Residents on a Wapping estate, fighting against plans to impose a new entryphone system, have won a significant victory against housing manager Tower Hamlets Homes, forcing it to carry out a new door-to-door consultation process.
However, events leading up to this may fuel critics of the not-for-profit management companies, known as ALMOs, which were introduced under the previous government to run housing on behalf of local councils, but which some say raise fundamental questions of accountability.
Residents of the Green Bank estate in Wapping, whose London brick buildings date back to just after World War I, argue that the original consultation process around introducing the entryphone system – which some compare to creating a gated community – was flawed and that the majority of residents are opposed to them.
Although THH, the ‘arms-length’ company that manages the estate on behalf of Tower Hamlets council, says such doors increase security and have the backing of the police, residents say they will break down the community spirit of the estate – as well as being aesthetically out-of-place against Green Bank’s attractive early 20th century arched doorways – and too cumbersome and heavy for elderly people to handle.
Steve Croft of Jackman House, one of the six blocks that make up the estate, is spearheading the campaign against the entryphone doors.
He says that there is little crime in the area, with only one incidence of serious anti-social behaviour – some grafitti in a stairwell – on the estate in the last five years and argues:
“You’ve got people who’ve lived in these flats for more than 40 years, they’re born and bred in the area, they’ve grown up here, they know the area. When Wapping went through harder times in the mid-80s, there was no need for doors. So our question would be, why is it in the new Millennium that you need doors to keep people away from people? There’s a real community feel between these blocks and the last thing anybody wants is to be trapped behind those doors.”
He criticises what he calls THH’s failure to consult properly, saying that while five blocks have been consulted, Jackman House, the largest, which contains nearly 70 flats, has not and that any consultation and installation of doors should, given the proximity of the blocks to each other, be done on a group basis. Of the five other blocks, three have said no; conducting his own door-to-door investigation at the two smaller blocks, Flinders House and Chancellor House, where work has already started, he says he failed to find anyone who had voted for it. Some residents said they had never received any papers from the management company and that the the first they were aware of the change was a mail-drop announcing the work was to begin, followed by bright yellow posters advertising the installation hung on the walls of the blocks.
His view is backed up by other residents, many who have written to THH. Complaints include this from a man living in Chancellor House: “It has been suggested in recent meetings with residents that there have been no complaints from Chancellor House. This is not correct. I have registered my objections on a number of occasions…I did not receive a ballot paper and there are others who will also not have received ballots…I increasingly am getting the impression that you are fixed on proceeding irrespective of whether you have a mandate or not”.
Another letter, from a Jackman House resident, complained: “I have never been consulted about the installation of door entry systems on any of the blocks in the Green Bank Estate, I am opposed to them and anecdotally believe this is the majority opinion”. He went on to suggest the management company would do better putting its money and energy into tackling the problem of dog fouling on the estate and fixing the leaking Jackman House roof.
A woman living at Chancellor House put in her letter: “Given I work full time, I will not be there when you come so please accept this email as a vote AGAINST continuing the works to the door entry system…I believe there to have been an inadequate level of communication with the residents around this matter and that the proposed works could have significant negative impact on the value of the property.”
When Mr Croft complained to the local housing officer, he says he was told that consultation had happened, work would go ahead and there was nothing residents could do to stop it. However, following several meetings organised by Mr Croft and other residents and attended by Emma Jones, local Conservative councillor for St Katharine’s and Wapping, who is backing the campaign, THH has finally agreed to stop work while it carries out a new, door-to-door consultation process.
Emma Jones expressed her concerns about the lack of consultation, particularly given that residents of another local block, Hilliard House, have made similar complaints. She told East London Lines that although the door-to-door consultation process by THH had started, she hoped if they did not manage to reach a representative number of people, they would hold a public, local consultation meeting where residents could have their say not just about the doors but about what they felt THH should be spending money on in their estate.
Mr Croft’s enquiries have also found that many residents would like Tower Hamlets Homes to spend its money on more pressing needs. There are elderly people living on second and third floors who desperately need lifts, many residents would like a secure place to leave their bikes and, most urgently, there are residents, particularly at Jackman House, who have water running through their roofs. All rather more important, he argues, than the gentrification of the blocks.
“People are saying they don’t want to live in gated communities,” he says, citing a family he’d met when knocking on doors who had moved from Brick Lane because they didn’t want to live behind gates and wanted freedom for their children to run around. “They were shocked to find out that these doors were following them here. It’s a bit of a scourge – across the whole borough people are getting locked up behind gates and don’t really want to be. These gates are breaking up communities.”
In a statement Tower Hamlets Homes said that:
• The door knocking consultation exercise that began on 27 September had received a mainly positive response so far and that there would be a second round after Monday 4 October.
• They had carried out extensive consultation with the residents and the majority of residents who live in the blocks affected want the door entry systems and that the complaint they received was from a resident in a neighbouring block not directly affected.
• During 2009, Tower Hamlets Homes balloted 13 blocks in the Wapping neighbourhood to find out if residents wanted door entry systems installed. Three blocks (Hilliard, Chancellor and Flinders Houses) returned a positive ballot.
• That in April 2009 they had held drop-in meetings, to which all residents in these blocks were invited, and in April this year had sent out consultation notices, detailing the scope of the works and the cost. There were no responses to this in the stated timescale of 30 days.
* In July 2010 newsletters were hand delivered to all three blocks to update residents on the work and in September 2010 a banner advertising the works was erected, which attracted complaints from residents of a neighbouring block.
• On 21 September, an open meeting was held for all residents in the area at which Tower Hamlets Homes agreed to put the work on hold (due for completion on 11 October 2010) and carry out further consultation in the three affected blocks.