Residents in Edinburgh’s Old Town fight property development group’s attempt to ban healthy environmental traditions

By John Reiach

For a year now a major row has been brewing between the property development group Places for People, through their subsidiary Castle Rock Edinvar Housing Association, and a community of tenants living in a 19th century tenement property in Edinburgh’s Old Town, over the use of ‘common areas’, which raises fundamental issues of civil rights, argues John Reiach.

First a brief history. Built as part of a municipal slum clearance programme in the 1890’s, High School Yards was the first of a new tenement model in Edinburgh’s Old Town, designed to increase the free circulation of air in the common areas of each floor in order to improve public health. It was natural that the occupants of the cramped flats would spill out onto these open-air common spaces, to dry laundry throughout the year, and to socialise in the warmer months, no longer cooped up in damp confined spaces. Fire safety was also improved – no longer the risk of clothes catching alight in front of an open fire – as well as protecting the fabric of the building itself from humidity damage. 1

Then as now the Old Town was heavily built up, with green public space in short supply, so the tenants would keep plants, culinary and decorative, on these south-facing, sheltered balconies, brightening up an otherwise drab street. On site visits during the construction of Edinburgh University’s new Centre for Carbon Innovation across the road ( opened in 2013 ), local architect Malcolm Fraser would regularly enthuse about the balcony greenery. In 2004 and ’05 High School Yards residents won the top award for best urban floral display from City of Edinburgh Council. Not bad for a street barely 100 yards long. Castle Rock Edinvar Housing Association ( CRE ), by now owners of the flats, were extremely pleased, and featured a glowing article in their newsletter encouraging tenants in other areas to follow the example set at High School Yards.

This was all apparently a ghastly mistake.

In April 2018 tenants started receiving, out of the blue, a series of threatening letters from the housing association, ordering them to remove all items from the common areas, including the access decks/balconies and window ledges. If these warnings were not heeded, tenants were warned, the offending items would be removed, and tenants would have to pay an undisclosed sum to get them back. Housing Association staff members were glimpsed furtively photographing items on the balconies, a cross between Inspector Clouseau and the Stasi, gathering evidence of the new crime.

Unsurprisingly the residents were upset by this, and by the new interpretation of the Scottish Secure Tenancy Agreement, the more especially as there was no consultation beforehand. But also bemused. What could lie behind this sudden volte-face, after decades of either indifference or, when it suited them, enthusiasm? A change in the law? Edinburgh Council, a far bigger landlord in the city, has not adopted this ‘blanket ban’ approach to the common areas of their tenement buildings.

When the Association’s managing director Richard Jennings was asked, both in writing and, a week later, face-to-face at the Castle Rock Edinvar AGM last September, by an Association member, for the minutes of the meeting at which the decision to adopt the new policy was made, the member was simply ‘blanked’. Until housing associations in Scotland become subject to Freedom of Information legislation in November 2019, enforcing greater transparency, the details of how this decision was arrived at, by whom, when and where, look like remaining undisclosed.

Such was the concern about the Association’s apparent lack of interest in tenants’ concerns ( not to mention the discourtesy of ignoring legitimate questions ), that they took the matter up with their local political representatives, including Andy Wightman MSP, who raised the tenants’ case and expressed concern about CRE’s dismissive attitude, at a meeting of the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Communities Committee, at which the Chair and Chief Executive of the Scottish Housing Regulator were presenting their Annual Report and Accounts, on the 30th January 2019.

To date, the tenants of High School Yards, and indeed other CRE-owned properties, are still largely in the dark, speculating on the possible rationale behind the Association’s abrupt change of policy. What is emerging from the fog thus far is that this decision seems to have been made at senior level by the mighty Places for People property group, headquartered in London, of which Castle Rock Edinvar Housing Association is now effectively the Scottish branch office.

To justify the new policy retrospectively, two ‘fire risk assessments’ were commercially commissioned by Castle Rock Edinvar in early June 2018, one for each stair. When tenants finally got hold of them they were found to contain a number of serious omissions and inaccuracies. For instance, the assessments referred to 2 non-existent fire escape doors in the basement of the building.

However, the assessments did accurately highlight the lack of an emergency release button next to the 2 electronically controlled security gates ( one for each stair ) – the only way in or out of the building. Several times during the past year one or other of the gates has jammed shut, leaving residents trapped inside for up to 2 hours. In an emergency the consequences of such a failure could be catastrophic.

Interestingly, in view of the Association’s obsessive interest in the apparent hazards of potted plants and laundry, their commissioned fire risk assessment, while noting items in common areas, on the issue of potential obstruction in an emergency adopted a markedly less hysterical attitude : ” The assessor did appreciate that in the main, the means of escape was maintained and as such the risk to persons in an emergency evacuation are low.”

So why CRE’s ‘everything must go’ line ? In a conciliatory letter to senior CRE staff, the local MP Tommy Sheppard pointed out that City of Edinburgh Council, the biggest housing landlord in the city, takes a more nuanced attitude on the use of common areas, dealing with the issue on a case-by-case basis, only intervening in instances where the facility is being abused ( obstructing egress ), thereby giving tenants greater respect and autonomy, and hence responsibility over their own lives. Mr Sheppard suggested that the Association’s new policy was ‘disproportionate’, and unfair on responsible tenants.

His words fell on deaf ears. In an astonishing statement, at a disastrous meeting between staff and tenants on 8 November 2018, CRE Managing Director Richard Jennings suggested: “We can sort this out between ourselves. Let’s keep the politicians out of this”. Presumably so the landlord could walk all over the tenants.

In spite of the Association’s argument being patiently demolished by tenants and politicians, senior personnel at Castle Rock Edinvar persist in pursuing this draconian line, their last line of defence being that, having commissioned a commercial fire safety assessment, they are obliged to carry out its recommendations. And yet their own assessment played down the issue of plants on the balconies, and did not even mention the traditional practice of drying laundry along the outside of the building. This is not a legal requirement. Moreover, legal advice taken by tenants suggests that the housing association, by having hitherto for many years failed to apply this interpretation of the Scottish Secure Tenancy Agreement, indeed having encouraged the keeping of plants in common areas, has forfeited whatever right it may have had to do so now.

And conversely, why is the landlord not tackling existing genuine safety issues? When an official Scottish Fire and Rescue Service assessment was suggested as a means of settling the dispute, again there was no response from Castle Rock Edinvar.

The implementation of the landlord’s new ‘get tough’ policy – of clearing common areas of plants and other small, non-obstructive items, and the attempt to ban the traditional practice of drying laundry along the outside of the building, as practiced in every other country in Europe – appears to amount to some sort of new ‘red line’ for the Association. This, tenants can currently only guess, is related to instructions from Places for People HQ.

So important indeed that it has offered tenants various ‘sweeteners’ to smooth the enforcement process. As an alternative to the traditional zero-carbon practice of drying laundry in the open air, they have offered to supply a new washing machine with drying facility to each of the 36 flats, and, through smart-technology, to meet the additional energy cost of using these dryers – effectively a bribe, and contrary to the Association’s avowed environmental approach 2, and moreover out of step with current Scottish Government thinking 3 . Perhaps someone should gently remind them there is a global climate-change crisis.
In a half-baked attempt to con tenants into believing that this is an adequate alternative to the current practice of growing plants in pots, the Association has offered to provide ‘plant troughs’ to be affixed to the outside of the balcony railings. This is clearly quite a different proposition, drastically restricting the type of plants that can be grown in a space no longer sheltered from wind and rain, completely unsuitable for climbing plants for example. In addition the uniformity of supplying identical containers further institutionalises the building, and the community, completely missing the point, crushing autonomy, initiative, creativity and the emotional security and confidence that come with making a place one’s own 4 .

Someone is basically coming into your home, uninvited, running his finger along the skirting board to check for dust, and deciding what kind of furniture you are going to sit on.

Orwellian ? Huxleyan ? Take your pick. With the important difference that now it’s not the state forcing compliance, but business.

Many of the tenants ended up living in High School Yards through the homelessness route, brought about through a range of causes from domestic abuse to loss of employment, drug addiction and physical or mental illness. For these tenants the balconies have become an outdoor sanctuary, ideal for the nurturing of plants and beneficial to health recovery. When, on a recent visit to High School Yards, Tommy Sheppard MP walked out on to one of the balconies and was asked if he thought the plants and small garden seat he saw amounted to a problem, he replied : “I would say they are an enhancement” .

The tortuous and expensive alternatives proposed by Castle Rock Edinvar suggest that the enforcement of the new policy is hugely important to the housing association, even though it has little if anything to do with health and safety. Why ? . .

“The Grenfell House fire was so horrific that – given that previous fires (particularly the Lakanal House tragedy) are widely seen as having demonstrated official under-reaction to serious fire safety failings in high-rise apartment buildings – a knee-jerk over-reaction now by politicians is almost guaranteed.” 5

There is little doubt that Places for People’s recent interest in fire safety has been prompted by the Grenfell Tower fire in London, when various management groups and authorities, up to national government level, were found wanting. The differences between Grenfell Tower and the tenement at High School Yards hardly need pointing out ( materials, size, etc. ), yet the tragedy seems to have been a catalyst for a general ‘health-and-safety’ blitz throughout the entire rented housing sector, some of it overdue, and some, as in this instance, pointless.

‘Places for People’ is a big player throughout the UK in rented housing, especially the mid-market ‘affordable’ sector, owning over 180,000 homes. In addition to a recent loan from HSBC of £250m toward new-build projects across the UK 6, in June 2018 the Scottish Government awarded them a long-term loan of £47.5m toward the cost of building 1000 ‘affordable’ or mid-market rent homes in Scotland, one of the biggest of its kind made to a housing association by a Scottish Government. 7

This shortly after Castle Rock Edinvar introduced their new ‘health and safety’ policy throughout their properties, as described above. Coincidence ? Possibly.

It’s all about public perception, especially where governments are concerned. They like to be perceived to be acting dynamically and in the public’s best interests, even if these actions ultimately serve no practical purpose.

There is real anger among tenants that, in order to meet government expectations, the housing association is prepared to intimidate a vulnerable community into compliance with a practically pointless policy. Perhaps Places for People simply calculates this to be the easiest administrative option. Certainly consideration for the tenants’ well-being has not been a priority.

If, say, a government agency attempted to coerce the owner-occupying housing sector in this way there would probably be an insurrection, so why should it be acceptable for a landlord to treat its tenants in this way ?

The issue of sensibly policing common areas comes down to treating people with respect. Give people responsibility and autonomy and they are likely to respond positively. Infantilise and bully them and they are less likely to.

As well as a causing a great deal of anger, the landlord’s attitude is a cause for real regret. The original Edinvar Housing Association was set up in the early 1970’s with the aim of providing accommodation for students ( hence the name ) in Edinburgh’s Old Town and Southside by buying up semi-derelict property, making it wind- and water-tight and letting it cheaply. Attention quickly switched to the homeless community which has traditionally gravitated to the Old Town, and they became the main beneficiaries of what became known as ‘social housing’ – means-tested letting according to housing and medical need. By present-day standards the Association was small, had its offices locally in the Cowgate and was led by a humane and fair-minded director who made himself available and valued transparency and good communication. Tenants were encouraged to participate in the running of the Association, for instance by sitting on the Board of Management, a practice subsequently done away with ( again, a deafening silence when asked why ). Relations between Association staff and tenants were generally good if the accommodation was somewhat basic. By contrast, Places for People is an absentee landlord, based hundreds of miles away, and Castle Rock Edinvar Housing Association has been reduced to a latter-day factor or ‘enforcer’, taking its orders from the remote parent company :

“Over the past 15 years the Places for People Group has evolved from a housing association into one of the largest property management, development, regeneration and leisure companies in the UK, managing or owning more than 153,000 homes and 116 leisure centres.” 8

Something of incalculable value has been lost in the process of the local housing association being swallowed up. We might call it trust. Tenants are no longer considered as either individuals with specific needs or, in group form, as communities. In the past, tenants and local housing staff worked together to tackle issues ranging from neighbour anti-social behaviour to energy efficiency, security and building maintenance, to the mutual benefit of both parties. The new remote leviathan has put an end to much of that. This loss of trust has made the resolution of many of these issues more difficult, and set back the cause of landlord-tenant relations at Castle Rock Edinvar Housing Association by some years.

Finally, to put it simply, the building at High School Yards is home to a community, not just 36 units to be slotted in to a spreadsheet. And the so-called ‘common areas’ are an integral part of that home.

Perhaps the last word should go to the polymath Sir Patrick Geddes : botanist, town-planner, sociologist and early ecologist, who lived in and cared passionately about Edinburgh’s Old Town, not simply its buildings and its open spaces, but also its living community. A Victorian well ahead of his time, he understood the need for good housing and sanitation, and the therapeutic benefits, especially to an inner-city community, of horticulture and fresh air.

” How many people think twice about a leaf? Yet the leaf is the chief product and phenomenon of Life: this is a green world, with animals comparatively few and small, and all dependent upon the leaves. By leaves we live. ” 9

Among his many achievements Geddes set up the Environment Society in 1884, later the Edinburgh Social Union, forerunner of the Old Town Association and the Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust, to encourage Old Town residents to survey, plan, improve and above all to connect with their local environment both built and natural. Some in present-day housing management could usefully take a leaf out of his book.

 

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Notes

1. ‘Renewing Old Edinburgh – the Enduring Legacy of Patrick Geddes’ by Jim Johnson and Lou Rosenburg ( Argyll Publishing 2010 ); ‘Scotland’s Homes Fit for Heroes – Garden City Influences on the Development of Scottish Working Class Housing 1900 to 1939’ by Lou Rosenburg ( The Word Bank 2016 )

2. https://castlerockedinvar.co.uk/about_us/green_organisation.aspx

3. https://www.gov.scot/policies/energy-efficiency/

4. Scottish Housing News 23/4/19 : “Feeling ‘at home’ vital for health and wellbeing of tenants”

5. Architects’ Journal 3/12/18

6. https://scottishhousingnews.com/article/places-for-people-secures-250m-of-funding

7. https://scottishhousingnews.com/article/mid-market-rent-investment-to-deliver-1000-new-homes

8. https://www.placesforpeople.co.uk/about-us/news/2016/places-for-people-named-residential-company-of-the-year/

9. https://www.nls.uk/learning-zone/politics-and-society/patrick-geddes

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