Peterborough's St Michael's Gate: Crime up, lack of children's support and families in despair two years after mass evictions - SPECIAL REPORT
Two years ago a small, peaceful Peterborough estate became the focus of local, national and international attention after being part of a housing deal which caused anger and disbelief and left a happy community fearing for their futures.
St Michael’s Gate in Parnwell was a place filled with families from different backgrounds until new landlords Paul Simon Magic Homes and managing agents Stef & Philips began evicting 72 of the 74 households while offering the homes to Peterborough City Council as temporary accommodation.
The council, faced with a growing number of homeless families they were having to put up in Travelodges at a premium price, signed a three year deal worth nearly Â£1 million a year with Stef & Philips to use the homes - the authority arguing vociferously that if it did not do the deal, another local authority would move their homeless residents into St Michael’s Gate instead.
The deal sparked outrage and prompted campaigns and even a discussion in Parliament. And remarkably the BBC and ITV have both recently returned to film on the estate for features that will be viewed by millions of people.
Now, two years after the Peterborough Telegraph exclusively revealed the evictions of the St Michael’s Gate residents, we returned to see how the community has changed and if any issues have arisen.
“You have to witness verbal abuse. Two old ladies in Keys Park have been threatened. A carer has been threatened. We had to ring police eight times in less than a fortnight. We’ve had to call the fire brigade out. They’ve burnt two bins on the pathway.
“They use the bus shelter as a toilet. They swear. It’s rare we can eat our evening meal in peace. It’s gone beyond repair.”
Richard Salmon is one of several people living near St Michael’s Gate who have witnessed gang trouble recently.
Attendees of the Parnwell Residents’ Association meeting on Monday were reminded that not all those involved will be residents of St Michael’s Gate, but many people at the meeting have lived at nearby Keys Park and Finchfield for a long time and have not seen trouble like this before.
Dorothy Haynes said: “During the night at around two to three in the morning they come out of St Michael’s Gate in their car and sit in the road and rev the car up. It’s at least four times a week.”
Several people at the Parnwell Community Centre were homeless people currently living in St Michael’s Gate who share the same concerns as those living just off the estate.
One of them, Shaz Lewis, claimed the council had previously considered sending her family to a Travelodge in Birmingham.
She said while living at St Michael’s Gate her 15-year-old daughter was attacked and that her son’s bike was stolen the day after his birthday.
Another, Nicci Wells, said she had nearly been sent to a Travelodge in Leicester by the council before being moved onto the estate with her four children, one of whom is suffering due to the storage heaters in the property which trigger his asthma.
“To replace my back door they took off a door from another empty house,” she said.
“My car insurance has gone up to Â£1,800 a year because I’m in temporary accommodation. The storage heaters cost Â£45 a week and do not get warm. There are a few times we have had to phone the police because of the noise and drugs.”
But she added: “We are not all like that. Our children play out there on their bikes.”
Some of the homeless families have been there for 18 months, it was said.
Jelana Stevic, one of the two original tenants who was not evicted from St Michael’s Gate because she has a long term lease, said: “I’ve met some of the people and there are some really lovely people that are struggling, that are under a great deal of stress and have been moved around.
“I just think we’re going to see an increase in crime because there aren’t any police around. There have been so many cutbacks.”
Jelana said Stef & Philips have been trying recently to get rid of her, but she told the meeting: “Trust me I won’t be going anywhere.”
One woman said her house in Walton burnt down and she had lost her job, but that she was paying Â£100 a month to live in St Michael’s Gate.
Another speaker said Stef & Philips had never come out to fill her back gate which her two-year-old could crawl under. Another person then said she was aware of an 18-year-old being sent to a Travelodge in Sheffield.
Rats were also a problem, despite Stef & Philips having a caretaker on site.
Speaking before the meeting Margaret Faulkner, who has lived near St Michael’s Gate for 18 years with husband Michael, said a man living nearby with mental health difficulties had been pelted with eggs, stones and apples.
“We never had any issue when the other residents were there,” she said.
“There are a lot of elderly people on here. One lady, they tried to take her dog off her.
“They tried to set fire to the bus shelter. They ripped off bus timetables.
“The PCSOs keep saying you have to keep ringing 101.”
Bev Dade has lived in Finchfield since 1991. She said: “The place has gone to pot. It was a perfect area but the litter is increasing and they even set fire to the dog poo bin.
“Community police can’t do anything because they only have set powers. We feel we have been pushed under the carpet.”
Cambridgeshire police said they were called 30 times to St Michael’s Gate this summer, compared to nine times in the summer of 2016.
Case study - the children
The headteacher of Lime Academy Parnwell, Sarah Cullen, attended the residents’ meeting and acknowledged some of the primary school’s pupils are likely to have been involved in the anti-social behaviour, which she said the senior leadership team would do its best to tackle.
But she said children from St Michael’s Gate who attend the school come from “genuinely lovely families who need additional support and help”.
She added: “The families we have difficulties with are not the families who are the residents in St Michael’s Gate.
“We’ve actually found them really supportive and who want to work with the school for the interests of their children.
“The difficulty we have is the level of support that Peterborough can offer us to help those families.
“Some children we’ve had have been out of school for some time. It’s shocking. They have been pushed around and missed up to six months of schooling.
“They have placed a lot of very vulnerable families in St Michael’s Gate but there’s not a support system in place to support them to the level that they need.
“We will do our very best to support them but we are not enough. They need more support in place.
“Some of them have come from awful circumstances.
“It’s very difficult to get them support, especially when six months to two years down the line they will be moved on again.
“You start down the pathways with families then they get moved on.”
Support mention included counselling or financial assistance.
Case study - former resident
Tony Roberts lived in St Michael’s Gate for 18 months and found out he was being evicted after spending hundreds of pounds on doing the garden up and buying a new shed.
He said: “My wife’s health took a turn for the worse due to the stress and worry about what was going to happen and where we were going to live.
“Not long before our contract ended, and with the possibility of ending up on the street, we were able to find a private landlord who, after explaining what was happening, was very helpful and we are still there now thanks to our amazing landlady.
“Due to all the financial outlay involved we now live pay cheque to pay cheque as we used all the money we had to move and pay for everything.
“My wife’s health is still not 100 per cent, partially due to the all the stress and worry caused by Peterborough City Council and Paul Simon Magic Homes.
“Would I ever trust either of them? No, I wouldn’t.”
Tony added that he felt “betrayed” and had been “tossed aside like garbage and no one cared”.
Efforts to change the law following the St Michael’s Gate evictions began under former MP for Peterborough Stewart Jackson, who secured a debate in Parliament.
The PT, the Local Government Association and Peterborough City Council have all been campaigning on the issue, with the Government lobbied directly about the need for a change in the law to prevent this situation repeating itself elsewhere. However, neither the LGA nor council responded to recent requests for comment on how the campaigns are going when asked by the PT.
Current MP for Peterborough Fiona Onasanya (pictured) has pledged to try and haul Stef & Philips in front of a Parliament Select Committee and previously wrote to then Housing Secretary Sajid Javid on concerns raised by St Michael’s Gate residents about their properties, as repairs had to be made to them. However, she his yet to receive a response.
She said: “I am in the process of chasing up this letter with (current) Housing Secretary James Brokenshire. I want to reaffirm my commitment to get Stef & Philips/Magic Homes hauled in front of MPs in the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee.
“While I welcome the repair work undertaken in April of this year, it is evident through my correspondence with residents that there are still issues that need to be addressed.
“Even after this time I have received reports of residents having to wait weeks and months for issues such as rat infestation to be solved – which is unacceptable.”