Bitter exchanges greeted the final approval for a deal to move homeless people into a Peterborough estate where the tenants have been evicted.
Peterborough City Council will now sign a deal to pay Stef and Philips nearly £1 million a year to use 98 properties in St Michael’s Gate, Parnwell, as temporary accommodation, but only after a lot of anger from councillors who tried desperately to stop it from going ahead.
The controversial deal will see the eviction of 74 tenants at the site by the firms Stef and Philips and Paul Simon Magic Homes, with many having already left and some having already gone to the council to declare themselves as homeless.
Liberal Democrat councillors had tried to block the deal by calling it in, but their call-in was dramatically rejected by the council’s Sustainable Growth and Environment Capital Scrutiny Committee last night (Wednesday, October 19).
After an original 3-3 split, the casting vote was delivered minutes later by committee chairman Cllr Steve Allen, meaning all four Conservative councillors on the committee had outvoted the one Liberal Democrat and two Labour councillors.
That decision to reject the call-in killed off the last opposition to the proposals which have stirred national attention, and last night’s meeting even saw a cameraman believed to be from Russia Today come to film at the Town Hall.
Following the committee’s decision, Liberal Democrat councillor Julia Davidson called out: “I hope you sleep well at night,” a barb aimed at the area where council officers and members of the Conservative-run cabinet were sitting.
The arguments which had begun during the meeting then carried on outside the Council Chamber, with plenty of anger that the deal with Stef and Philips was now definitely going ahead.
Cllr Davidson was one of three Lib Dem councillors to call-in the deal, alongside Cllr Darren Fower and Cllr Nick Sandford.
Addressing the committee, the member for Gunthorpe said: “It’s important to negotiate a freeze on evictions while all options are considered. We have the opportunity before us to make a working model that will benefit everyone involved and protect residents from St Michael’s Gate and people in the future.”
Echoing comments made by Prime Minister Theresa May, she added: “It’s clear the proposal between Stef and Philips and Peterborough City Council is not a Britain that works for everyone.
“I appeal to your compassion - we could all be in that situation. These families are being evicted through no fault of their own.”
Cllr Fower said: “The public do not feel you have acted in their interest, but in your own interest.”
The member for Gunthorpe also accused senior councillors and council officers of “scaremongering” for suggesting that if the council did not rent the properties then a London borough council, or Luton Borough Council, would rent them instead.
Both Cllr Davidson and Cllr Fower also suggested that evicted tenants should receive money from the council.
Cllr Sandford said people he spoke to about what was happening at St Michael’s Gate thought “it’s crazy.” He continued: “They are turfing people out of that housing to put other people in who are homeless.”
Cllr Sandford felt the council’s continual need to save millions of pounds every year was the reason for doing the deal.
He added: “If we are seen to be condoning this sort of action are we not opening the door to a whole range of other contractors saying Peterborough City Council is an easy touch?”
The Lib Dem group leader and member for Paston and Walton also queried how there were not available houses to put homeless people in with so many properties being built in Peterborough.
Other speakers included Labour councillor Jo Johnson who said she had been told by Luton Borough Council that it had no interest in the properties.
She also said families should be given £2,000 if they are having to move. The member for East ward added: “The whole situation is something I find totally immoral.
“They are putting profits before the people of St Michael’s Gate. There are families there with disabled children who have adapted their homes to make children feel safe.”
Leah Robb, who has previously handed in a petition to the council against the evictions, said Stef and Philips had shown no respect to families, while Cllr Ed Murphy, Labour and Co-operative member for Ravensthorpe, said the council should be looking to use emergency private sector accommodation until new homes are built.
Defending the council was cabinet member for resources, Cllr David Seaton, who said: “I understand the concerns of tenants, but my decision was based on two key factors.
“Firstly, that Stef and Philips would be evicting the tenants whatever action the council took. And secondly, if we do not sign the contract with Stef and Philips homeless people from another council would move to this area.”
That claim was backed up by Adrian Chapman, service director for adults and communities, who said not only were Stef and Philips were in contact with 10 local authorities who were interested in the properties, but that a similar situation had happened in Luton where the borough council was offered 62 flats but took too long to make a decision.
This left the door open for another London borough council (believed to be Barnet) to rent the properties.
That information came from an email written by Shaz Wasim, business development director at Stef and Philips. In the email he added: “It is important to note that St Michael’s Gate would be very attractive to other councils, including London boroughs, had Peterborough City Council not made the decision to use it to meet local needs.”
Mr Chapman also said signing up with Stef and Philips would reduce a £1.9 million annual deficit to £126,000. This is because the council can claim much more money back from the Government when homeless people are housed in properties with their own and kitchen and bathroom.
And he called on St Michael’s Gate residents who were in the room to speak to the council’s housing needs team.
Cllr Seaton also added that the council would be responsible for the families who moved to Peterborough from another city, including their future housing and school needs.
Asked by Liberal Democrat committee member Cllr Asif Shaheed if something similar could happening in the future, Cllr Seaton said the council had been approached about using accommodation in other cities, but that it had refused to do so.
Cllr Irene Walsh, cabinet member for communities and environmental capital, said: “We were faced with no choice but to accept this offer.”
The committee then debated whether to approve the call-in which, if accepted, would have forced Cllr Seaton to consider recommendations before deciding for a second time whether to ratify the deal or not.
Cllr June Bull, Conservative member for Orton Longueville, said: “Our primary duty has to be our own,” while Cllr Ray Bisby, Conservative member for Stanground South, said the council was agreeing to the “best option.”
Cllr Dave King, Conservative member for Hampton Vale, also agreed to vote against the call-in.
But Cllr Stuart Martin, Labour member for Bretton, said: “It’s obvious this decision is purely and simply about money. These hard-working people who pay rent and council tax will be thrown into the streets.”
Saying that the situation was comparable to something from Monty Python, he added: “It would be funny if it was not so cruel. This decision must be reversed and scrapped, or the residents of Parnwell will not forget this heartless act.”
Cllr Ansar Ali, Labour member for North ward, said: “I concur with my colleague. It sets a very dangerous precedence if you go ahead with this decision. We need a fuller debate and to consider all the options.”
Cllr Shaheed said: “This is so, so hard. Peterborough City Council is caught between a rock and a hard place.” But he added: “We have to pursue all our options so I agree with the call-in.
That left Cllr Allen with the casting vote. He said: “I think the business model of Stef and Philips stinks like last week’s fish. To make people homeless to accommodate homeless people beggars belief.”
But he added: “I’m doing this with a heavy heart - I’m not supporting the call-in.”