Struggling children, ‘inhumane’ housing conditions and a school desperate for help - these were the messages senior officers from Peterborough City Council were confronted with last night at a special meeting on St Michael’s Gate.
Two years of frustrations were brought out over two-and-a-half hours at the Parnwell Community Centre in Saltersgate as homeless families living on the estate, their neighbours, concerned members of the public and MP for Peterborough Fiona Onasanya demanded immediate and large-scale help from the council.
And their requests appeared to have been answered as promises of comprehensive support were soon delivered to some of the struggling families living at St Michael’s Gate who had left those present in no doubt about how let down they had felt by their treatment from the managing agents of the properties, Stef & Philips.
The estate in Parnwell has been headline news for the past two years since the Peterborough Telegraph revealed widespread evictions were being carried out to remove 72 of the 74 sitting tenants. Stef & Philips then agreed a three year deal with the council worth nearly £1 million a year for the authority to use the homes for its homeless households.
The council insisted that if it did not use the homes, another local authority would move their homeless residents in their instead with the council having to pick up the bill.
The PT was present on Monday evening to hear some of the many problems families living at St Michael’s Gate have been facing, including complaints about the houses being cold and damp (leading to children becoming ill and missing school) and a moving speech from the headteacher of Lime Academy Parnwell who said that some children were suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but were not receiving the help they needed.
The cries for help moved council service director for community and safety Adrian Chapman to offer an independent environmental evaluation of half a dozen properties on the estate.
That offer of assistance was soon upgraded, though, as Mr Chapman promised to speak to housing needs manager Sean Evans and agree a package of support specifically for St Michael’s Gate residents as many had complained that they were not being contacted by their housing caseworkers.
“You are a unique group of people. We need to think of you slightly differently to others. We need to spend a bit more time with you,” he said.
“Sean’s 40 officers are not twiddling their thumbs with nothing to do, but we need to understand your frustrations and ensure a better service.
“It’s a promise I’m making to you.”
Mr Evans too promised that the council will “hold Stef & Philips to account,” before council deputy leader Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald stepped in to trump Mr Chapman’s previous offer by guaranteeing that all properties should be inspected.
The cabinet member for integrated adult social care and health appears to be the go-to man for the tough situation as this was the second time he had fronted up at a special St Michael’s Gate public meeting.
And after sitting quietly for two hours, he told those present: “It’s a dreadful situation. I’m going to make sure that these people come back, and I want to know all 78 houses are fit for habitation. You should be treated no differently to any other house in the city. Everybody should have a decent house to live in.”
Cllr Fitzgerald’s comments were greeted with vocal support, as were those made by leader of the council’s Labour group, Cllr Shaz Nawaz.
Cllr Nawaz, who was one of several Labour councillors present, told the council officers: “I’m disappointed and saddened to hear some of the issues. You are aware of all the issues but it’s come across to me like you have done nothing about it.
“It’s disgraceful. People are being patient. If I was in their shoes I would be infuriated with the way the council has handled it.”
Ms Onasanya added: “It’s very critical that if Stef & Philips are in breach of legal requirements that the council holds them to account. I understand the frustration of the people in this room. I have seen the conditions people are living in and it’s inhumane.”
A number of disclosures were made during the meeting, including Cllr Fitzgerald’s belief that each St Michael’s Gate property has been sold off individually by their owners Paul Simon Magic Homes, although it was said that this will not see anything change for the current tenants.
Mr Evans said there are currently around 350 households in temporary accommodation, but that new social housing is on the way. This includes the first of 16 new homes from Medesham Homes - a joint venture between the council and housing association Cross Keys Homes - becoming available for homeless families this month.
Another 250 are due to be delivered in the next two years.
Mr Evans added: “Please don’t think that we’re not thinking about those family’s situations when we’re dealing with this on a day-to-day basis. We absolutely are, and we’re doing the best with the resources we have available.”
Complaints from St Michael’s Gate residents ranged from electricity bills of more than £1,000 in less than 10 months, to a drunk rough sleeper who has been going into a block of flats, putting cigarette butts in electric sockets and urinating on the walls.
Francis Kisero came to the UK from Uganda. He said he worked as a teacher before having his immigration status changed, meaning he lost his working rights and, therefore, his job.
He said: “I’ve never been in a house where they only have electricity.”
Lauren Turner highlighted rotting windows and a hole in her front door. And she did not believe the council would deliver on its offer of support, adding: “I have no faith in you. Your words mean nothing to anyone here.”
One St Michael’s Gate resident said: “My son has cold after cold after cold after cold. School attendance is slipping and it’s a real problem for us as working parents as we have to take time off work.”
Labour councillor Richard Ferris said: “I really fear for people having to spend a second winter in those conditions.”
Dr Shabina Qayyum, a GP who used to work at the Parnwell Medical Centre, said she had seen families in similar situations becoming ill and having mental health difficulties.
However, there were words of thanks from residents to Bobby Duke, the council’s placement and incomes officer, for his help in answering and dealing with their queries.
And there was even a lighter moment when Mr Chapman asked if anyone from Stef & Philips was present. The empty response drew laughter.
“Worth a try,” he added.
One of the most impassioned speeches came from Sarah Cullen, headteacher at Lime Academy Parnwell, who said the school teaches about 40 per cent of the children living at St Michael’s Gate.
She told the meeting: “Every single family comes from a really catastrophic situation that’s put them there in the first place.
“As a school we try really hard to support these families. It’s a really tough job. I know you’re doing your best but the situation is unique and every one of these families need help - medical help, social help.
“We do not have enough early help, and the system is not always helpful for the families we are trying to support. We need something more.
“We are stuck trying to help them. We need social and emotional help on the ground. Attendance is shocking. Some of the children are suffering from PTSD, but we can’t get them diagnosed or help enough.
“We put all the help in, then they move.”