“We couldn’t afford to have heating on, even in the winter, so there was water running down the walls and really bad condensation. We’d sleep with lots of blankets, socks and clothes on – every day we had to decide whether to feed our family or heat our home.”
Leila Fortunato still shivers at the thought of the daily choice she had to make for her three children in what used to be a freezing flat on the Banister House Estate in Homerton.
Her home was among the 2.3 million households in England for whom fuel poverty is a daily reality.
Research by the Association for the Conservation of Energy found that 7,400 people died as a result of cold living conditions in 2013, a number that surpasses deaths from drug misuse, road accidents as well as skin and brain cancer
Everything changed for the Fortunatos thanks to the ground-breaking Banister House Solar project, which went live on October 3. Three years in development, Banister House Estate has established itself as the UK’s largest community-owned solar energy project on social housing.
Under the project, residents were invited to invest in rooftop solar panels, which generate power for the estate. Any excess will be sold to the national grid, with profits being used to generate an annual return for investors, fund youth activities on the estate and combat fuel poverty.
An investment guarantees the residents an unprecedented opportunity of self-determination in an environment that usually inspires a feeling of helplessness.
“I think people have a right to have the control over their own future and what happens here,” Fortunato asserts. “They complain a lot about people making decisions for them but when it gets to making decisions for themselves they are very cynical. They don’t believe that their voice has any power and I would like to see people at least try. That way they have more of a chance of having a say.”
The project also included a youth training programme, wherein 20 teenagers from the estate participated in a paid internship programme, teaching them about how to run a community energy project. Ten of them also took part in the ensuing paid work experience installing the solar panels alongside professionals.
With the pressures of fulltime employment and running a household on her shoulders, Fortunato initially attended to project meetings now and again. However, as her investment in the cause grew, and others recognized not just her dedication, but also her ability to speak with and for the people of Banister House, she became a project director.
Apart from fuel poverty, one of her major concerns on the estate was crime: “All I used to think about was getting off the estate. I hated it because there was so much violence. Because of the investments made into Hackney in the lead up to the 2012 Olympics, the last five years haven’t been too bad but when I first moved around here it really was. There’s been shootings and stabbings, and thinking about having my children grow up in that environment was really frightening. I didn’t feel that at the time I could let them play outside, not even supervised.”
Fortunato’s main focus within BHS thus lies in its potential to benefit young people. She believes that it can have a considerable impact on teenagers’ involvement in crime and gang activity.
According to a crime audit in the New Deal for Communities programme evaluation, 15.6 percent of crime suspects in Hackney are aged between 11 and 17. When asked, young people attributed this to boredom and educational difficulties.
“There is very much this attitude around here that nobody cares, ‘We can’t be involved in anything, what’s the point of doing anything,’” explains Fortunato. “I think it’s so important to have them be engaged in meaningful activities and also making them feel that somebody cares about them.”
Indeed, only 20 percent of BHS interns reported feeling useful before the project, which increased to 80 percent by the end of it.
Fortunato’s own daughter Aisha (18), for example, was able secure an internship working in the sustainability department of a housing association due to her involvement in the project. “It was a great opportunity to make a change and an impact on my estate,” she says. “I would like to see this project save money for the residents and bring them together.”
BHS has also had a positive impact on Leila Fortunato personally. Before the project, she kept her living situation quiet, as she was aware of the stigma attached to it.
“I’ve experienced it at work. People talk about those living on estates like they’re vermin and I just felt really bad. Not knowing your background, people make assumptions: they must be benefit scroungers, they must not want to work, just all the bad stereotypes.
“Since I’ve been doing this project I’ve been proudly saying ‘Yeah this is what I’m involved in. This is where I live.’ And then you see people just close their mouth and they don’t say anything. It’s good because that way they know that stereotypes are just that: stereotypes.”
By: Jennifer Hahn