'Gutted: A Borough Under Siege', a film by Oonagh Cousins
How much would you expect to pay in rent for a two-bedroom maisonette in east London?
The kitchen floor resembles a site from an archaeological dig. There are gaping holes in the ceiling. Walls are riddled with mould. There is no central heating or loft insulation. Windows don’t shut properly. Poor drainage on the landing can lead to flooding. The whole building was also earmarked for demolition ten years ago.
Until recently, this property in Custom House, Newham, would have set you back £1,000 a month in rent, making it a worthy contender for London Rental Opportunity of the Week.
The property had been vacant for a decade when Boglarka Filler moved in back in 2012. Filler and her two children were classified as “homeless”, and were provided temporary accommodation by Newham Council. The property was owned by the council but managed by the private landlord Omega, which was bought out by Mears Group PLC in 2014.
Filler and other tenants in these privately managed properties found themselves being charged twice as much as someone living next door who paid social rent to the council. They were also taken off the bidding list for social housing.
Filler thought that she would be there for a year or two at the most. However, a Newham regeneration plan that will see properties demolished and replaced with 10,000 new homes across Custom House and Canning Town has progressed at a glacial pace. This £3.7 billion project was first announced in 2004, but planning permission for Canning Town centre was only granted in 2012. It took another five years before the Custom House phase received unanimous approval by Newham Council’s cabinet members.
When we meet outside her maisonette, Filler, who was an English teacher in her native Hungary, is anxiously waiting for confirmation that she could move to a new home after eight years of living in Custom House.
“My kids have suffered a lot. It has affected them mentally,” she says. “When we moved in, there was a notice in the electricity cupboard. It was a laminated piece of paper that said ‘Newham Council’s Official Asbestos Register Warning. Asbestos present in the ceiling, kitchen floor, in the base of the toilet cistern. Do not disturb. If this gets disturbed let us know immediately’.”
She continues: “I was always asking myself, ‘Why are we allowing this to happen?’ Then I found out about PEACH.”
The People’s Empowerment Alliance for Custom House, a.k.a. PEACH, is a community action group founded in 2013 out of a radical funding programme known as Big Local. Aimed at improving areas that have historically missed out on investment, Big Local has provided £1.1 million of funding to 150 areas around the UK. Previous projects include installing a wind turbine in Bristol, and rebuilding a cult BMX track in East Sussex.
In 2016, PEACH began campaigning to address a multitude of issues faced by residents living in 263 council-owned, Mears-managed properties in Custom House and Canning Town.
“It came through talking and listening in the community,” says PEACH community organiser Hero Austin. “We were going door to door and everyone who was a Mears tenant kept raising the same concerns about repairs not being carried out and soaring rents. Then neighbours started talking to each other and realised they were not alone. We then started holding meetings so people could strategise and learn the tools of community organising.”
There were stories like the one told by Maggie Agyapong who moved into an Omega-managed flat in 2012 and found that it was infested with cockroaches. It took six months for her landlord to eradicate the insects.
Austin adds: “Tenants started taking action: compiling repair dossiers, holding actions at the Town Hall or outside Mears’ head office. We negotiated directly with senior Mears officers and later with Newham Council."
PEACH also collaborated with local filmmaker Oonagh Cousins to highlight the problems faced by tenants like Agyapong, as well as the disparities in rent between private and council tenants. The film got over 100,000 views online and, soon after, Mears carried out a series of urgent repairs.
May 2018 marked another major turning point for PEACH when Rokhsana Fiaz became the first elected female mayor of a London borough and took charge of Newham Council.
“Our relationship with the council has been interesting,” says Austin. “At first, the head of housing said, ‘It’s got nothing to do with us, Mears tenants are not our problem’. We’ve come quite far since then. One of the local councillors in Custom House was Rokhsana. She had seen these issues first hand and people had raised them at her surgeries.”
Austin continues: “We joined the dots and started to have meetings. She came to our PEACH five-year celebration in 2018 and announced that, if she were elected mayor, she would be looking at ending the Mears contract.”
That said, it took countless meetings, protests, as well as another film by Cousins titled Gutted: A Borough Under Siege that focused on the plight of tenants during lockdown, to reach the point in August this year when Fiaz confirmed that the council would end its leases with Mears.
A statement issued by Mears said: “The rent levels in the blocks were set by Newham Council, not by Mears and facilitated the guaranteed rent payment to Newham. Mears have spent £400,000 annually on repairs to the flats even though they are earmarked for demolition by Newham Council. Newham Council have now announced that the service will be council-run and Mears will commence a process of transferring the flats back to Newham over a period of time.”
This means the Fillers are moving to a new (asbestos-free) home in Custom House. Other formerly Mears-managed properties are being assessed and rents will be reduced by up to 60 percent as the flats return to the council. It has also removed the spectre of eviction that hung over many tenants struggling to make ends meet to and pay rent through lockdown.
PEACH is also helping to shape the Newham community’s long-term future.
“I’m one of the residents who sits on the panel for regeneration and helped to select the architects,” says Samantha Napa, who works for a loans company and also lives in Newham. She has been one of PEACH’s most vocal campaigners. “It’s so cool to think I’m part of that process. We had to choose from six designs. Obviously, I have to think about what is best for everyone, not just me. But it feels like it is being designed for all ages. There will be houses, not just apartments. We don’t want this to be another Stratford.”
The regeneration of Stratford prompted accusations of “social cleansing” after Newham Council approached a housing association with a proposal to re-home 500 families in Stoke-on-Trent. But in Custom House, there will be a ballot in the new year where tenants can vote on the regeneration plan.
When VICE News approached Newham Council for comment, we were directed to a press release published after its decision to end the relationship with Mears. It also states that Fiaz has proposed that ex-Mears tenants who “have lived in the area for five years or more, will receive the Right to Return to a social home in the new regeneration scheme at social rent levels”.
But, as Agyapong adds, “It’s important for us to know it will be legal and in writing that we have that right to return and it won’t be temporary accommodation again.”
It’s also important for the wider community. There are nurses, midwives and other key workers living in Custom House. And PEACH is keen to share what it has learned with other groups after an exceptional and rare victory in a city where social tenants can be at the mercy of developers, landlords and local politics.
As Napa concludes, “Somebody asked me what do you do after you’ve won. I said, ‘We’re going to find out who else is going through the same experience and we’ll fight for them too’.”