Jelana Stevic with a copy of a PT front page, in front of residents from St Michael's Gate and neighbouring areas

How Peterborough’s St Michael’s Gate remains troubled five years on from controversial housing deal

Five years ago a happy community in Peterborough became synonymous with a controversial housing deal which drew international attention and had wide-ranging consequences.

Monday, 2nd August 2021, 4:58 am

In 2016, St Michael’s Gate was a thriving estate with young families and people from all nationalities and backgrounds rubbing along well together.

One of those living there was Beverley Nicholls, who recalled: “We all took pride in our properties and if someone was going on holiday we could count on people taking care of each other. The surrounding areas appreciated that as well.”

Sadly, Beverley and son Harry were in for a shock just before Christmas after an eviction notice dropped on their doorstep, a scenario faced by 71 other households who were also given two months to pack their bags before being turfed out of their homes.

At the time Beverley was recovering from a serious accident and would lose her job, making 2016 a “traumatic” year. Fortunately, she has managed to turn her life around in the intervening years, but others have been less lucky.

“There were families with young children, families that didn’t speak English as their native language who did not know where to go help. Some went back home to Eastern Europe,” she told the Peterborough Telegraph.

It was in September 2016 that the PT revealed all 74 homes in the Parnwell estate had been bought by Paul Simon Magic Homes.

The housing firm then used Stef & Philips to act as managing agents for the properties and evict all the families living there, leaving them all homeless.

And in a scenario which went beyond parody, it was confirmed that the now empty dwellings would soon be leased out to Peterborough City Council - to house the homeless.

Recalling the episode now, Beverley said: “My feelings towards it haven’t changed. It was a disgusting way of doing things. There was no consideration from Stef & Philips. There was no common sense in doing what they did.

“They gave everyone evictions at the same time and made us all homeless, while offering St Michael’s Gate to the council to put in the homeless.”

The council at the time was dealing with a surge of homelessness which it said had been sparked by the roll-out of Universal Credit and higher taxation on landlords and was forcing it to place families in Travelodges - both inside and outside of Peterborough.

It also argued vociferously that Stef & Philips had threatened to bring in homeless families from London and other areas if it had not taken up its offer to use the homes as temporary accommodation - a scenario it argues would have been extremely costly.

Despite this, there was widespread anger at what was unfolding, prompting bitter residents’ meetings with senior council officials and then MP Stewart Jackson, protests and a debate in Parliament, as well as a PT campaign which eventually saw the Government promise to clampdown on ‘unfair’ evictions.

National and international TV crews also flocked to Peterborough to report on what seemed an incomprehensible situation.

But even now that the dust has settled, for many the pain lives on.

Jelana Stevic was one of two people at St Michael’s Gate who had long-term tenancies, meaning they could not be evicted.

But in the past five years she has seen her home area go downhill due to what she believes is a lack of care and attention.

“I’ve just walked around the street I’ve lived on since January 1996 and it was a crying shame what I saw,” she told the PT.

“The thing that strikes you immediately is the total disregard and care of the street.

“If the owners don’t care they really are not sending a good message to the people who stay here either and it shows, sadly.”

Those problems were elaborated on by Jean McNeil, chair of the residents’ association, who lives in nearby Keys Park.

“From talking to people and over the four years I’ve been here, it has gone downhill and continues to spiral downhill,” she said.

“It looks so unloved, like it’s been abandoned almost. Things like boundary fences all fallen down, vegetation completely overgrown - it’s been completely uncared for.

“Doors and windows are rotten and letting in damp. Rat traps are all over the place because there are vermin problems.

“People I’ve spoken to, and from my own observations, the people responsible for that area, once they owned it, have sucked the money out of it as far as they can and don’t want to be bothered over it.

“They’re dragging their heels over all of the issues and doing nothing. I think they will continue to do nothing unless they are forced to do something.

“I feel sorry for the residents there. They are the ones who suffer.

“There’s litter everywhere with bins overflowing.

“It’s depressing to walk through. It must be extremely depressing to live there.”

Jean also highlighted issues with crime, adding: “They have had problems with drugs which are rife apparently. Talking to residents they’ve had problems with prostitution. There was one incident where an armed response team had to come in because one of the residents had weapons. It’s shocking.”

Problems at St Michael’s Gate since the homes were bought in 2016 are not new.

Back in 2018, the PT revisited the estate and revealed widespread complaints regarding anti-social behaviour, as well as severe mental health struggles for children attending a local school.

A year earlier, we had revealed that an enforcement notice had been handed over by the council to Stef & Philips following complaints about damp and mould at some of the properties.

It was also later discovered that a number of windows needed to be replaced.

The local authority took action by drawing up an action plan which included site visits, a dedicated email address to raise concerns and the introduction of gas heating.

It even intended to buy the homes, before deciding instead to continue renting them as temporary accommodation.

Currently, the properties are owned by various investors with Stef & Philips remaining responsible for maintenance of the site and day-to-day contact with residents.

Told about the current issues, and asked for its reflections on the deal five years ago, a council spokesperson said: “We only recently heard that residents were unhappy with the maintenance of St Michael’s Gate.

“The council has been in contact with Stef & Philips which has responsibility for the site. Stef & Philips has confirmed it has received concerns from residents about maintenance and has provided reassurance that works to clear and maintain green spaces and carry out repairs on homes have been scheduled in to be completed in the coming weeks.

“As a council we put in a 12 point plan of action for residents in 2018, which included looking into reducing heating bills, the quality of communication with our housing team and a dedicated email address for tenants to use if they had any issues.

“Since then, the council has upheld to this. In addition, new gas central heating and boilers were installed in the properties at St Michael’s Gate in 2019. This was following previous feedback that storage heaters in the flats were uneconomical and ineffective.

“The only point we have had difficulty in carrying out is over the last 18 months is the regular weekly visits by our housing team - this is due to government social distancing restrictions due to Covid-19.

“Now restrictions have been lifted we will be recommencing these and have increased the number of housing officers designated to complete this role in all our temporary accommodation sites.”

Neither Stef & Philips nor Paul Simon Magic Homes have responded after being approached for comment.

For Beverley, after a traumatic 2016 life is much better now, albeit moving into a new home she found in Hampton Hargate left her in debt, despite some financial assistance from the council.

Despite this, her indignation at how she and her son were treated remains strong to this day.

“We were lucky to get the property which we did which is a long let so I don’t have to worry about being evicted. I don’t think a lot of people in St Michael’s Gate were in the same fortunate position we were. There were some very sad stories which came out of it.

“I think it’s atrocious companies can play with people’s lives like that.”

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