"The people at Grenfell weren't listened to; there's an idea in this country that people in social housing are second class citizens, and they should just be thankful for what they have...People are afraid generally because they don't want to get thrown out..."
One of the major issues which came out of the Grenfell Tower tragedy was that tenants were totally ignored as they warned and warned of a lack of fire safety in their block...
"There is something seriously wrong with a bureaucracy that is incapable of reacting to serious negligence, affecting fire safety in a densely occupied tower block, with any sense of urgency...Does anyone actually give a damn?" asked a newsletter from the Grenfell Action Group in 2013.
Post Grenfell, the lack of accountability within social housing companies has come under the spotlight – and in Salford this seems to be a recurring issue amongst Salix Homes, City West and Pendleton Together tenants.
At Spruce Court, owned by Salford City Council and managed by Pendleton Together, tenants can't even meet together to discuss issues...
"There appears to have been a systematic way of stopping residents coming together as a residents association so we can't complain" says resident Elizabeth Okpo "They took the keys off us for our residents' room, so we can't use it even though it's meant to be for us. When you make complaints they don't address them, they just fob people off."
The residents' group cannot get officially sanctioned as its former chairman violated his tenancy agreement... "Instead of taking him off, they kept him on so we can't constitute another group" Elizabeth explains.
The Grenfell tragedy has brought problems in the block to the surface... Elizabeth, who has lived on the 13th floor of Spruce court for around two years, cites power surges - noted in Grenfell Tower - that she says have caused her cooker and those of other residents, to cut out; there are windows not fitted properly; a lack of fire blankets in individual flats...and, of course, the cladding which has so far failed every Government fire safety test.
"They have fire wardens but I don't feel safe" Elizabeth says "Why can't we have fire blankets, most housing associations do if you live in a flat but they don't...I've asked to move and they told me 'No', I was adequately housed.
"I said 'Well you've put flammable stuff on the building; my home is meant to be safe'" she recalls "I'm traumatised because I seen people being burnt alive at Grenfell...and they're saying everything is alright and we should just stay there – what right have they to say that?
"After it happened they began taking down the cladding but the minute the cameras left there had only been two floors done and work stopped" she adds "...Grenfell happened weeks and weeks ago why has that work stopped? We did not put that cladding up, Salford Council and Pendleton Together signed it off. Why is it still on? I don't understand it. I wrote asking why it is taking so long to take the cladding off and they've not got back to me. I'm fed up with it.
"On the top floors there's disabled people and kids, and I'm also worried for myself" Elizabeth explains "After Grenfell I couldn't sleep, I was scared...They're forcing people to stay in the building because they know if they let people move there'll be an exodus, there'll be no-one there; that's why they are stopping people like me from leaving.
"There's no accountability and that's what's upsetting me" adds Elizabeth, who used to sit on Pendleton Together's Scrutiny Committee "They're disregarding us because they know that a lot of us in social housing don't have money to get a solicitor and we can't get legal aid.
"The people at Grenfell weren't listened to; there's an idea in this country that people in social housing are second class citizens, and they should just be thankful for what they have" she adds "People are afraid generally because they don't want to get thrown out, and it's not easy to find accommodation. People are fed up complaining, writing letters and not getting anywhere."
"When you complain they say you're aggressive" she insists "But the difference with us is that we give our time as tenants because we care about our area, whereas they are paid to care, that's why they are doing it. But they treat us with a lack of respect. They don't care about us."
Indeed, since the Salford Star interviewed Elizabeth a few weeks ago, she has been back in touch to say that she has had an official warning from Pendleton Together for being 'aggressive' in a meeting with one of the company's staff, when she raised issues such as cladding, noise, dogs, the unaffordable NIBE heating system and the refusal to allow her a move.
Elizabeth was warned that she could face an "Application for an injunction to prohibit certain behaviours. This could include a power of arrest. Any breaches of such an order could result in you being found guilty of contempt of court and you could be sent to prison"...
...Or an "Application for possession - This behaviour is a breach of your tenancy agreement and we can consider possession proceedings without any further notice, which could lead to your eviction".
"It's been a nightmare" Elizabeth concludes.
Over in Thorn Court, Neil James wrote to Pendleton Together and copied in the Salford Star with other local media...
"My neighbours and I can't open our windows because the tracking for the blinds is mounted on a piece of wood that prohibits the window from opening into the room" he stated "This has been reported to you on numerous occasions by numerous tenants....
"...In light of Grenfell and the cladding chaos it would be nice to know we might get rescued via the windows if trapped in a fire, or at the very least, have the choice of burning to death in agony or being able to jump to a quicker death" he added "As it stands, if trapped in a fire, we will burn to death in agony..."
Neil was passed onto Keepmoat, who would 'be in touch'... "I think the Salford housing associations take their cues from Salford Council; ignore anyone that raises legitimate issues" he says, adding that he and three other residents were blocked on social media by former Salford Mayor, Ian Stewart, "because we raised the issue of fly tipping and litter not being cleaned
"Before Pendleton Together split from Salix, the deputy chief exec sent an email to the then CEO telling him to cut all communication with me and to just ignore me" Neil adds "She sent it to me by mistake. So I have proof that they have a policy of ignoring tenants.
"I was recently told I owe £200 in rent arrears" he adds "I was forced to find my own accommodation for six weeks whilst Keepmoat renovated the flat. I had to pay rent where I stayed, and then Pendleton Together hit me with a bedroom tax bill for the six weeks I wasn't able to live in my flat! I recently pointed this out to them and suggested they write off the debt to cover my out of pocket expenses but they're ignoring me again..."
These issues are the tip of an iceberg of tenants' complaints of perceived arrogance, victimisation and unaccountability by housing associations in Salford.
At Salix Homes-owned Canon Hussey Court and Arthur Millwood Court, residents are not represented by a tenants association as no-one will put their necks on the line to make formal complaints, fearing a backlash from the housing association.
This despite numerous issues that the Salford Star has been made aware of, from faulty fire doors, to early morning drilling, to a lack of information on works being done to resolve the cladding issues. Here residents have also been threatened with eviction for 'vexatious' complaining.
Meanwhile, via a closed City West tenants Facebook group, the Salford Star asked for comments on the company's tenants associations, or lack of them. Here's some of the responses....
"Nobody has faith in City West anymore"... "Reported them yesterday to police for hate crimes"... "City West have no interest whatsoever in their tenants, never have"...
"City West do not like the power of tenant associations, I have had first hand experience of this. I wrote my own constitution and boy oh boy did they kick up a fuss, they wanted me to use their's which had a lot of clauses in, so stuck to my guns....they didn't like it and I had it for five years...I advise anyone to do the same - write your own rules and stick to them..."
"They don't even listen to court orders either! Goes in one ear and out the other; they don't care as long as they get their rent, and if you don't pay it they are soon on the phone demanding for payment or its court for eviction..."... "They don't even listen to councillors, I have proved this many times"... "ForViva, which owns City West, have banned me from our tenants association..."...
"Since when did they become masters of the tenant groups?...tenants groups are named as such because it is there for the tenants to bring landlords to task....City West should only attend if they receive an invite from the chair.....they should not be able to control the tenant group!!!"
Real and properly functioning tenants associations, which hold housing associations to account, are absolutely crucial...
The Salford Star has been passed the minutes of a meeting of Autistic Spectrum Conditions Forum held in July. Within a long list of complaints about the treatment of these vulnerable people, housing was particularly singled out...
The minutes note: "Housing organisations not explaining their service both in terms of exactly what they provide and the process people need to follow. This has meant people have not been able to make fully informed decisions about their housing. Salix was specifically mentioned"...
"Not taking account of the needs of people with Autistic Spectrum Conditions in terms of suitable locations for housing to be offered. One person talked about being offered only areas where he felt extremely vulnerable. One person said they had only been offered locations a long way from their support networks, they said it felt like being 'ripped out'"....
"People being sent to emergency accommodation that did not meet basic health and safety requirements and then not being listened to when this was raised at the housing office"... "Being housed in inappropriate accommodation can lead to people being stressed and being labelled as having 'difficult behaviour'..."
Indeed a court case in April found that a review of accommodation for a physically and mentally disabled man by Salford City Council was "seriously flawed", "serially failed" and "does not come close to satisfying the requisite legal test in applying the 'equality duty'" (see here).
The fall-out from Grenfell is exposing more and more how residents need to be listened to and treated with respect, rather than with threats.
Since Salford Council transferred almost all of its social housing to be either owned or managed by Pendleton Together, Salix Homes and City West there has been a huge democracy deficit. Re-building real tenants associations may be one way of solving this.
The Salford Star asked Pendleton Together for comments on power surges; the lack of fire blankets; the refusal of Elizabeth's request to move out of the block; the ill fitting windows; the NIBE system; the lack of response to complaints; and the company stopping residents constituting themselves as a residents association. Pendleton Together didn't respond. Meanwhile, Salix Homes, City West and Salford City Council never respond to Salford Star requests for comments.
See also previous Salford Star article - Justice For Grenfell Meeting Hears That Residents Must Find Their Voice - click here
Main photo shows Elizabeth outside Spruce Court