‘Back in Africa you all slept in one room together’

The council making life hell for social tenants

“The first time I cried was when my mum died. The second time was when I was in Barnet Council.”

Ahmed Padori stands in the flat he rents from the London council. A dozen of his neighbours are squashed into every available space across the living room, but he’s addressing two men from Barnett Homes, who provide social housing on behalf of the council.

The wall behind them is plastered with photos of mould, cockroaches and rats, taken by Ahmed and his neighbours. In the corner, an untouched cake sits alongside a pile of paper plates — a symbol to Barnet Homes of how their tenants are living. Annie Barrett and her two children eat off paper plates because she found cockroaches in her toaster and oven.

London’s social housing stock is falling drastically. Not enough homes are being built, many more have been sold under the government’s Right to Buy, and much of what’s left is being demolished and rebuilt for the private sector on increasingly valuable land.

Local authorities and housing associations haven’t been able to invest in homes due to a lack of government finance for social housing redevelopment over last 10 years, says Rebecca Tunstall, Joseph Rowntree professor of the Housing Policy Centre for Housing Policy at the University of York. The methods councils are using to get around this have left people like Ahmed and Annie living in dangerous conditions.

“Councils realised they could have higher density estates that include private housing, so they knocked down the estates to create the money to rebuild themselves,” Tunstall says.

This became the only way for local authorities to improve council estates, but now, housing associations are struggling to sell these new homes at the free-market price. The fact that finance for social housing improvement depends on the fluctuating private housing market, Tunstall says, amounts to social cleaning.

“As citizens and politicians sitting by and watching it happen, we’re all taking part in social cleansing just by being part of the system. But it’s very hard not to be part of it.”

The UK has a distinct shortage of council housing. In 1981, council homes made up 30% of the housing sector, according to the census. By 2011, this had dropped to 13.5%. At the same time, fewer landlords are leasing their properties to councils, since the private market is so lucrative and cuts to housing benefits make renting to social tenants look riskier.

The number of people living in temporary accommodation in England is higher than it’s been for a decade, so councils are struggling to house people. As a short-term solution, councils are housing people in the very estates they’re demolishing. It’s a win-win for councils: otherwise empty flats are filled, and because tenants have temporary status, they can be kicked out when demolition starts.

Since the council has the power to penalise or evict them, tenants often don’t complain when they live in poor conditions. But these estates are often half empty, and falling apart. Non-secure tenants living on estates earmarked for demolition often don’t know when or where they’ll be moved, or whether they’ll even be placed in the same part of the country. They face ‘intentional homelessness’ if they refuse a home the council offers them, and even risk social services taking their children.

The West Hendon estate was built in the 1960s, and in the early 2000s, Barnet Council partnered with private housing developers, Barratt, to carry out a 25-year regeneration programme and the council sold adjacent land on the estate to private developers for £3. Leaseholders were handed Compulsory Purchase Orders, and secure residents were moved out. Now, the estate’s 170 remaining properties are filled with non-secure tenants.

Non-secure tenants on the West Hendon estate’s main block, Marsh Drive, don’t know where and when they’ll be kicked off the estate, despite many having children coming up to school age. Some of these children have contracted asthma, some have been bitten by cockroaches — none of them have anywhere nearby to play.

Marsh Drive had at least three blackouts last year. When it rains, water and sewage collects on each floor, up to the block’s electricity box. But complaining to the council isn’t straightforward; Barnet Council has outsourced its housing services to the non-elected and unaccountable CAPITA since 2013.

“It’s incredibly difficult for non-secure tenants,” says Paul Watt, professor of urban studies at London’s Birkbeck University.

“They struggle to get landlords to do repairs and make their place liveable. People don’t want to kick up fuss because then get offered worse, such as moving out of London. It’s a vulnerable position to be in.

“Non-secure tenants tell me the council thinks they’re doing people a favour by putting them up, that this is what they can expect when living on a regeneration estate.”

“Tenants are frightened that council will say it’s discharging its obligations and they’ll have to go into the private sector, which everyone knows is entirely unaffordable and unsuitable, and an incredibly insecure form of accommodation whereby grounds for repossession are incredibly low, landlords can do what they want and tenants have few rights.”

Marsh Drive’s non-secure tenants have kept quiet for fear of losing their homes — until now. In summer last year, Annie decided she’d had enough. With the help of community organisers from the local Labour Party, she knocked on every door on Marsh Drive and quickly amassed dozens of tenants willing to put themselves at risk to better their collective situation.

“We started door-knocking, and I made a WhatsApp group to share meetings,” she says.

The tenants, many meeting for the first time, formed the West Hendon Warriors and came up with a list of demands for the council. Meeting others on the estate in the same position as her made West Hendon Warrior and non-secure tenant Simone re-evaluate her situation.

“Every time I spoke to someone at the council, I took them at face value, until Annie knocked on my door and caught me on a bad day. I was naïve, I didn’t realise how corrupt it was until I started listening to everyone else.

“There’s so many people coming and going on the estate, so you keep yourself to yourself, and you see people with no kids living in a two-bedroom flat and wonder why they deserve that and not me. The council is pitting people against each other, trying to divide us.

“Now, you see people in corridor and say hello; we know people now because Annie’s created a community”.

Moments before their first meeting with a local councillor, Jasmin Parsons, who previously led a campaign to save the West Hendon estate from demolition, joined the group outside Marsh Drive on a warm summer evening to show her support.

“I hope we can carry on what you’ve started,” Simone tells Jasmine.

Jasmine says she believes they can really make a difference.

“The council rely a lot of people staying individuals, that’s why these groups are very important. It’s the only way it’ll work,” she says.

The group marched into a room at the other end of the estate, surrounded by newly built flats, to meet with Alex Prager, one of the ward’s three Conservative councillors, who was waiting for his usual sparsely attended surgeries, oblivious to the oncoming onslaught.

West Hendon Warriors’ rule number one: no names. This way, Prager can’t single them out.

“You’re not going to meet with us individually. You’ll deal with us as a group,” Simone says. “We’ve done this individually before, and we’ve been mugged off individually.”

They list their demands. First — they want to meet Tim Mulvana, chief executive of Barnet Group. Second — they want a timescale. Third — safety and security. The block isn’t secure; the doors to the outside open without the need for a key, card or code. Simone heard a knock at her door recently. When she opened it, a stranger smoking a spliff fell into her front room.

Prager can’t make any promises, or guarantee they won’t be moved to another borough. He’s defensive when Simone raises her voice. Whenever she swears, her dad, sitting behind her and watching her child, gently kicks her chair.

“Getting rid of the rubbish, that’s how you look at us,” Simone tells Prager.

“Do you go home and have to deal with cockroaches? Do you think we deserve it, whatever our

situation was to land us on Marsh Drive? We have the right to safety. The council says it ain’t their problem — it’s social cleansing at its best.”

Prager looked dismayed as the meeting went on, but the tenants’ situation is no secret. London’s mayor Sadiq Kahn has previously described the state of homes in West Hendon as “shocking” and said tenants have “been completely let down by the council”.

Simone has lived in a one-bed flat with her two children for four-and-a-half years. She was promised a bigger flat within a year, but now she sleeps in the front room so her children can have a bedroom. Black mould grows next to their heads while they sleep. Her five-year-old daughter needs an asthma pump.

“The council sent someone to sort out my mould. They told me to close the door when cooking, but I don’t have vent in kitchen and my windows are on a latch because I’m on the first floor. They told me to shut the door when have bath, but there are no fans in the bathroom. They told me to not hang my washing in the flat, but I don’t have a balcony.”

Ilyas Hussein has lived on the estate for 11 years in a two-bed flat with his wife and five children.

“One of our children passed away and my wife didn’t feel comfortable living in the flat anymore. We got a GP letter saying it was affecting her mental health — they didn’t move us into a new flat.

“A few times, when I’ve spoken to the council about over-crowding, they’ve said to me, ‘Back in Africa you all slept in one room together.’”

Prager calls the situation “less than ideal”. But after the meeting, the tenants take him for a tour of the estate, struggle as they try to close the door to the lift, and point out the electrical box and the roof leaking water next to it.

“From what you guys tell me, the council has shown a lack of care… indifference,” he concedes.

Walking around the estate diffuses some of the tension between Prager and the tenants, but Simone makes sure the meeting doesn’t end jovially.

“I’m on your side,” Prager says with his newfound camaraderie as he sets off across the estate’s car park with his briefcase.

“Show me,” Simone shouts back.

Prager, a part-time councillor and chartered accountant for a fintech company, denies social cleansing, and says the council is increasing social housing in the borough. Barnett council confirms, however, that the regenerated West Hendon estate’s 615 homes will consist of 262 affordable rented and 353 low-cost home-ownership properties, which allows people to purchase part of their home and build their own equity.

A few weeks after their meeting Prager, the West Hendon Warriors get their first demand met: a meeting with Mulvana. Mulvana and Elliott Sweetman, Barnet Homes’ director of operations and property, decline the offer of cake as they listen to Ahmed explain why Barnet Council made him cry.

The core group of Warriors lead the two men down to Marsh Drive’s community centre, where more than 50 non-secure tenants sit and wait to share their stories. One onlooker says he saw Mulvana’s hands start to shake when he walked into the room.

Mulvana promises to do some repairs to the building, but he can’t guarantee when the residents will be kicked off the estate, nor can he promise to sort out the mould. He can’t move tenants living in over-crowded flats into any of the council’s vacant properties, despite tenants pointing out that the council has moved property guardians into some of the vacant these flats, charging market rates.

Mulvana doubts the council will invest in secure doors into the block, even though tenants tell them drug addicts sleep in the corridors with needles stuck in their skin. But he assures the tenants he always wants to hear from them, his ‘customers… and tenants’.

From left to right: Ahmed, Tim Mulvana and Elliott Sweetman during the tenants’ meeting

Ahmed pleads for stability for the sake of the next generation, and for his daughter, who he calls to the front of the crowded room so she can demonstrate what needs nurturing, what’s at stake here. He goes around the room and takes random numbers from tenants and writes them on a slip of paper. Silence falls on the room as he asks his young daughter, who was a baby when the council first turned her and her father away, to add up all the numbers off the top of her head. She doesn’t miss a beat.