This post is an open letter to Susmita Sen, Chief Executive of Tower Hamlets Homes and John Biggs, Mayor of Tower Hamlets. It could, however, relate to any number of social housing providers and local authorities throughout the country. It is written as a last resort and shouldn’t need to be written at all. It is slightly rambling but sets out what residents can achieve when supported and trusted to look after their homes and the damage that is done when officers ignore and appear to work against residents.
I live on the Boundary Estate, Bethnal Green in Tower Hamlets and I’m incredibly proud to do so. It has been my home since 1990 and I’ve lived in my current flat since 1992. Throughout my time as a tenant I have been engaged with my community, at various times was chair of the Tenants & Residents Association and have played a part in various resident-led projects. I’m a founding and current director of the Boundary Community Launderette, an award-winning not-for-profit community enterprise that was set up by residents and has been open since 1992. I was involved in the refurbishment of the Boundary Estate playground on Camlet Street and helped set up the community planters scheme in 1999 which has seen residents maintain and pay for the upkeep of planters in courtyards throughout the estate. All of these projects were created by residents and, with the exception of the playground which is now returned to LBTH/THH care, are funded and maintained by residents with no input from Tower Hamlets Homes. I am no slouch when it comes to being involved in my community, when I take something on I see it through. I believe that to thrive communities need to be engaged and encouraged, and that on an estate like the Boundary which provides social housing to one of the poorest areas in the UK, whilst at the same time being slap-bang in the middle of one the trendiest areas in the country where Right-to-Buy properties are being sold on for £600,000+, engagement and encouragement are sorely needed yet sadly lacking from the landlord. Why do I think that resident engagement and encouragement is lacking on the Boundary Estate? Because of my own experiences and those of many neighbours who often tell me of the problems they have experienced.
Enough of the history and preamble. Last year I finally got my own planters through the community planters scheme to place under two of my windows that face directly onto the street. I had been waiting for them for some time and permission was given for me to place them under my windows years ago. Since I’ve had the planters incidents of anti-social behaviour near my windows has virtually stopped, they have improved the streetscape and are appreciated by the majority of my neighbours. I spoke with 5 of the 8 other people who have ground-floor flats facing directly onto the street and all were interested in having planters. I approached my local councillor for support in getting planters for all those who wanted them – he’s a particularly well engaged and community-minded councillor who listens, understands and works hard for his constituents. Within weeks we met on the estate together with a Tower Hamlets council officer, visited the area where the planters would go and walked around the courtyards to see how residents have maintained existing planters. The LBTH officer – another well engaged, community minded person – agreed to help raise funds and get a group of volunteers to install the planters. The estate officer was contacted but felt the scheme wasn’t the right one, that ‘vulnerable residents with overgrown private gardens’ needed such help more than residents suffering from anti-social behaviour that the scheme could reduce. It is worth noting here that the Boundary Estate has 20 Grade II listed blocks that are tenement style with no private gardens, and a 1970s block where the ground-floor flats have small gardens none of which appear overgrown. The estate officer, when challenged, effectively backed down and has had nothing further to do with the project. In August a ‘Neighbourhood Engagement Officer’ from THH took over, came for a visit with the LBTH officer and me to see what was needed and seemed really keen. He went away saying he fully understood what was needed, would obtain the required tubs from the Decent Homes contractor and consult the ground floor flats. By October the consultation had not been done. In the last week of October some of the ground floor flats received letters stating Tower Hamlets Homes would be placing planters near windows to reduce or eliminate anti-social behaviour. It wasn’t a consultation but a statement of intent that THH was going to place planters under some windows and if anyone had queries to contact him, there was no mention that this was a resident initiative and no mention of the significant involvement of LBTH. Needless to say the person concerned was contacted to say this wasn’t quite what had been agreed. His response was, in effect, residents couldn’t really be relied upon to look after the planters. He has been challenged on this but as yet has not responded to me. It is incredibly clear he either hadn’t listened when we met or decided such a scheme wasn’t something residents could ultimately be trusted with despite proof that over years residents have created a great deal to be proud of.
This may on the surface be a silly whinge about planters but it goes far deeper, it is a prime example of how residents are discouraged from being engaged in their community and taking ownership of it. These are our homes, we know the problems we face and what can be done to improve where we live. When trusted we can really achieve good things. Tower Hamlets Homes appears not to trust the Boundary Estate residents.
This matter needs to be resolved, and swiftly. The local councillor and Tower Hamlets council officer have been incredibly supportive, there is no criticism of them at all. Similarly the caretakers on the estate do an incredible job. Where criticism lies is with the office-based staff whose job is to work with tenants and residents but instead do, in the experience of many Boundary Estate residents, work against them. It is incredibly difficult to communicate with the estate officer, and in many ways I don’t think it is entirely the estate officers fault. Until 2008 we had an estate office on Calvert Avenue which had four estate officers purely for the Boundary. Our estate office is now at Rushmead and the 500+ properties are managed by one estate officer who is also responsible for another estate. It is an incredibly difficult job. There are some tenants who require a lot of support, the Boundary Estate is Grade II listed as it is, after all, Britain’s first planned council estate, and as a result its maintenance requires extra expense and the specialist knowledge of more than one estate officer. Because of this it is often the last estate to get any planned maintenance works done, for example the bathroom and kitchen replacements under the Decent Homes schemes only began here two years ago and there are still properties awaiting upgrade. This on an estate when the last time such work was done was in the late 1970s. I have lived in my current flat for a little over 23 years which, until I had the kitchen and bathroom works two years ago, the last time major works was undertaken. This was roof replacement, window overhaul and central heating installation.None of the flats have double glazing – the listing status apparently doesn’t allow for it – and we are still awaiting window replacement under Decent Homes.
We suffer from a great deal of anti-social behaviour on the streets and courtyards within the estate and in the neighbouring streets. Drug dealing is rife and carried out shamelessly in broad daylight. The estate lies between Brick Lane and Shoreditch’s night-clubs and bars, and at night residential streets are used as cut-throughs with the resultant unpleasant problems of noise and aggression, the walls of our homes being used as toilets and our windowsills as seats or handy places to leave bottles, cans and, occasionally, less pleasant items. The estate officer knows about this and knows some of the instigators are residents yet nothing appears to be done. It is primarily a police matter but they too are not fully engaged with residents and they have very limited visibility on the streets, and when called take upwards of an hour to respond if at all.
These are matters that the chief executive of Tower Hamlets Homes and the Mayor of Tower Hamlets need to tackle together. It isn’t just a problem on the Boundary Estate, indeed it isn’t only a Tower Hamlets problem. Social housing is receiving a battering and we need to prove it works and is good for all. It starts with small projects like the planters, and trusting the people most affected – tenants and residents. Talk to us, work with us. Please.
Philip Green, aka A Pootler
Planters created and maintained by residents. Hardly examples of abandonment.