Residents call out Newcastle Labour council’s fire safety lies


Your Homes Newcastle (YHN) - the Arms Length Management Organisation (ALMO) that runs Newcastle council’s housing stock - have been caught lying by their residents. Following the Grenfell fire, YHN issued letters to tower block residents claiming that they have smoke detectors installed in the communal areas of their blocks and self-opening windows at the top of every stairwell. In many instances, residents have neither of these things. The letters also claimed that children have not been housed in tower blocks 'since the turn of the century'. This prompted young mothers and other angry residents to take action, demanding YHN retroactively fit sprinklers in all of their blocks and address other fire safety concerns, which include badly fitted fire doors, bin chutes and sufficient evacuation procedures for young families, disabled and elderly residents.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! North East supported the campaign as they took their concerns to the civic centre on 28 June, staging a protest outside and addressing the full council meeting to highlight their demands. The protest was joined by the Migration Asylum Justice forum who highlighted concerns about overcrowding and forced room sharing in asylum housing as well as private renters union ACORN who recently won a victory in getting combustible cladding removed from student flats in the city. The issue of fire safety cuts across the social and private housing sectors.

A lively open mic saw many residents tell of appalling breaches of fire safety in their tower blocks. One resident spoke about the use of gas canisters in his tower block. Rather than being hooked up to the gas mains, every tenant in the block is expected to administer their own gas from containers kept in a cupboard. YHN and the council have ignored his every complaint. Other residents spoke of broken fire doors, loose wiring and broken bin chutes. A speaker from the Migration and Asylum Justice Forum highlighted forced room sharing and overcrowding in Newcastle’s asylum housing as a clear risk to safety. After chants of ‘Justice for Grenfell! Decent homes for all!’ and ‘Sprinklers! Sprinklers! Get em in!’ the protest made its way into the council chamber.

In response to pressure from both the resident’s and local newspaper The Chronicle, Labour council leader Nick Forbes had prepared an emergency motion on fire safety. This was taken as the council’s first order of business. Forbes took the opportunity to present a video showing tests on some cladding used on Newcastle’s tower blocks. As the cladding used on YHN blocks is too dissimilar to the aluminium composite material used on Grenfell the government has refused to test it, so the council have run tests of their own. Boldly, Forbes declared that this made Newcastle ‘the first city in the country to pass’ such tests. As one of the housing campaigners addressing the council pointed out, this was an unofficial test on one small unidentified piece of cladding with no attention paid to how the cladding was fitted to the building or the insulation, both crucial factors in the Grenfell fire. Instead residents demanded to see the results for themselves and have a say in the investigation of fire safety in their homes.

The emergency motion commits the council only 'look at' the installation of sprinklers and other fire safety mechanisms 'where appropriate' but demands that funding for these things must come from central government. This is deflecting responsibility and delaying action. Combined, YHN and the council can clearly afford to fit sprinklers. The cost of retroactively fitting sprinklers in tower blocks varies, with estimates suggesting it would have cost £200,000 to fit such a system in Grenfell. The council’s capital investment fund for the 2017-18 financial year stands at £155m, with a fund of £71.2m set aside for ‘decent neighbourhoods’. In April this year, YHN reported that it would have a surplus £1.24m, alongside a ‘transformation grant’ of £2.8m for ‘ideas and improvements’ over the financial year. Despite this money being set aside for infrastructure development in housing, the council did not commit to using it to install sprinklers in all of YHN’s 38 high-rise tower blocks. Though some councillors demanded the actions be taken regardless of cost, the motion was passed unanimously.

The residents addressing the council took the opportunity to point out that many of the measures YHN claim to have taken to put them at ease since the Grenfell fire are nothing but fiction. Labour councilor Veronica Dunn, who sits as a YHN board member, was called to respond. She said, ‘I absolutely refute the allegations that YHN have lied to their tenants. This is simply not true.’ When a campaigner heckled ‘Are you calling tenants liars then?’ from the public gallery, Dunn responded by shouting ‘I’m speaking. Shut up.’

The attitude of Newcastle Labour council is clear. Whilst it is formally committed to ‘working with residents in YHN tower blocks’ over fire safety, when such residents raise their concerns the council’s only response is to accuse them of deceit. What is equally clear is that residents will not accept this. They will continue to campaign for an open, transparent inspection of the city’s fire safety and for sprinklers in every tower block. FRFI urges its readers to join them.

See a video of the protest here.

Newcastle speaks out: safe and decent housing for all!

newcastle speakout

On Saturday 24 June, the North East branch of the Revolutionary Communist Group hosted a successful speak out in Newcastle city centre to demand housing that is habitable, safe and affordable for working class people.

Our demands were for ending forced room sharing in migrant housing, for more housing at social rent in Newcastle, and for an end to the racist ‘right to rent’ scheme, which discriminates against black and migrant people seeking to rent accommodation. We were joined by local housing campaigners who live in Your Homes Newcastle accommodation, a property management service which administers council housing.

Despite rules introduced in 2007 that stated that all tower blocks had to have sprinklers, residents of YHN are still awaiting their installation in their homes. They have also raised concerns about fire doors that are unfit for use, and the lack of transparency on what materials were used to clad and insulate their property. These tenants have raised their concerns before, but on every occasion have been ignored by both YHN and the local Labour council. A Facebook group to facilitate tenants’ campaigns can be found here. A petition demanding the installation of fire sprinkler systems can be signed here

The RCG's open-mic was incredibly popular, with local people taking the opportunity to share their experiences of substandard housing in Newcastle, the discrimination against migrants, disabled people and the working class within housing allocation and the housing market, and the need for organisation and direct action to ensure rights to decent housing. In a city with a Labour majority council (which has ruthlessly imposed austerity) and a clear slate of Labour MPs, it was painfully obvious to everyone that relying on any capitalist party to sort out the housing crisis is an exercise in futility. It was shown again and again on the microphone that the housing crisis is a symptom of the capitalist crisis, as the bourgeoisie attempt to make up for their shrinking profits by squeezing more and more rent from tenants for increasingly poor and unsafe housing. As such, only the working class as an organised force fighting to end capitalism can stand any chance of solving the housing crisis.

Videos from the speak-out can be seen here and here.

Asylum seekers challenge G4S and Jomast over housing conditions


In recent months the Migration and Asylum Justice Forum has been working hard to expose the conditions faced by asylum seekers housed by Jomast under the Home Office COMPASS contracts. Following a protest at Jomast’s local offices, press coverage and complaints to the housing and environmental health departments of Newcastle council, the campaign won the right to address representatives of G4S and Jomast directly. Following the meeting the campaign released this statement:

‘Sharon Holmes (G4S Head of business services), Juliet Halstead (G4S Head of housing), Charlie Cleverly (G4S Head of technical services), and Stuart Monk (CEO of Jomast), who has personal wealth of £175 million, met with representatives of the Migration Asylum Justice Forum on 22 May. Eight current Jomast tenants spoke about the problems they have been facing, including bedbugs, cramped conditions in the mother and baby hostels, issues with reporting repairs and getting them fixed, room sharing and being moved without sufficient notice. We have won some commitments to resolve specific problems and improve the reporting system for repairs. However, we know it is an uphill battle and the accommodation conditions will need continued monitoring by tenants and their supporters.

‘Despite the policy against room sharing for asylum seekers passed by Newcastle city council in March, the implementation of that policy by G4S and Jomast so far has not been agreed to and is still under discussion between the council and the providers... we await the outcome!

‘We continue to be concerned about the use of mother and baby hostels which can see up to 10 families sharing one kitchen and four toilets. We will continue to work with mothers in these hostels to raise awareness about the impact this accommodation has on the lives of their children and support them to take action.

‘Well done to all the tenants who spoke out. Some were fairly nervous about attending the meeting due to fear of retribution. If we hear of anyone being targeted as a result of yesterday we will campaign to defend them and expose this.’

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! North East activists have been supporting the campaign and congratulate the tenants on winning these concessions. Although Jomast was at pains to point out that our campaign had not prompted them to take any action, the fact remains that they were forced to turn up to the meeting and listen to our complaints. Many tenants report that Jomast staff are being more polite to tenants while ongoing problems which have been reported several times are suddenly being addressed.

The Migration and Asylum Justice Forum is committed to fighting for decent housing for asylum seekers, exposing the poor performance by subcontractor Jomast while remaining opposed to the privatisation of asylum accommodation by the Home Office. Despite our uncompromising position against the COMPASS contracts, collective action pressured top representatives of housing providers to meet with those directly affected. Rather than muting our criticism, organising with asylum seekers to speak out has won improvements, highlighting that grassroots organising and protest can make a progressive impact.

North East Events coming up..

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