick at the thought of losing my home. I really do. And I am sure many people on the estate feel the same as well.
I am giving evidence at the appeal next week, and all the reports I have had from people, the effect it has had on their mental and physical health is immense, because of the anxiety it has caused.
Am I right in thinking you asked if the council would buy the estate?
We have had numerous meetings with the council. By November, we’d done a deputation to the Council. Martin Farrington was meant to be answering that for us. Right from the start, they didn’t think they could because of funds. They never told us, however, that they were offered the estate. We’ve only found out via the enquiry. We are not sure what the offer was, but we know Pemberstone estimate the worth of the estate at £3.6 million, whether or not they’d sell it for less than that, I don’t know.
The appeal started last Tuesday [6th October]. How was the conduct from Pemberstone in the lead-up?
Well they’ve never really engaged with us to be quite honest. In the whole process in the last three years I think we had one meeting with them, which we had to really badger the people at the council to arrange for us.
And when does the appeal end?
It finishes next Friday [16th October], but then the inspector is coming out to the estate on the 21st and he’s got to write his report which can take anything from two to three weeks. So we’re not going to know for quite a while yet.
In what ways does the current appeal differ from the last time you were up against them in 2019?
Well that was the local council, so it was all done locally and we could attend the meeting. It went to Plans Panel twice: first it was deferred, and then in October they refused it on the community aspect of the estate. But in the enquiry they really are picking apart that community aspect, and saying that there won’t be a community there because now there’s empty houses and the community’s already disappearing.
Do you think the struggle you’re having to face is reflecting a wider trend in the future of housing and development in the UK?
For years and years there’s been that thing about social housing, hasn’t there? That apparently you’re the lowest of the low if you live in social housing. I think some people have this vision that people who live in social housing are on benefits and sponging off the government and it’s not the case – most of the people on this estate work, but they work in low paid jobs. And just because you can’t get on the housing ladder doesn’t mean to say you aren’t entitled to a house, and you’re not entitled to a home for life if you want it. That’s what gets me, is the fact that you’re treated as second-class citizens because it’s like: “you rent, so why should you be entitled to a house?” You could be turfed out at any time because it’s not yours.
Where else have you found support? Where do you think people in similar situations in future can look to?
Social media’s been a huge help for us, and reaching out to local and national media has also helped. There are certain groups that might not be on social media, but they read papers and then they get in touch with you. We have been in contact with so many people that have either been in a similar situation or want to help. Most people that you meet are so kind and they think it’s terrible, you can’t understand how people like Pemberstone think this is alright. We’ve met so many people that think it’s morally wrong.
It’s beyond me how you can treat people like this.
From an outsider’s perspective what you’re doing is very inspirational. I think a lot of people don’t know that it’s their right to fight. Landlords and the likes of Pemberstone hope that they can do these things and communities won’t stand up for themselves.
People just accept things because they think that’s just the way it is, but you can fight – the proof of that is what we’re doing. They’ve certainly come up against some fighters with us!
At what point did they put in their appeal?
They had 6 months to do it, and they did right at the very end. Their excuse was: “oh we didn’t know there was going to be a pandemic and we tried to get it put back.” But did they? When we had the preliminary phone call with the inspector to establish when this was going to take place, he was saying: “well, we can wait and do this at a time when we can have it face to face in a court.” Straight away their barrister was like: “no, no, no. It’s got to be sorted out straight away, we can’t wait any longer.” So he wasn’t willing to put it back at all.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Whatever happens in this appeal, I think there’s a great danger that people are going to get their eviction notices. If they lose the appeal I’m pretty certain that’s going to be their next step. Then we’ll have empty houses so it doesn’t matter, does it? Because there won’t be a community there.
The other thing they’re using is a survey conducted around January. According to that, some of the houses need work doing to them in the next year. But our structural engineers affirm that they’re not going to fall down during this time, and their system would be a solution. They’re experts – they’ve done houses all over the country, for about a third of the price that Pemberstone proposes they’d spend.
These two blokes from this engineering company, they came and had a look round the estate, left us their details, and I got in touch with them. They have given evidence at this enquiry, all off their own backs. They’re not charging us, they want to help us. And that’s the type of people that we’ve met. Our planning expert is doing it all off his own back, because he just thinks it’s wrong. Sometimes you think that society is full of awful people, but we have met so many good people. It renews your faith in the world.