Angry Parnwell residents facing eviction from their homes used a public meeting to criticise the lack of support they have received from Peterborough City Council.
The residents, who are among 74 tenants being evicted from St Michael’s Gate by a private firm, took aim at the council during the meeting with one revealing that she had gone into debt to finance a move to a new home.
The council has faced severe criticism after the Peterborough Telegraph revealed it will pay nearly £1 million a year to the company Stef and Philips to use the vacated properties as temporary accommodation for homeless families.
Stef and Philips is the managing agent for the properties which were bought by a company called Paul Simon Magic Homes, although both share the same director.
Last Friday (October 14) some of the residents facing eviction got the chance to grill a leading figure from the council for the first time - deputy leader and cabinet member Councillor Wayne Fitzgerald.
Speaking at the Parnwell Community Centre in Saltersgate, one evicted tenant made reference to the revelation in last week’s Peterborough Telegraph that nine tenants from St Michael’s Gate have declared themselves as homeless with the council.
She said: “You have nine members of our street already on your doorstep. I don’t know how many more you’re going to end up having, and are you basically going to end up putting them in the same house?
“These people have been given two months, and one lady here has had to go into debt to go somewhere else.”
The tenant who is in debt spoke later on. She said: “I had my notice of possession on August Bank Holiday. I have to be out of my property in two weeks’ time.
“The first time that any support, any letter, any communication, anything, has come from either the council or anywhere, has been in the last two weeks when this story hit the media.
“I did contact the council the minute I got my notice of possession. The council told me that due to the waiting list on housing, there was no way that we could be re-housed by the 31st of October and they would put us in homeless accommodation.”
Another audience member said: “These people have been really good. They have lived opposite me for over 15 years and I’ve not had a bit of trouble from them and it’s disgusting they’re being chucked out.”
Another speaker then made reference to plans from Stef and Philips and Paul Simon to convert the number of properties from 74 into 98, which would dwarf the number in neighbouring estates.
He said to loud applause: “We’re going to have 98 homes. That’s bigger than Finchfield - I don’t know how many are in Keys Park, There’s going to be a ghetto.”
The hour-long meeting, hosted by MP for Peterborough Stewart Jackson, began and ended in a calm fashion, with tensions flaring up in between. The most anger came from the insistence that if the council did not rent the properties, another authority would.
Mr Jackson said: “St Michael’s Gate was owned by Royal British Housing at one time and we need to find out what happened between that being a social housing provider and the properties falling in the hands of people whose business model is not as potentially ethical as I would like.”
He added: “I find the course of action they are taking morally repugnant. I think they’re wrong. I think we need to find how we got here and how we go forward to make sure those people who are settled are able to stay in the city.
“What they [the council] say is, if Peterborough City Council pull out, then what will happen is Luton Borough Council will decamp their homeless people to this area.
“If they don’t sign on the dotted line, Luton will.”
An audience member replied: “Is that guaranteed? Because to me that sounds like a veiled threat.”
Cllr Fitzgerald, who was joined at the front by ward councillors Azher Iqbal and Marcus Sims, although neither man spoke, said: “It was clearly put to the cabinet that if you don’t do this, somebody else will. These people already have a track record, and they are in contract with eight other local authorities. It is their business model, so rest assured they would.
“We think it stinks, both Stewart and I and all my colleagues here and the majority of councillors think it stinks. It’s absolutely dreadful.
“But if we do nothing, those people who have been given notice to quit their tenancy will still be required to do so.”
Cllr Fitzgerald said the council, which is expecting an overspend of at least £1.2 million this year due to the city’s homelessness crisis, would save £1.8 million a year if it can rent the properties as temporary accommodation.
This is because the council can claim back a lot more money from the Government compared to when it has to put homeless people in Travelodges, which is what it has been doing this year.
Mr Jackson has previously been a critic of the council’s decision to rent the properties, but he appeared to have softened his stance, saying: “We are in a position we’re in which we all regret, but we can’t just say ‘we can’t sign the deal’.”
Amid the anger there were suggestions about what the next steps should be.
One audience member said: “There are loads of office blocks in the middle of Peterborough that are empty. Why don’t you make them into flats and put the homeless in there?”
Another received loud applause for saying: “As a law-abiding citizen I’m not saying I advocate this, but it would certainly get some publicity if all those people getting evicted didn’t move.”
Several audience members called for the law to be changed so Paul Simon and Stef and Philips could not do a deal like this.
Another asked whether the council could compulsory purchase the homes, forcing the current landlords to sell up.
Mr Jackson suggested a Judicial Review where a judge reviews the lawfulness of a decision or action made by a public body, in this case the council.
He also said he would try to secure free legal advice for tenants facing eviction and that he would be applying for a special debate with the Government’s housing minister.
As the meeting ended, one audience member standing by the exit told the room: “What is happening here is what the people of Germany did to the people of Poland in 1938.”
That remark drew applause and cries of “bravo” and “well said.”
Speaking afterwards Jelana Stevic, a resident of St Michael’s Gate since 1996, said: “I think the law needs to be changed so private owners of properties like this can’t be allowed to make money from a social situation.
“They are moving figures on paper and not seeing the lives and the community they are ripping apart.”
She added: “We are a community. We look after each other, each other’s keys, each other’s pets.
“Look at the support we’ve had tonight, it’s fantastic.”
Tony Roberts, another St Michael’s Gate resident, said: “Stewart was making a lot of promises so it will be interesting to see if he keeps any of them.
“A lot of people have their eviction dates looming.”
Mr Jackson said: “I think it was a very productive meeting. It was important to listen to people’s individual circumstances.
“We have an action plan now, but our immediate concern is to make sure it remains a good area and the people of St Michael’s Gate have a roof over their heads.”
Cllr Fitzgerald admitted it was a “difficult meeting,” but added: “I feel a great deal for the residents who made some really good points, and I will take those points back to the council.”