Thursday, 21 October 2010
COVEN: How it all began, or The struggle of local people against dodgy developers.
It all started in March 2008, when Richard Bilton brought Panorama in East End Park. We were all quite shocked, we were on TV for all the wrong reasons and Panorama was all we talked about. A friend of mine from Sunderland who stayed with me at the time called all her friends to tell them that she had been in the Panorama area.
But some of us, walking the streets in East End Park and Richmond Hill noticed a change that could make things so much worse. We noticed back-to-back houses being turned into flats: with shower rooms in the living room and added side entrances in the binyards. We decided to look into it, and what we found was shocking: a formerly successful businessman, Jason Butler from the formerly successful Jump estate agents had applied to turn seven houses in the area into bedsits after he had already converted two back-to-backs in the Glensdales without permission.
The planning applications were also shocking: the typeII back-to-backs were going to be turned into four bedsits, resulting to people living in cellars with no natural light or fresh air. We knew we had to object to them, but we also had a number of questions: Why was the developer so sure as to complete the conversions without planning permission? Was this a “pilot” for more such conversions in East End Park?
At the time some local residents started looking into the issue. We objected to the planning applications, we wrote letters to our councillors and local MP, we educated ourselves on planning regulations, we took a closer look into the area we live in and, most importantly, we started talking to each other, we became friends. We also addressed the Richmond Hill Residents’ Forum, bringing to it for the first time a genuine agenda item straight from the people.
And as the time went by a lot happened: Jason Butler withdrew all six applications and re-applied retrospectively for the two converted back-to-backs to use them as three bedsits each. And tenants moved in.
And more questions emerged: who would rent a tiny bedsit in East End Park? Could it be that it is the Council itself paying for rents in properties that do not adhere to planning rules? Could it be that developers like Jason Butler can ignore the law and at the same time get money and tenants from the Council?
It took months for this last question to be answered, but it was indeed what we were afraid of and more. We found out that the council was paying MrButler to house vulnerable people in houses unfit for habitation. We also found out that because of relatively low house prices our area housed 30% of all the emergency accommodation contracts in the city. And we found out that, a bit like the planning department, those who look after the homeless provision for Leeds City Council were too stretched to actually check things properly.
The back-to-backs and the need to have our voices heard is what brought us together to form COVEN, along with the vision that our neighbourhoods can be viable and our environment can be clean and healthy, and our streets can be beautiful.
But the story of the conversions is not over yet. It’s to be continued…