What Happened Next…

Last November I wrote a post in the form of an open letter to Susmita Sen, Chief Executive of Tower Hamlets Homes, and John Biggs, Mayor of Tower Hamlets. It led to a very productive meeting and walkabout on the Boundary Estate with an honest and positive discussion between Ms. Sen and I, and helped to get many of the problems described in the ‘letter’ aired. To be frank not all of the matters are yet resolved – I’m not so disconnected from the real world not to understand that the Boundary Estate isn’t the only estate to suffer from anti-social behaviour, poor engagement or underfunding – but things are looking more positive. The major change has been the successful completion of the community planters on Camlet Street on May 26th. These have already had a major effect on community morale with neighbours working together to maintain the planters, residents in other blocks looking at the scheme and wishing to emulate it and great reactions from people walking along the street which has included a reduction in dropped rubbish and noise. There are still some issues but they need concerted multi-agency efforts to resolve.

But on with the good news.

The community planter project’s success was due in no small part to the work of Sam Dundas-Dunbar, Tower Hamlets Community Payback & Volunteer Co-ordinator, and her colleague Christie Gennings. They organised a great team of volunteers from Broadridge who, under the guidance of local resident and master carpenter Pete Locker, built the frames for the tubs, installed and helped plant them up. Nassar Ali of Tower Hamlets Homes provided crucial support in finally sorting things out for the project and obtaining funding, and to the team from THH who helped on the day. Last but not least thanks is owed to Mears Group provided the crucial tubs after the original ones set aside went missing, so thanks to Lucas Critchley, Jane Nelson, Gary Kennett, Masooma Ahmed and their team for saving the scheme, and providing plants and great help on the day.

The success of this project proves that residents can work to bring about positive change that is of benefit to their community, and that if supported and listened to their ideas can lead to benefits for the wider community. Sometimes having to resort to social media to be heard can appear, and indeed feel, like an act of desperation and isn’t always a pleasant way to resolve situations. However as I wander along Camlet Street and see the difference made to my community I’m prepared to resort to such acts as often as I need to to highlight matters that need to be resolved.

London, United Kingdom - Thursday 26 May 2016, THH - Boundary estate planters.

All those who helped make the Camlet Street planters happen. Photo: Rehan Jamil

The next major project residents are working in is the Boundary Estate Fun Palace on October 1st, (find it on Facebook and follow @palace_fun),  part of the Fun Palaces weekend. 

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Housing Day 2015 – Why I’m a Proud Tenant

As a proud tenant of social housing who has blogged about the pressures faced in my particular neighbourhood I was approached and asked if I would contribute to the Housing Day 2015 online blogs, and was happy take part. I tend to ramble and my article was edited to fit on the 24Dash.com blog, but here it is in full:

I’ve been a proud tenant since 1987 when I was first granted a tenancy by Tower Hamlet’s Council, something that even almost thirty years ago was an incredibly difficult thing to obtain. I have very definite views of the need for and importance of social housing to serve all sections of the population, regardless of status or income, and find the narrative being driven by some politicians and media that the only aspiration should be to home ownership incredibly depressing. My home for the past 26 years has been on the Boundary Estate in Bethnal Green, Britain’s first planned council estate, a rather beautiful collection of Grade-II listed mansion-style blocks grouped around large courtyards with a bandstand and gardens at its heart. It was tucked away at the light-industrial end of Bethnal Green, surrounded by major roads, empty and under-used factories and close to the former Bishopsgate goods yard which was then a parking place for lorries using the nearby Spitalfields fruit and vegetable market. When I first moved onto the estate I had a choice of flats as the estate was seen as hard-to-let, and when I needed to move to a ground floor property as the result of worsening health I was told to wander round and make a note of which flats looked empty! It’s hard to believe today that the very same estate lies slap-bang between two of the trendiest parts of London, Brick Lane and Shoreditch, and that properties change hands for amounts in excess of £700,000.

From my very first tenancy I have always been engaged with my estate and the wider community, and given the nature of the Boundary Estate when I first moved here there was an incredibly strong tenant and resident group. It had seen off the first attempt of social housing privatisation, the dreaded ‘Housing Action Trusts’, organised regular carnivals and raised funds for playground refurbishments and other activities. Eventually I became chair of the TRA at a time when, because of the then governments policies, Tower Hamlets started to see a lot of change. The redevelopment of Spitalfields Market in the late 1980s meant that there was planning gain funding available for sustainable community enterprises. With the help of the Environment Trust the TRA managed to secure funding for a project the residents of the estate wanted – a launderette. The launderette opened in September 1992 after 3 years of fundraising and setting up, and two awards and 23 years later it is still running with me still one of  two original directors still overseeing the project. Smaller projects followed, greening the courtyards with planters funded and maintained by residents and the refurbishment of a football/basketball court and playground.

In the past ten years or so the area has changed quite markedly, the past five years or so being the most dramatic and creating huge challenges on the estate. As with most local authorities Tower Hamlets council handed its housing over to ALMOs and the Boundary became part of Tower Hamlets Homes, and this change together with wider social change on the estate caused the collapse of the TRA. The recent rapid increase in property prices, the demographic and social changes in the Brick Lane/Shoreditch area all played their part. I had not been playing an active role within the community due to ill health since around 2004, (apart from continuing as a voluntary director overseeing the community business), but latterly seeing the community I care about so much, and where I have lived half my life, I have become engaged once more as I see the estate in danger of becoming one of two communities divided by income with little understanding of each other. The Boundary Estate, as I mentioned earlier, is a rather special place and this has now turned it into one of the more desirable places with high property prices and absentee landlords renting out former right to but properties at three to four times the social rents. This has meant that council/THH tenants and high income private tenants and leaseholders live next door to each other. Surrounding streets are now trendy shopping destinations with little affordable or useful to the majority of residents. Calvert Avenue, a shopping street designed to serve the estate with Tower Hamlets owned commercial properties on the ground floor of two blocks, now only has the community launderette, a barber, newsagent and a not-for-profit cafe run by the Spitalfields Crypt Trust that are affordable to all amongst expensive and exclusive designer shops. Such sudden change and the marketing of the Boundary Estate by estate agents as ‘Arnold Circus’ (the road that surrounds Boundary Gardens and the bandstand) has created anti-social behaviour problems and tensions on the estate. Drug dealing and drunkenness are ever-present with the police and local authority seemingly unable to deal effectively with the problem.

So much for the doom and gloom, the Boundary Estate despite everything still has a strong community at its heart and it will survive. In response to the effects of the anti-social behaviour and the lack of an effective TRA to speak on our behalf I managed to get two large flower tubs underneath two of my windows which has drastically reduced the incidents and effects of anti-social behaviour.  A large number of flats like mine have windows that face directly onto the pavement with no protection, some less than a metre above the ground. My neighbours have seen the positive effect and worth of the planters so, with the help of our incredibly proactive local councillor and a Tower Hamlets council officer, I’ve have organised for the ground floor flats in my block to have their own tubs to plant and maintain. This hasn’t been easy to organise with Tower Hamlets Homes but hopefully problems are being ironed out and we’ll have them in place by spring 2016. I have been heartened by the way people have been bought together in pursuit of sorting out the anti-social behaviour and hope that it will lead to people starting to trust and work with each other again and, hopefully, this will lead to a new tenant a resident association being formed. I’m also working on another project for the estate as part of Fun Palaces in 2016. Fun Palaces principles are that each Fun Palace is free, local, innovative, transformative and engaging. They are created by their local communities and can be whatever local communities want them to be in terms of fun, education, arts, sciences and sports and benefit from an ongoing national campaign simultaneous action. I’ve spoken with a large number of local residents who are all keen to have an event as part of Fun Palaces, our local councillor is keen and supportive, our MP is interested and our local community centre is keen and looking at how it can best help us. A proper committee of residents will be set up to make this work and will, along with schemes like the planters, create positive interaction and lead to an engaged community once more. I have blogged about the problems and niggles me and my community are faced with and as a result have been buoyed up by the resultant support and encouragement. We may need to fight – as social housing tenants we’re used to that – but we will remain strong and face what is thrown at us.

I feel quite nervous of the future for all social housing due to the damaging actions of this government. I see neighbours suffering overcrowding, with little chance of finding even three bedroom properties for two parents with two boys and two girls, and one bedroom properties for single people like me are now virtually non-existent. The government policy of widening right to buy to housing associations and also changing their remit and status is short-sighted and dangerous. Everyone has a right to a home – it’s one of the articles on the Declaration of Human Rights – and it is the duty of governments to ensure that every one of its citizens has access to decent housing. That doesn’t mean creating markets and forcing everyone to feel that have to buy property to be an active member of their community, it means providing the means for those who can’t afford to buy or do not wish to buy property can rent affordably from social landlords. It makes financial sense – if encouraging individuals to obtain mortgages is a good idea then so is allowing local authorities to do the same. A regular, reliable and controlled income stream will pay for the properties thereby giving communities assets and funds to use to increase the supply as needed and maintain them properly. Social housing providers, local authorities and tenants need to listen to each other, work together and challenge what is being done to us. That is why #ProudTenant is important and I am very pleased to be one!

You can find loads more really interesting pieces on social housing by following #housingday and #proudtenant on Twitter, and you can find out more online about the Boundary Community Launderette, Boundary Estate Fun Palace and Fun Palaces.

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An Open Letter re: How Not to Encourage Resident Engagement

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

Email: apootler@gmail.com

Planters created and maintained by residents. Hardly examples of abandonment.

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