Leeds councillors fail to come to decision on demolition plans for Oulton housing estate

Protesters in Oulton last year.
Protesters in Oulton last year.

Residents of a former mining community in Oulton under threat of demolition are still no closer to learning the future of their homes, after Leeds City Council decision-makers agreed to defer a controversial housing application.

It follows months of protests from campaigners and residents of Sugar Hill Close and Wordsworth Drive, who claim a planned redevelopment of 70 homes could “destroy” a community some residents have lived in for decades.

Dozens packed into a Leeds Civic Hall committee room to hear evidence for and against plans from owners Pemberstone, who claimed the 1950s-built pre-cast concrete homes are now so old that refurbishment is no longer realistic.

It added that many older residents in the estate will be rehoused and that it was in talks with housing associations about the possibility of taking over the whole site.

But speakers against the proposals accused the company of “social cleansing”, suggesting that those currently living on the estate would be unable to afford many of the new homes on the site.

Cindy Readman, who has lived in the community with her husband John, a former miner, for 14 years, told the meeting: “They have treated us with contempt since day one of this process. They have expensive legal advisers and consultants – we have our friends, supporters, wits and, above all, passion to survive.

“All Pemberstone are interested in is how to make as much profit as it can. Our houses may not be aesthetically pleasing to some people, but they are our homes.

“We have built a life and a close-knit community, we look out for each other, look after each other’s pets and have friendships forged over many years.

“My husband John looks after his mum. He lies awake at night terrified he will have to move away too far to be able to look after her.

“I recently met [Leeds Central MP] Hilary Benn at a housing event and I told him that Pemberstone claimed our homes were at the end of their lives. He said ‘but you are not at the end of your life’.

“I am a teaching assistant and three children in my class live on the estate. Can you imagine what life is like for them? Not knowing if they have a home. Terrified they’ll be forced to live miles away from their friends and family.”

General secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) Chris Kitchen, said: “Our objection is not because we’re dinosaurs living in the past. It is that it will destroy the community that has built up over decades.”

He said that while new homes may well be better quality, it will cause disruption to the current tenants, who may or may not have a home in the new development.

Campaigner and former councillor Karen Bruce speaks said she was “privileged to have worked on this campaign”, adding: “I have wept, and you would weep if you’d met the people and heard their stories.”

Rothwell councillor and Leeds Liberal Democrats leader Stewart Golton said: “This development is inherently unsustainable in planning terms as well as in moral terms.”

“In principle it is unsustainable to destroy 70 homes to replace them with the same number.”

He added that despite the increased energy efficiency of the new homes, the development would not be sustainable.

A Leeds City Council planning officer had told the meeting that landlords wanted to redevelop “due to viability issues and concerns about standards of habitation that the houses currently provide”.

She added: “Countrywide, you will find houses of this nature. They are quite small houses, but they just about meet the guidelines for a three person three bedroom house under current space policies.”

“They were originally designed with a lifespan of 10 years. We renovated them back in the 80s. Today’s living standards for improvements and environmental impact, the properties would need to be brought up to a much higher standard than they currently are.”

“The council has a duty under public sector equality law to ensure we are not harming any residents who are forced to leave their homes under these proposals.

“We found that there are some. Many in regulated tenancies have protected characteristics such as being elderly and having a disability. Elderly people, living there a long time they will have networks of families and friends, and a social grouping that they will not want to leave behind.

“For the majority people on this estate they are living under assured tenancies only. This means the landlord can evict them within four weeks – the landlord has not decided to do this yet.

“We have determined that in planning terms this is acceptable, the houses will meet national space standards, they will be built to a high quality and they align with our core strategy policy.

“We should be recommending this for approval subject to conditions.”

During a discussion on the plan, Bruce: “Officers have not come forward with as much help as we would have liked.

Golton: “effectively it is social cleansing.

Bruce: “It is social cleansing and gentrification. These people are on affordable rents. You are replacing a whole community with people who can afford to buy executive housing and will be out of reach to the people who live there.

Kitchen: “Is is social cleansing. The people will not be in the same social class and earnings bracket as those moving in.”

Cindy: “People are going to be moving away from neighbours and there will be a very small amount of people who currently live there who will be able to continue living there.

“You are going to move in people who can afford these types of housing – they may not be from Oulton, so it is social cleansing.”

Coun Kayleigh Brooks (Lab) asked: “Are you concerned many people will be made homeless?

Mrs Readman said: “I am very concerned at this. We have elderly people who aren’t protected on the regulated tenancies. We thought we would be able to live there for the rest of their lives.

“We have other people who are affected. Mavis, who isn’t here today, was panicking this morning about this

“It’s affected us for two years and has had a great impact on all our lives.

“We always were led to believe that these were long term homes.

“There has been mention of the fact it is a transient community, even the people who have just moved in have indicated that they would like to live there long term. People have not been offered long term tenancies.

“Just because you are renting a home, it should not mean you should not live there for the rest of our lives. We are treated like second class citizens.”

Representatives of Pemberstone were then invited to address the panel.

Laura Mepham, planning consultant for the company, said: “This afternoon is the result of more than two years’ work.

“We believe this will offer a long term and sustainable blueprint for Wordsworth Drive and Sugar Hill Close. We need to think about how best to provide homes for the medium-to-long term.

“We need to plan for the future as the houses are approaching the end of their lifespan. While habitable in the short term, doing nothing is not an option.

“The best solution, we believe, is to build new. All regulated and assured tenants will be in adaptable housing. It creates modern, comfortable and energy efficient homes.”

She added Pemberstone contacted 27 housing associations, 10 expressed an interest and two have said they would be interested in taking on the site but not in its current state. She added that negotiations would continue should approval be given.

Coun Brooks asked when the last time major maintenance work had taken place on the homes.

Another representative of Pemberstone said: “It’s a continuous maintenance process. They are not maintained en masse.

“We spend tens of thousands every year maintaining the properties.”

This was met with scoffs of laughter from residents and campaigners.

He added that a letter from Leeds City Council estimated the cost to bring the properties up to a decency standard could be £45,000 per house.

Coun Colin Campbell (Lib Dem) asked: “These houses were declared defective in 1985. You bought them as defective housing in 2000, and have maintained them for 18 years.

“Why now do we suddenly need to pull the plug on this estate because the houses are defective?”

The representative said: “The nature of the way they become defective is the construction of the concrete and the rods within the concrete. Over time it deteriorates and the structure deteriorates.

“The deterioration of the structure continues, and we will have to do something. It is not something that is in our control. The reason it has come forward 18 years after we required them is the need to improve the thermal properties of the houses and the continuing deterioration of the properties.”

Coun Peter Gruen (Lab) asked: “Either these properties are deteriorating or they are not. Because you wouldn’t keep people in unsafe homes.”

The representative responded: “We need to do something. It will take some years to do, but the alternative is that we get to a point where the properties are uninhabitable and we still have to decide what to do.

“They don’t get to the end of their lives on a day, but we have to plan what we do next.

When asked for a guarantee that the houses not yet demolished would be maintained. He responded: “We are required by law to maintain properties tenants live in.”

When asked about the possibility of finding a housing association to take over the whole site, he responded: “We were asked to find a housing association to see whether any would be interested in taking over the whole site. At the point that they would take over the site, we would step away from the site.

“We approached housing associations, initially about the 11 affordable houses. We talked to see whether any wanted to take on the development and do it themselves.

“Two expressed an interest but neither would take it on before a planning decision is reached.”

Coun Campbell added that, normally, housing associations come along with the developers and say they are prepared to take it on.

He said: “We are being asked to give permission to a private developer with no guarantees of this.”

The representative of Pemberstone said the housing associations felt there was a potential for “reputational damage” in getting involved with the scheme before a planning decision was reached.

He added: “They have indicated they would renew discussions with us and see if there is common ground.”

Coun Kayleigh Brooks asked whether their decision even mattered, as the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government was currently looking at the referring the application to the Secretary of State after the panel’s decision.

A planning officer added that a request was made to the Secretary of State from “a third party”.

Commenting on the application, Coun Paul Wray (Lab) said: “No matter what we do today, the landlord has ultimate power to evict these people.

“We are asking our deliberations that whatever we do today, the Landlords have the power to evict these tenants.

“If we do what we feel is the morally right thing, we would make the situation much worse for the tenants, and we can face a sizeable bill from the sec of state. The risk is there in law whether we like it or not, and we are constrained by the rules we have.”

Coun Brooks said: “I disagree with Coun Wray, because it is where you put the weight of policies. There is a lack of clarification around carbon footprint, the houses will not be like for like. I disagree.”

Wray: “We have to balance the policy considerations – they will exist no matter what we do. In the end the landlord has the power to do effectively what it wants to.

“If we do what we feel is natural justice, there is a consequence. We will potentially accelerate the harm done to these residents.”

Coun Robert Finnigan (MBI) said: “This is a type of gentrification and social cleansing. It’s ripping the heart out of a community, and I don’t think planning policy covers this.

“The NPPF is clear about promoting healthy communities and promoting social interaction – I don’t think it does that.

“This is a speculative opportunity for a company to get very rich from the local community. I won’t be supporting this recommendation.”

Coun Campbell said: “The blandness of the design – if it were not such an emotive subject we would have spent a longer time on this.

“The judgement call we have to make hinges on sustainability. It is the balance between knocking down houses that aren’t in tip-top condition, but can relatively be brought up to standard, or knocking it down, destroying the community, and rebuilding a type of house that does not reflect those there at the moment.

“I am not convinced the refurbishment is not possible.”

Coun Sharon Hamilton (Lab): “At the end of the day, they have renewed their tenancy yearly. There is concern about what could happen. Serving notice in four-eight weeks, they could do the bare minimum of what is required until it becomes a derelict site. We are damned if we do and we are damned if we don’t.

“People have lived there a long time. It is there home, but we have to consider planning policy.

“Those who they have to rehouse they will rehouse first. It will be done in phases. We are in a difficult decision. Whichever way it goes, nobody will be happy,”

Coun Caroline Gruen added: “This is the most difficult decision the panel have had to make in its history.”

Coun Peter Gruen said: “We have spent several hours on community issues. I am disappointed we have not spoken about planning. I am disappointed with them. They look pretty bland. I wouldn’t necessarily want them in our ward.

“We didn’t ask for this planning application – we have to consider the application as it is. It’s an act of faith. If this had been an avaricious landlord, they could have given notice two years ago, and yet they are pursuing these discussions. How many applicants would have done that?

“They have tried to find the best solutions that they could but, because of the aspects of community cohesion and what will happen to families, I don’t think we have yet had sufficient information.

“Where are these interim decamped properties going to be?

“We are all grappling with our social conscience while trying to decide on a planning issue. I would like to defer this and come back with more information.”

Coun Caroline Gruen added: “This is a dilemma we face with the community issues we all feel across the parties and the practicalities of wanting to preserve something.

“There are two things we need to do: one is to deal with the issue of whether the housing should go ahead, and the other is the detail of design, layout and amenity.”

Jackie Shemilit (Con) said: “We have gone off track but I am struggling to find any planning issues to pin something on one way or the other.

“They are old houses, and what they are replacing them with might be significantly better. There is a huge economic impact for all the residents.”

Coun Finnigan said: “By the time you weigh up the damage it will do to the community, the removal of affordable homes and the impact on education, I don’t see how you could think benefits outweigh the drawbacks.”

A motion was moved to defer a decision on the plans for the panel to receive more information on design, layout, impact on the community and housing mix. It would also be to know more about housing need for the local community.

Councillors voted in favour of deferring a decision on the application.