Preston city councillor Martyn Rawlinson: "More must be done to help our communities"
Housing associations. Not for profit, affordable, social rented housing with secure tenancies. As opposed to conglomeration, corporatism, profiteering and ruthlessness.
It’s all good, right?
Last year, Onward Homes, which now owns hundreds of houses in Preston, was created from a merger of five housing associations.
Its website states: “Bringing these organisations together has allowed us to invest more in our homes and neighbourhoods, improve our services, and make a greater contribution to the sustainable regeneration of communities in the North West.”
The merger immediately preceded a huge reorganisation of the structure of staffing and services.
The housing association’s equivalent of the council’s ‘community engagement’ function was re-focused (I’m trying not to use the word ‘cuts’) on the most needy areas of current concern.
Callon Kids Community Club immediately became a victim of its own unbridled success.
The rampant anti-social behaviour, gang problems and crime that made Callon one of the most infamous estates in the country in the 1990s have become a distant memory.
So the Symphony Homes worker, whose role included the creation and support of the kids club all those years ago, was reassigned, as his employer was sucked into the Onward corporate agglomeration.
The problems of the early 90s had already begin to raise their heads in Fishwick as neighbourhood policing became a thing of the past.
Now, there is a heavy police presence using special stop and search powers due to incidences of knife crime.
For the older residents of the Callon estate, it must seem like a very bad case of deja vu.
Not far away, a vacant site in St Matthew’s ward was the subject of a planning application for more social rented housing.
Another very active community group in the area, the Friends of Fishwick and St Matthew’s, were shocked by the application.
They were not surprised by the nature of it, rather the modus operandi of the applicant.
Chorley ‘Community’ Homes had acquired the site from a private sector developer, drawn up plans for 44 houses and submitted them to Preston Council without consultation and without a single reference (in 50 planning documents) to the group’s Inner East Preston Neighbourhood Plan; a flagship, three years in the making, supposedly legally binding document, that protected the former bowling green on the site as a community green space.
A little digging revealed that Chorley Community Homes is the subsidiary of another supra-regional housing merger called Jigsaw.
The council planning officer managed to get a statement from the applicant regarding the omission of the Neighbourhood Plan from the application but he forgot to tell the community group.
When the representative of the housing association and their private sector agent were confronted at the planning meeting about their complete disregard for the surrounding community’s wishes - they blamed the local priest for suggesting the community had no interest in the land formerly occupied by a Catholic club.
At this point it becomes impossible to avoid the word ‘cuts’.
Everyone knows about food banks, benefits cuts, the increase in homelessness, council cuts, police cuts; maybe to the point where we have stopped talking about them?
The story on social media about the police imposing a special order in Fishwick that allowed them to stop and search people without cause for suspicion of a crime, attracted a hundred comments, many of them suggesting that these powers should be the norm, in every area, all the time.
Yet, not one comment took into account the huge cuts to the police and their distinctly limited ability to use such powers on a widespread basis.
It seems that after eight years, austerity, welfare reform and public sector cuts have been absorbed into the public consciousness.
The support for cuts to welfare were widespread among many demographics; and food banks and homelessness may even be seen as collateral damage by some.
But if this is the plot, there are a thousand sub-plots being acted out that are equally damaging.
Housing associations have faced a huge battle for survival as many of their tenants were the target of welfare reform and their stock is forcibly sold off and rents capped.
The housing association’s representative at the planning committee was quick to point out that they were still not for profit, providing much-needed housing for homeless and disabled people.
They are clinging onto these facts like a moral comfort blanket; but for the volunteers and the residents of Fishwick and St Matthew’s who put their time and their heart and soul into providing the basics of community life; it’s not enough, it’s nowhere near enough.
‘The problems of the early 1990s are already raising their heads in Fishwick as neighbourhood policing becomes a thing of the past’
During the early 1990s, the Callon Estate in Preston was widely-regarded as one of the most infamous and troubled housing estates in the county due to high levels of crime.