Aysen and Awaab: Real People Beyond the Housing Crisis Headlines

Last month, Aysen Dennis was supported by the Public Interest Law Centre to challenge Southwark Council’s plan to demolish hundreds of homes on the Aylesbury estate, one of the largest council estates in Europe. Aysen, a resident of the estate for thirty years, is one of many people protesting demolition as a primary method of estate regeneration. She and her allies are part of a movement to repair and preserve existing homes rather than destroy them at a time when the UK is facing housing shortages, culminating in crisis.

This crisis affects our residents and participants as they look forward to their future and seek to live independently in their own communities, but know that the shortage in affordable homes puts their vision at risk. In light of these facts, the Aylesbury demolition seems absurd, with no winners except the developers who will acquire the land and build premium priced private properties, and the local authority from whom they purchase the land.

Navigating independent living, with malpractice amongst housing providers still yet to be addressed by the Renters Reform Bill, is daunting for all of us but particularly difficult for our residents as they seek to maintain their mental health. We consistently see a decline in mental health amongst our residents once their move on from our services is imminent.

As frustrating as the environmental impact and corporate greed of our national estate regeneration strategy are, there is much worse that underlies it; the failure of local government to fulfil their duty of care to residents in the borough. When a public institution neglects it responsibility to provide efficient services, it is not profit that is lost but people’s health, safety and dignity. The local authority’s dereliction of duty in maintaining estates such as Aylesbury over the decades since they were built, has led to many homes on the Aylesbury falling into major disrepair and in 2005, the council declared plans to refurbish the estate and increase the number of homes from 2,700 to 4,200, were not feasible, as properties were beyond repair.

Instead, 2022 updates on Southwark council’s website now claim that they will look to demolish and rebuild, still increasing homes but in total only 1,600 of these will be for social rent; ‘581 of which will be new council homes.’ This is a vague statement and campaigners argue that this appears to be a huge net loss of social housing as the council have looked to redevelopment by big developers such as L&Q and Notting Hill Genesis, on the centrally located Elephant and Castle estate.

In the interim, between the decision to redevelop and the delays to this project that have occurred, Southwark council are unwilling to invest into the maintenance of the estate. The human cost to the residents of the Aylesbury estate, who have lived with the consequences of the managed decline of this estate, is exacerbated by the many social, economic and health barriers they face.

In a 2005 community impact statement, Southwark council stated that 67% of residents on the Aylesbury estate were ethnically diverse. The latest updated reports on the estate, commissioned by the current estate developer and shared in 2022, show that the estate is in the worst 20% of small areas in the UK for housing and services, as well as for crime, and deprivation. The residents of the Aylesbury estate face inequality but also inequity as they find no recourse to better service and maintenance for their homes.

On the Aylesbury estate, as with many of the megalithic housing estates built in the 1960s, buildings have flat roofing structures so leaks are the norm in these concrete blocks. Residents have evidence of reporting leaks over the course of many years but they have been left to worsen until beyond repair. The communal heating systems which are a key feature of the buildings on this estate, are often not working during the coldest months, leaving hundreds of homes without heating. Concrete buildings with on going leaks and long spells without heating are at risk of damp and mould.

The damp and cold have a detrimental impact on the health of people living in mid-century local authority housing, all over the UK. Well documented cases of serious ill health and even death have been prevalent over recent years. Two year old Awaab Ishak, lived with his parents in a one bedroom flat on Rochdale’s Freehold estate. His death from respiratory damage caused by mould, in December 2020, prompted a coroner’s recommendation for amendments to housing law that acknowledge that damp, mould and poor ventilation cause damage to respiratory health and therefore must be addressed by landlords.

Those with arthritis, Reynaud’s and many other conditions, are also put at risk by damp and cold conditions, and caused to suffer painful and debilitating symptoms that can be prevented by fair and reasonable living conditions. The mental health impact on residents must also be acknowledged. Even prior to the recent exacerbations in housing availability, quality and cost, research found that one in five people have experienced mental health issues due to housing problems.

To live in an environment that has been neglected until it is run down, its facilities broken, sometimes dangerous, whilst facing information barriers from call handlers and housing officers who refuse to explain council policy or process to residents, makes people feel trapped, unheard and oppressed. And people are indeed trapped, because no-one will explain their rights to them.

Where they do know their rights, tenants do not know what avenues are available to have them upheld. It is one thing to enshrine tenancy laws for the good of tenants but if local authorities withhold information from those relying upon them to fulfil a duty of care towards them, in essence, housing rights do not exist for them. This is exploitation and causes groups of people to become marginalised and subject to multiple disadvantages.

Many people living on the Aylesbury estate face a myriad of challenges due to visible and invisible disabilities, language barriers, age related health and poverty. When these challenges combine with structural inequity, the outcomes on physical and mental health are severe. It is important to note that Awaab Ishak’s cause of death was not only the respiratory damage caused by his poorly maintained housing but the coroner’s report also makes reference to ‘suboptimal’ medical support. The day before his death, Awaab was discharged from hospital. The barriers his family faced in getting help for Awaab, were multiple and came from more than one accountable institution.

Neither Landlord or medical staff provided appropriate support to Awaab and his family. In the months prior to his death, the coroner notes that Awaab’s parents did not make any further complaints but did apply to be rehoused. That this is highlighted, shows how presumptive we can be about ‘due process’ but if you do not understand English institutions and processes, and have reported a serious issue with damp and mould only to be told to paint over it as Awaab’s father was, would you not look for an alternative solution? How many times could Awaab’s father continue to remonstrate with his landlord, Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, who later admitted discrimination in court, as they had made a cultural presumption that the family’s ‘lifestyle’ had caused condensation due to ‘ritual bathing’.

Under the surface issues of housing stock being lost under Thatcherite policy and the ongoing cost of living crisis, lie dangerous intersections between those who need affordable housing and their economic status, ethnicity, language barriers and health inequalities, and those who are responsible for the provision of housing and its services and their institutional elitism, ignorance and corporate greed of their partners.

Social equity will not be attained by building more houses or stopping immigration. This is an inside job. We need to begin with accountability for the processes, and resources that we currently have in the public purse, being upheld and stewarded by local and national government in ways that serve healthy, safe and inclusive communities.