Getting Organised at Longlands House, Barton Hill

Back in January I started door-knocking in Longlands House, one of the four iconic high-rise Barton Hill tower blocks situated around Urban Park. Working my way down from the top floor (I like to work with gravity not against it!), I asked people what they loved about the block and the area, what concerned them and what they’d like to see change in the future.

At first, nothing major seemed to jump out at me from the listening work. But then I noticed a theme to people’s concerns. Many people were experiencing inadequate heating after a newly-installed Integral heating system. People on the top floors of Longlands House were telling me that they were frequently cold and had resorted to buying additional blankets for the bed and wearing extra layers of clothing in the house. People with babies were especially concerned that their flats were cold. One man wouldn’t even get out from under his duvet to talk to me because he was shivering – I kept my coat on and crouched by the radiator!

 

As I continued listening, other issues emerged. After I’d listened to most of the people on each floor, I turned the list of loves and concerns into a flyer and posted it through every door. The result was a couple of phone calls and texts from people telling me they agreed strongly with the words on the flyer and wanted to see some change. I asked if they’d be prepared to come to a short meeting.

We had to meet at Barton Hill Settlement, since there is no accessible communal area at Longlands House. For a year or two, the community room at Longlands House has been used as a coffee break room by caretakers on the estate. This prevented tenants from meeting on site to organise themselves, and this was added to the list of concerns.

From the meeting, it was decided that things people loved about Longlands House were:

* Generally safe (thanks to gates and CCTV, although there are some issues around the usefulness of these)

* Generally quiet

* Nice people

The group then decided to focus on the concerns and ideas for change. The main things that came up were:

* Poor heating (radiators and water not getting hot)

* Inadequate cleaning of communal hallways and laundry areas

* Too few washing machines in the laundry (three machines only, while most other blocks have four)

* The outside of the block being grimy and covered in moss (“It makes you ashamed to live here” as one resident said.)

* No community room

The group decided to draft a kind of consultation document – part petition, part survey. It listed the top 5 concerns and asked tenants to tick which they thought was the most relevant. They then created a row for each of the 86 flats and decided to get someone from every flat to sign. After much hard work door-knocking and setting up flip charts and “Cake and Chat!” tables in the lobby, the group managed to meet and get a signature from 66% of the flats. Except for one person, EVERYBODY they met readily agreed to sign the petition.

The next step was to get the petition to the council. Should we post it in or go in person, we wondered. Then we realised it would be much better to get the Council to come to us. The local housing officer, Maria Connor, agreed to come and do a walk-around of the building and officially receive the group’s petition. She was joined by Craig Boston, the caretaking site manager. 

After listening to the group’s concerns, Maria has approached the relevant staff at Bristol City Council and asked them to respond within 14 days. We’ll see what the outcome is.

 

 

The group’s next move is to form a Tenant’s Association. But without any communal space on site, where will they meet? This shows how important space and infrastructure are to how power is organised. Without a meeting room, it’s hard to have a functioning group. However, Maria and Craig seemed to be listening to the group and have put the wheels in motion for returning the community room back to its intended users – the residents.

What have your experiences been of voicing concerns to the council about housing? Perhaps you have concerns about your social housing or landlord? It would be good to hear about it.

UPDATE:

Longlands House Action Group have achieved 3 positive results!

1. A fourth washing machine has been given the go ahead for installation.

2. Overtime has been agreed for caretakers to better clean maintain the laundries.

3. Caretakers have been given the go-ahead to clean the full length of corridors and up to people’s front doors.

Great results! Now we just have to ensure everything goes ahead as agreed.

 

 

 

 

 

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Listening in Easton

Every time I door knock and have a chat with someone I write down what they said. But if all that was then just filed away what would the point be? In the longer term the aim is for the residents group to look at them to decide what their priorities for action are. In the meantime, to turn all that data into useful infomation for action I put it into a handy little tool called Tagul which generates word clouds. The bigger the word, the more people what said it.

Here are the themes generated from recent listenings in the area I’ve been concentrating on in Easton. First up – loves and concerns – some of them might be fairly specific to that area, but you can get the general idea:


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And here are the ideas for action to improve the community:


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And here’s what people said when i asked them about how they have a say over what happens in their area,if they want to have a say – and why not if they don’t. It says quite a lot about the (percieved) state of local democracy:



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Who Benefits? part one: Housing

When my family first came to live in the UK from Ireland in the 60s, they rented a flat from a private landlord. I was still a twinkle in their eyes. My sister was probably about 5 years old by then. The flat was in a terrible shape – damp and mould amongst other things – which lead to my sister getting ill.

They went to see a doctor,who in his role as a care giver and a non-box ticker, was concerned enough to recommend they get housed by the council, and he supported them to do this.

So they ended up living in a council flat in Birmingham. Rent was affordable, there seemed to be plenty of work (they recently said to me it wasn’t a cliche that you could walk out of one job and walk into another the next day!). Not perfect by any means, but life was moving on.

At some point, in the early 70′s, mortgages ‘appeared’ – they were easy to come by with low or no deposits – and the monthly payments were less than the rent.

The average wage in 1971 was around £2,000 a year, with the average house selling for £5,632: your home could be bought for less than three times your earnings.

So I was born, my sister grew up, left home and started her own family, and my mum and dad retired, living in their house where they have a spare bedroom for when visitors come to stay, and where they keep odd bits that they don’t want to throw out.Nice.

So fast forward to 2013.

If my mum and dad were still in the council flat then they would have paid rent for over 40 years. At some point in the late 80′s the flat would have paid for itself and have started generating profit for the government, even after ongoing maintenance costs. Social housing is *not* subsidised. This money could have been used to increase the council stock, for example, to spread affordable housing wider into society, to fund self build co operatives increasing tenants control or to replace the houses bought during the ‘Right to Buy’ era. All of this would have counteracted the endless rise of private rents.

If my mum or dad had lost their jobs or had their hours cut to part time then they would have probably claimed housing benefit – a payment to cover the cost of rent paid to private and social landlords.

Anyway, so in 2013, they would have recently received a letter from the council informing them that if they claim housing benefit they should expect it to be cut by 14%. The reason for this is that they have a ‘spare’ bedroom. This is called the ‘bedroom tax’.

The stated aim is to match up those who have extra rooms with those that need the rooms. Sounds sensible yes? Well according to the DWP:

‘According to estimates from DCLG there is a surplus of three bedroom properties, based on the profile of existing working age tenants in receipt of Housing Benefit, and a lack of one bedroom accommodation in the social sector. In many areas this mismatch could mean that there are insufficient properties to enable tenants to move to accommodation of an appropriate size even if tenants wished to move and landlords were able to facilitate this movement.’

Another stated aim is to reduce the cost of the housing benefit bill. Many of those moving out will end up in one bedroom private accommodation. This will increase the size of the housing benefit bill as a one bed private rent costs more than a two bed social rent.

The other stated aim is that this policy will encourage people to ‘GET A JOB!’ Problem here is that many of em already have one! More than 90 per cent of new housing benefit claims over the past two years have been made by employed people, as squeezed workers seek help with their living costs.

So as it only applies to those in social housing, the underlying aim must be to tackle the unfairness that those in private rented accommodation have no money because of the unaffordable rent by making those in social housing also have no money by making the rent unaffordable.

Much in the same way that to tackle the scandal of low wages, rather than say do something progressive and positive like a living wage, the current approach is to create adverts persuading low paid workers that they are low paid because of benefit scrounging folk devils (not because of any massive structural changes in the economy). All this is helping to justify benefit cuts that are going to affect low paid workers as well as those who are unemployed and create a poisonousness split in our communities between the ‘deserving and the undeserving‘ poor.

So here are my mum and dad’s imaginary options:

A) Stay in the flat but be between £10 and £25 worse off per week. Doesn’t sound much but if you are a couple on £111 per week (current JSA couple rate) that could be enough to cause real problems..

B) Try and move into a (non-existent) one bed council flat or into a private rental (where tenancies will be for 6 months at a time)

C) Try and buy a house. In contrast to the 3 X average income in the 70s, to buy a house now is more like 12 X the real average income and that’s if you can get the deposit together.

Luckily this isn’t the situation they are facing. But thinking about it brought the reality home to me, and maybe it will to you too.

The Bedroom tax is such a strange idea that even the Daily Telegraph is coming up with slogans against it:

‘No Mansion Tax for the Rich, a Bedroom Tax for the Poor’

What can be done about it?

Some communities are starting to organise around this issue.

-There are online groups which are helping people organise using social networks

-There are articles showing that if only a small percentage of people challenge both the social landlords and the government on this issue then economically it will be unviable and will grind to a halt.

Some tenants in Liverpool occupied a housing association

In Easton I’ve already met a few people door-knocking who are going to be affected by this. If enough people are interested (once the reality hits home) I’m hoping that they will want to take some form of collective action, whether that’s sharing information or something else entirely

Everything is connected

Anything which helps prevent communities being ambitious for change is something that community organisers should be involved in (if there is a mandate from that community)

Any action which starts off seemingly negative and single issues based can also broaden out in its vision. It can create bonds and solidarities between individuals where there were none previously and it can push through from ‘defend ourselves against the bedroom tax’ to ‘what’s the root cause of the housing crisis and how can we solve it?’

Many people I talk to when door knocking will talk about the shortage of council houses and affordable homes, but this will generally be qualified with the phrase “…but those days are over…” It might be that the solution to the UK’s housing crisis isn’t a massive infrastructure investment in new housing stock, or tackling the millions of empty homes rotting away or a rent cap. It’s not these ideas themselves which are the solution, but the process itself – good ideas have only happened because there was a large enough movement of people which caused the world to turn upside down and change:

With the end of the war in Europe thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen returned home to find that there was no where to live. The first reaction was the mass occupation of army encampments. The squatting movement then moved on to take over empty houses in London and other towns and cities. At the height of the movement it was estimated that there were more than 35,000 squatters.

Council housing

As a result of the post war squatting movement, housing was pushed up the political agenda and became a central element in the establishment of the post-war settlement. The post-war Labour Government launched a massive programme of council house construction, which was to dwarf the ‘homes fit for heroes’ of twenty years before. Although the immediate programme of council house construction was scaled back due to the austerity measures brought about by the dollar shortage in 1947, it remained at high levels throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, in the 1950s the two major parties sought to outbid each other in promising the construction of more homes. Since the construction of council housing was the only means of ensuring such promises were realised, even the Tories were obliged to maintain relatively high levels of council house building. As a result, by 1970 more than a third of all householders were council tenants.

from: http://libcom.org/library/aufheben/aufheben-13-2005/the-housing-question

Maybe the solution will be when ordinary people have had enough and organise positively in their communities to take control of their own lives.

I wonder how my mum and dad would respond?

Further information
The Hidden History of Housing

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Take Care in Easton

I have been working at a local estate. The block is near several main roads and a roundabout and has good transport links to the centre. It is within walking distance of several shops and facilities.

In general the residents I’ve spoke to so far have given a mixed picture of life in Easton. Some seem quite happy with everything, talking of how the block has improved beyond recognition over the past ten years. They talk of the increased sense of community, of feeling safe and welcome. Others talk of the area being dirty, or of feeling unsafe and wanting to leave. They talk of problems of young people taking drugs, spitting and smoking in the communal areas. Others talk of the lack of cleanliness in the block, some citing it being cleaned less than it used too. Others say it’s fine. Some blame the caretakers, others blame tenants. Lots of blame. Interestingly some also shift the blame up a level and blame reduced resources for the caretakers, leading to a downwards spiral.
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Parklife

At the back of the block where I am doorknocking is a “park” / recreation area. It’s not clear when, but at some point most of the play equipment was removed. Since then it has degraded a lot, and at the moment is a fairly depressing thing to open your front door to, especially if you have young kids like a lot of the residents do:

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ASB in the UK

When listening in communities Anti Social Behaviour (ASB) often comes up as something which concerns people or makes them angry.

It’s a really broad term covering a range of behaviours ranging from vaguely annoying to terrifying and life threatening. What would not actually be defined as anti-social in one setting (someone smoking in their garden, imperceptible noise from a stereo through a terrace’s solid brick walls) can become a major issue in another (smoking outside on the balcony in a tower block means smoke blows in through neighbour’s windows,  noise from tinny speakers blasting through plasterboard).  Often what can start small can escalate over time, or can lead to a constant state of anxiety amongst tenants, as they wait, unable to sleep, to be kept awake by next door.

All the advice I have read on dealing with ASB asks the question ‘Have you spoken to the people concerned?’ as being the first step. Whilst this seems obvious  the first step is actually one too far for many people. The days of a localised community where people stayed put for decades potentially contributed to the need to behave. Ostracism from the community had consequences. Now people are a lot more mobile. It’s possible that along with all the advantages and freedoms this mobility has also brought with it less accountability, and less ability to be informal with people you are not familiar with.

Informal action or sorting it out the old school way
From the stories I have been told, some neighbours are very receptive to ‘a quiet word’  but others will escalate. It can take a certain type of confidence for a resident to judge this and then act on it. This informal way of resolving individual and community tensions can be extremely effective, and it also has the advantage of building a common sense of values, unenforced by outside authority, but if that doesn’t work then the next step is to hold the authorities to account.

Escalating action
Depending on who your landlord is determines what action you need to take, but the basics are to keep an incident log (either paper based or voice recording, Bristol City Council should provide either), inform the police if it’s threatening, ask your neighbours to back you up, and present your evidence regularly to the council. In Easton the police are contactable on this page   and you can report ASB to the Council on this page

Often when I listen to residents on the doorstep and they talk about ASB, when I ask them what will resolve the problem they may say ‘they need to be evicted’. Often they will reflect on this, and actually just offer a compromise. It’s at this point that I wish I could instantly transmit what one resident said into another resident’s mind. Often they will suggest a win- win solution. If the other resident was present then it might have been the breakthrough moment (“Listen mate, I don’t care what you get up to at night , I don’t care what your business is – I won’t report you -  just keep it down after 11 ok?”

As this is not a power I yet possess Bristol Mediation are a service that can be used before hope is extinguished and eviction pursued.

Further reading

Collective accountable action over ASB: http://www.iwca-oxford.org.uk/blackbirdleys/lngbttle.htm &   http://www.iwca-oxford.org.uk/blackbirdleys/news/nws06012.htm

Citizens Advice Bureau guide to ASB:  http://www.adviceguide.org.uk/england/housing_e/housing_problems_where_you_live_e/anti_social_behaviour_in_housing.htm

Bristol Mediation: http://www.bristol-mediation.org/

“The State of Anti Social Behaviour in Working Class Communities”: booklet on mediation versus eviction: http://www.iprt.ie/contents/1834

Antisocial behaviour: the construction of a crime: http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/5/

Community Self defence: http://truth-reason-liberty.blogspot.co.uk/2010/09/why-police-are-last-people-we-need-to.html & http://www.redpepper.org.uk/A-class-act-in-Oxford/

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Children and Young People Take Local Action in Barton Hill

At the end of the summer holidays, I was door knocking and listening to local residents around the Lilla Park area (between Holmes Street and Canterbury Street, towards the Rhubarb Tavern.) I began chatting to some young people, aged from six to about twelve. They began talking to me about their loves and concerns, particularly in relation to the park and it’s lack of play equipment. After listening to them as individuals, we carried out a small meeting and group listening a few days later. They decided that they’d like to take action to improve the park and suggested a petition requesting play equipment to be built in the park. Their parents expressed considerable support, so we went ahead.

After a few outings, complete with scooters, skateboards and bikes (with me stuggling to keep up at the back!) the children and young people managed to get 75 signatures. While they could have probably got more, they wanted to present it at the upcoming Easton and Lawrence Hill Neighbourhood Forum. On the day, the oldest of the young people, Robbie and Mickel (12 and 13) presented the petition.

Robbie presents the petition at the local neighbourhood forum.

Since then, the petition has been submitted to the Neighbourhood Partnership for review, and they children have been visited by a local councillor, Richard Fletcher, who came and listened respectfully and with interest to the children’s ideas about the park.

Now we are waiting to see what happens next. The children are serious about wanting change and seem to have got a taste of what happens when you take collective action. Updates to follow.

If you’d like to chat about Barton Hill, email me at rebeccac@bartonhillsettlement.org.uk or find me here on Facebook.

 

 

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Autumn Affair goes ahead in Barton Hill

Hello again! Haven’t blogged nearly enough recently, so thought I’d offer an update of community organising activities in Barton Hill.

Firstly, I was happy to support a local resident put on a community arts event, Autumn Affair, on Saturday 13th October. Funded by Community First and organised by local residents, it featured live music, arts and crafts and local food. I was there enjoying the music and doing some community mapping around local people’s loves and concerns.

The music on the day was excellent, with live folk music from local singer-songwriters The Lonely Tourist (who very kindly helped us put up the massive marquee!) and Miss Cecily. We also enjoyed some chilled out beats from DJ OM. Soon, we were joined by the guys from Jammin’s, a popular Jamaican restaurant on Church Road, who served up chili burgers and jerk chicken for the afternoon. Tea and cakes were on hand all afternoon and evening from the dedicated St. Lukes team, who raised £90 for a young member of their congregation whose family are raising £30,000 for an operation for his cerebal palsy.

In the evening, St. Luke’s crypt was transformed into a spooky theatre showing quirky short films and serving free popcorn and stew made from organic locally-grown veggies from the Walled Garden, a much-loved and award-winning project teaching people how to grow their own food and live sustainably.

By the end of the day, my community map was covered in stickers showing people’s loves and concerns in Barton Hill. The biggest ‘loves’ were the Walled Garden, Netham, Urban Park, Wellspring, and Barton Hill Settlement. The biggest ‘concerns’ were the lack of disabled access at Lawrence Hill Station and the Lawrence Hill underpass.

Overall, the afternoon was a lot of fun and the Barton Hill Arts Events team is looking forward to more events in the future.

If you’d like to get in touch to share a project idea or discuss local issues that matter to you, contact me on rebeccac@bartonhillsettlement.org.uk.

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Autumn Newsletter

Not a great deal of time to blog, but I’ve compiled all the listenings over the past year into an Autumn Newsletter. So that’s all the loves,concerns, and ideas for action that people have shared with me. The bigger the word appears, the more people what said it:

>Download the Autumn Newsletter (PDF)

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Fix Our Street?

social networking for social changeThe website Fix My Street is an interesting idea. It enables individuals to type in their postcode, click on a map and to report a problem like flytipping or rubbish, abandoned / burnt out cars, potholes, and of course dog doo. From their help page

FixMyStreet is primarily for reporting things which are broken or dirty or damaged or dumped, and need fixing, cleaning or clearing

It then fowards this to the council, who are then publicly held account until the issue is fixed. When it is fixed it is marked ‘fixed’ on the website. See this page for Easton : http://www.fixmystreet.com/reports/Bristol/Easton

or for Lawrence Hill:

http://www.fixmystreet.com/reports/Bristol/Lawrence+Hill

Job done. But how empowering is it? It makes good use of the web, and citizens with smartphones can even download an app to do it there and then from the streets.  But I wonder if the title sums up what might be an issue: ‘My Street’ is the point of view of an individual. When an individual reports an issue and it is solved , this is good for sure, but how does this feel? No one in the community has any sense of who did this or how this happened. In short the activity itself does not build community.

But what about if it was ‘Fix Our Street’ ? Groups of citizens hanging out for an afternoon, on a leisurely stroll around their area collectively reporting to the council on all the things that need to be sorted on the way. Then collectively following up to see if they are being sorted and if not why not?

The group activity could also open the possibility that whilst on their leisurely stroll they could ask some questions and listen to residents on what else needs to be sorted, and what ideas and solutions they as a community have. If anyone wants to organise a group wander then please invite me too :-)

Fix My Street is part of a really interesting and valuable set of online tools produced by http://www.mysociety.org/ more here: http://www.mysociety.org/projects/

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