It’s a cold, overcast Friday afternoon in February. Thousands of workers across Manchester are winding down for the week – replying to emails, killing time at the kettle, discussing their Friday evening plans. But in the office for housing association Pendleton Together in Salford, workers are spending the countdown to the weekend hiding behind furniture and hoping the people outside, peering through the windows, can’t see them.
The people – tenants living in housing managed by Pendleton Together – are primed for disappointment. Despite their high-vis jackets and picket signs, they know that they’re going to be ignored. But they’re there because they don’t know how else to be heard.
After the Grenfell tragedy in June 2017, it was revealed that another 160 social housing blocks across the country were wrapped in the same type of combustible ACM cladding. Focus turned to removing this cladding as quickly as possible, but while most affected tower blocks have been – or are in the process of being – remediated, residents of Holm Court are living in a baffling limbo.
It’s been six years since it became evident that the cladding needed to come down from all nine blocks of flats in Pendleton, an inner-city suburb and district of Salford, which houses over 400 tenants. The cladding on Holm Court was removed alongside eight other blocks in 2020, but has not yet been replaced. This has left tenants living without insulation through three winters, spending thousands of pounds on heating their poorly insulated homes. Many of the tenants are so cold they go to bed early in jumpers, just to stay warm.
When the cost of living crisis met a bitter winter, they enlisted tenants union Acorn to help them out of what looks like an endless nightmare of cold and draughty homes, high heating bills, and constant building works. John Kelly, 78, says the cladding is the latest in a long line of issues he’s had since moving onto the block in 2017.
“I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to put up with it,” he says. “Acorn gave us a chance to come together. Nearly everyone, even people who moved here just a month ago, are fed up. We all want our lives and homes back.”
Kevin Monks, 72, has lived on the block for 45 years. He says it’s warmer outside his flat than inside, thanks to drafts coming in through the walls and windowsills. But he tries not to put the heating on anymore, since it can cost him £100 a week.
“Some tenants are frightened to speak up in case they’re threatened with eviction,” says Monks, who would have moved off the block if he was younger. “If you pay your rent you shouldn’t live like this, you should have a nice warm home.”
In addition to the cold, tenants are fed up with living among scaffolding, exposed wires, and the noise of drilling.
“The constant drilling is having a detrimental effect on at least two people,” says tenant Alison Aitken, who puts her heating much lower than the recommended setting to save money but is more concerned about her neighbours. “One person with schizophrenia, whose condition it’s worsening, and another with anxiety who can’t be [at home] around the noise.”
There have been other cases across the country where people have existed in this same, cold limbo, including residents in Barnet and Camden in London. But none have gone on for as long as Holm Court, due to longstanding confusion over who’s responsible for funding the cladding replacement.
The government refused to fund the work because Pendleton Together – a partnership of the housing organisation The Together Housing Group, construction company Keepmoat, and Salford City Council – is a private finance initiative. The government also blocked plans for £140m funding from the council, which has a 30-year contract with Pendleton Together. A spokesperson for the ministerial Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities says that “leaseholders deserve better,” and that building owners “must act without delay to fix these dangerous defects.”
This all sounds like a classic case of agencies playing the “buck-passing blame game,” says Giles Grover, a campaigner for End Our Cladding Scandal, who hasn’t seen any other case like this go on for such a long time.
“People don’t think about the residents,” he says. “Everyone wants to mitigate their own lability to avoid future responsibility – but it impacts people’s mental health. Having safe and secure housing is a simple human right, and, clearly, these tenants have neither.”
To make matters worse, the tenants rely on NIBE heat pumps as their source for heat. Despite being billed as ‘efficient’ and becoming a popular choice with developers, who are now legally obligated to build ‘greener’ homes, the heating systems have received their fair share of bad press for not working properly and racking up huge bills.
“The air source heat pumps in these blocks, which for some have never provided affordable energy, don’t work without insulation,” says Frances Sleap, director and volunteer at campaign group Fuel Poverty Action. “One resident reported a £330 bill when he tried using his heating for a month. That was before the latest electricity price rises. Cold weather payments from the housing association don’t touch the sides of this kind of need.”
Sleap says the flats have vents that let cold air in from outside, which also undermine the heating system. The last update she heard from the residents was in August, when one tenant said he’d been told by Pendleton Together that someone was looking into doing maintenance on the boilers.
After years of what the tenants see as such poor communication from the housing association, they decided to gather in front of the Pendleton Together office to force staff to listen to their complaints. Between exchanging heating bills like weather updates (“60kw this month”, “£80 this fortnight”) they set down an empty chair and put a traffic cone on it to represent Michelle Allott, Pendleton Together’s Executive Director of Operations. With stutters, shivers, stunted reading and shaking fingers, they tell the traffic cone that they want proper compensation for their heating bills. Allott had informed Acorn that she was “not available” for a meeting on the previously suggested date of January 17th. Meanwhile, the housing association says tenants have been paid £50 per month for four months over winter, and extra payments have been made “where appropriate.”
The tenants also want a timeline for the end of the construction works. And they want Pendleton’s office, which has technically been closed since lockdown despite staff coming in and out, to reopen so that there’s physical accountability. On the day of the gathering, their knocks and calls go unanswered once again. “The staff always go in and out through the back door, now,” one resident tells me.
Pendleton Together’s Senior Operations Manager, Julie Blagden, says that whenever it has an update, it shares this with residents first. In the meantime, she adds, it has appointed specific staff to help address these issues on a one-to-one basis.
The issues at Holm Court are part of a wider debate about whether private companies should be driving social housing regeneration projects. Spurred on by chronic government underfunding over the last decade and legislative changes in 2011 that allowed councils to set up private companies, councils are passing over responsibility for building and managing social housing to at-arms-length housing associations.
The main argument for these associations is that they have fewer legislative restrictions than councils and can operate with profit in mind. Pendleton Together, for example, was set up in 2013 to develop a densely populated part of Salford that was becoming a pocket of deprivation next to Media City and Salford Quays. It had £250m in funding and plans to close the widening inequalities in the area with new homes, parks and public spaces. Fast forward to 2023 and its residents feel like their ongoing, reasonable requests are not even being heard – especially since the office has been closed. As for profit, last year Pendleton Together made a loss of £23m.
Pendleton Together told Acorn it was too busy to talk to the residents when they came knocking. When approached for comment, Blagden informed Huck that staff don’t routinely respond to unplanned visits. “Residents are aware that they can make appointments to meet our staff at our offices and many meet with us frequently there, at our staffed events or in their own homes. No residents made an appointment last Friday.”
According to Acorn, Pendleton Together did however take the opportunity to remind the union of its recent work to improve tenants’ wellbeing. “This includes boasting that they have helped run initiatives that teach residents how to cook on a budget and given attendees free slow cookers,” says Louisa Olympios, Member Defence Organiser at Acorn’s Manchester branch. Over the last few weeks, Acorn has continued trying to secure a meeting with Pendleton Together to go through their demands. “When I’ve heard from our Acorn members that electricity has more than doubled for some of them since the cladding has been removed, this feels insulting.”
Despite living in such horrendous circumstances since the cladding came down three years ago, no agency has been able to overcome the financial hold-up that’s making life so difficult for these tenants, including elderly people and families with young children. They should be getting much more than a meeting, but, right now, getting a meeting is all they can focus on.
“I don’t think housing associations will do anything they don’t absolutely have to,” says Sleap. “Safety and adequate heat and light are basic rights. They’ve been denied too long.”
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