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The Bristol Cable

MP urges council to stop housing families at Imperial Apartments, as documents reveal concerns over ‘incompetent’ security

Documents seen by the Cable confirm issues reported by residents at the controversial South Bristol apartment block.

Investigations

“Incompetent and inconsistent” night security staff contracted by Bristol City Council watched TV on their phones rather than carrying out patrols at a troubled South Bristol block of flats, documents released to the Cable have revealed.

Hundreds of pages of minutes and other documents acquired under freedom of information (FOI) laws back up reports of problems relating to drugs, noise and safety at Imperial Apartments in Hengrove, made by residents as well as local health and care professionals.

Both people living in the flats and NHS staff have taken concerns to Bristol South MP Karin Smyth, who has this week written to the council asking it to suspend all allocations of families with children made via its HomeChoice lettings system to the site.

“While it may be a suitable temporary place to live for some, it’s become clear that it is certainly not a long term housing solution for families with children”

Karin Smyth, Bristol South MP

Imperial Apartments, run by property management firm Caridon, has been used by the council since autumn 2020 as a housing option for people including rough sleepers and households at risk of homelessness, or those bidding for somewhere new via HomeChoice – the system for managing social housing lettings.

Imperial Apartments, a converted office block, has attracted concerns from the outset. This is in part due to many flats not meeting space standards, and also because of allegations made against Caridon in relation to housing conditions at similar schemes it runs in Essex.

In late 2021, the Cable and Bristol Live published accounts of problems some – though not all – tenants have faced at Imperial Apartments relating to crime, anti-social behaviour and the size and quality of accommodation. Following the reports, mayor Marvin Rees described the flats as the “least worst option” given the scale of Bristol’s housing crisis.

‘Not a long-term solution for families with children’

The new material released to the Cable chronicles issues at Imperial Apartments, as discussed by Caridon and the council over a 14-month period from its opening in October 2020. As with our interviews with residents last year, the minutes do not paint a totally negative picture and show Caridon making efforts to improve its procedures from summer 2021. But they corroborate concerns reported around noise and drug use, and the capacity and ability of staff to manage these and other problems.

The minutes highlight how some people with high support needs have “slipped through” assessment procedures meant to prevent them being housed at Imperial Apartments. They also record that despite councillors being advised in 2020 that no child over five should be housed at the complex, this was “not a blanket ruling” and in fact only applied to 20 flats out of more than 300.

Karin Smyth, MP for Bristol South, told the Cable she had been “very concerned to hear reports from a number of constituents about a range of issues at Imperial Apartments”.

“While [it] may be a suitable temporary place to live for some, it’s become clear that it is certainly not a long term housing solution for families with children,” said Smyth, who hosted a meeting to discuss complaints at Imperial Apartments on 14 January. The Cable understands that council officers apologised to GPs at the meeting for not consulting more fully in advance of Imperial Apartments’ opening, given the impact of hundreds of new residents on already stretched local health services.

“For families who feel Imperial Apartments is unsuitable, an alternative should be provided by HomeChoice Bristol,” Smyth added. “I have been in contact with Bristol City Council to raise concerns and request they consider ceasing all future HomeChoice allocations to Imperial Apartments for applicants with children.”

It’s unclear how big an impact Smyth’s suggestion might have, given that council lettings data suggests fewer than one in four families housed at Imperial Apartments have come via Homechoice bids. 

Many more have been placed there by the local authority via other routes, such as through its homelessness prevention team, which works with households threatened with losing their home. The MP added that she “[hopes] to work with the council further to resolve the issues raised by constituents”.

A council spokesperson said the mayor and cabinet member for housing Tom Renhard were “considering” their response to Smyth. 

‘Incompetent staff working on most risky nights’

Both in complaints to the Cable and to Smyth and other local politicians, the ability of staff to deal with problems at Imperial Apartments has been raised repeatedly.

Some of the most worrying entries in the minutes released by the council – which cover weekly operational check-ins, monthly management discussions and other ad-hoc meetings – are about night security. The council spent just under £37,000 during 2020-21 on staffing the service, which operates separately from daytime security and according to minutes is “expected to deal with and defuse [anti-social behaviour]”.

Notes from December 2020, the third month the complex was open and when it was still slowly filling up, describe a single night security guard “struggling to manage”. At the time, problems recorded relate to residents’ drinking and cannabis use, and the fact that mothers with small children are also moving in.

But by the next month, with drug taking and noise complaints ongoing, Caridon take a much more critical tone about weekend night staff “not doing patrols, watching telly on phones”, with new employees “not clued up on fire safety”.

“Caridon can’t hold [the security] company to account when they haven’t employed them [and are] also concerned that weekend staff are particularly incompetent/inconsistent and working on most risky nights,” management meeting minutes from 27 January 2021 continue.

An action from that same meeting proposes exploring a change to Caridon’s security firm, which will be “cheaper”. But no change actually took place for six months, over which time issues with night security were regularly raised in meetings.

“Security guard left 20 minutes early and was therefore not able to give access to ambulance driver [who] was able to reach reception but unable to gain access to other floors on the building,” notes one troubling entry from June 2021.

‘Those with high support needs slipping through assessment procedures’

These incidents took place in an environment in which people with high support needs – for example, but not limited to, mental health and drug issues – had sometimes been housed having “slipped through” the council’s assessment procedures. Minutes record ambulances being called out to a number of serious incidents at the block.

The council’s lettings plan says its “will not be placing anyone with high and multiple and overlapping support needs into Imperial Apartments”.

But the minutes illustrate the difficulty of adequately piecing together relevant information to ensure this happens, because people are offered tenancies through different routes, including street homelessness.

Information sharing, including around sensitive data held by the police and health services, is raised a number of times in meetings. On one occasion in January 20201, police were asked if they can share details that could help assess people’s suitability for housing at Imperial Apartments, or provide someone’s history in relation to an anti-social behaviour complaint. The police said they wouldn’t be allowed to do this and could only “assist Caridon in managing and dealing with the current situation”.

The documents indicate Caridon has sometimes struggled to keep on top of nuisance complaints, which are described as “taking up a lot of resource” in January 2021. By April, documents show the council estimating that up to 15 households were requesting to leave Imperial Apartments – with Caridon commenting that “80%” are probably to do with nuisance caused by an individual who is due to be evicted.

“We need to sharpen up our complaints process,” adds an entry from July 2021, when documents record problems with loud weekend parties and other noise issues. Besides complaints about other residents, minutes from that month note “quite a few” tenants complaining about maintenance staff entering their homes without permission – including on one occasion where a flat was locked and no repair had been reported.

By the next month, a dispute is recorded between the council and Caridon over new tenants being “turned away at signup” at the request of residents and security staff – a decision that is later reversed. “Unsubstantiated hearsay held sway with Caridon over work Bristol City Council had done, this felt undermining… [the council is disappointed] in [the] way this has been dealt with,” August 2021 minutes say.

‘Most feedback is that flats are too small’

The minutes released by Bristol City Council also discuss a range of other issues reported by Imperial Apartments residents to the Cable and to Bristol Live.

One is around people’s reluctance to accept studio flats – many of which are smaller than a shipping container, according to analysis by the Guardian. “A lot have viewed and rejected – most feedback is that flats are too small,” read comments from a meeting on 3 March 2021.

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In an effort to let the studios, the council and Caridon discuss trying to persuade under-25s to move into them. This is proposed on the basis that young people might be offered the prospect of somewhere bigger after 12 months if they pay their rent and do not get into trouble.

The minutes also report potential tenants in low-paid work refusing flats, which are mostly set at the top limit of what can be covered by housing benefit. Analysis has shown that while working almost always brings people more money than relying on benefits, costs associated with going to a job can soon eat up the difference. Echoing remarks made by one tenant we spoke to in November 2021, minutes warn of the “risk that Imperial Apartments can only house people not in work”.

Finally, another concern relates to sky-high energy costs at Imperial Apartments. Tenants have shown the Cable annual bills running into several thousand pounds for electricity use within small flats. Caridon has previously said it has been encouraging residents to challenge very high bills, while adding that they are also often down to people “not knowing how to programme” heaters.

While the meeting minutes, too, discuss the need to “educate” tenants on using storage heaters, they also say that British Gas has been “charging the wrong rates” for the use of electricity. This discovery in January 2021 causes concern that the council could end up unable to legally perform its duty to house homeless people if flats at Imperial Apartments are not actually affordable due to high heating bills.

The Cable has approached Bristol City Council and Caridon for comment.

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