Six months after a council-commissioned review into conditions at south Bristol’s controversial Imperial Apartments development, documents obtained by the Cable raise doubts over whether the local authority and building owner Caridon are making improvements.
Minutes from meetings between Caridon and Bristol City Council show that over recent months, there have been several incidents at the site relating to tenants’ severe mental ill-health – including apparent suicide attempts – and allegations about the conduct of staff.
The new documents, which were released under freedom of information (FOI) laws, also record criticisms of the flats’ environment – described as “tired and unwelcoming” – and a lack of action on the converted office block’s high energy costs, weeks before December’s freeze.
Since 2020 Imperial Apartments has been used by the council to house people, including families, threatened with homelessness.
Mitigating bills, tightening processes around referring people with mental health needs, and improving security, support and cleaning, were all key recommendations in the council’s review of the site, published in June.
The report also revealed Caridon had overstated many flats’ sizes, which were already known to be below national standards after being developed via a planning loophole formerly available to office-to-residential conversions. But it found the site was appropriate “for many” families.
Responsibility for implementing improvements fell to different degrees on the council and the landlord, with Tom Renhard, Bristol’s cabinet member for housing, admitting he had limited leverage to force Caridon into making changes.
The review followed reports by the Cable and Bristol Live highlighting issues around crime, anti-social behaviour and poor living conditions in the block, which opened in 2020 after previously housing the Somerfield supermarket headquarters.
Many residents have also complained to local MP Karin Smyth, who has consistently asked the council to stop housing families at Imperial Apartments, arguing it is unsuitable as anything other than short-term accommodation. Families we spoke to before Christmas expressed similar opinions – and the documents we obtained showed that in summer 2022 the council considered converting the flats into temporary accommodation, but rejected the idea on cost grounds.
Labour MP Smyth told the Cable residents “continue to seek advice and support with reports of antisocial behaviour, crime, and fears about lack of security in the complex”.
“I have advocated for dozens of people who have approached me for help by contacting officials at Bristol City Council and Caridon,” she said.
‘Severe mental health issues’
Particularly worrying entries in the documents released to the Cable, which cover December 2021 to the end of October 2022, are about mental ill-health and related safeguarding issues at Imperial Apartments.
People judged to have high levels of support needs were never intended to be housed there under the lettings agreement between the council and Caridon. But tenants include former rough sleepers and others who are highly likely to have experienced serious trauma. Concerns have in the past been raised about people with significant support needs “slipping through the net” and ending up being inappropriately referred to the flats.
One such example discussed in a meeting between the council and Caridon in late May, days before publication of the council’s review, warns of a resident experiencing severe paranoia and psychosis. A serious safeguarding concern was raised in relation to the resident, who had also made complaints about Caridon staff, with a council officer deciding to seek a move for them away from Imperial Apartments.
The review’s opening recommendation said referral criteria for the flats needed clarification to better restrict who can be housed there. A document of action points capturing the council and Caridon’s discussion of the review in July mentions tightening processes, drafting “more detailed criteria” around mental health support needs, and updating data-sharing protocols.
A month on, during which time one tenant was detained under the Mental Health Act, minutes from the 10 August management meeting record that all these actions were still outstanding.
Gaps in the minutes – which the council acknowledges have not always been properly written up – mean it’s not clear what action was subsequently taken and when. But documents from the following two months indicate problems have not been resolved.
At the end of September, a member of Caridon’s staff reports a “difficult” sign-up of someone with “severe mental health issues” who is also referred for domestic abuse support.
After this, only three more sets of minutes were provided, with each one flagging concerns about residents’ mental ill-health. In the final document, from 27 October, one tenant is recorded as having been taken to hospital after threatening to take her own life, while another is said to be a “suicide risk”. A third is reported to be living in a flat infested with bedbugs and to have “threatened to beat up a member of staff”.
Directly under the references to the troubling incidents, the minutes advise that Caridon needs to “revisit” its conversation around mental health information-sharing conversation with the council’s data protection team, suggesting protocols had still not been satisfactorily updated.
Support vs security
The scale, institutional feel and fairly remote location of Imperial Apartments all provide likely reasons why the site was judged not ideal for people with high support needs. But another crucial factor has been the levels of security and support available on the site.
Caridon’s staff are not trained to provide support, which is delivered by often overstretched external agencies including the Salvation Army, described in minutes from September as being “completely at capacity”.
The review published in June committed the council to spending a government grant on providing additional support. But it also recommended Caridon take over paying for night security at Imperial Apartments. The aim of this would have been to free up more of the council’s cash to spend on support, which the authority argued was needed.
But Caridon – which earns an estimated £4.2m income in annual rent from the site, before outgoings – pushed back, arguing that “we need the [financial support] from BCC” to keep running the flats sustainably. The door was, however, left open via an action for the council to set out the “exact support scope” that it would want if its outgoings on security were reduced.
Security has in itself been a bone of contention at Imperial Apartments, with the Cable reporting in February on previous discussions about the incompetence of weekend night staff contracted by the council.
Recent minutes indicate that issues remain, with a number of references to complaints from residents about the conduct of security staff. These include, during October, an “investigation into an inappropriate relationship” – apparently with a tenant – that led one employee to resign.
The same month, officers complained about Caridon failing to stop “unwelcoming” groups of people gathering outside the flats, some of them smoking weed. This had apparently caused some prospective tenants to turn down properties there.
Cleaning and heating
Two other key areas raised in the council’s review related to improvements to the living environment at Imperial Apartments, with Caridon agreeing to increase the number of hours spent cleaning the block from 30 to 40 hours a week.
The council also asked the landlord to “engage with third-party consultants” to explore how energy costs at the building – which residents have complained are unreasonably high – could be brought down.
Caridon replied at the time that it “[could not] do anything about rising energy costs” but agreed to pursue the issue.
In mid-October, however, both issues were raised again by the council at its management meeting with Caridon.
“[The] site looks tired. Walls and carpets in particular look dirty/marked. Lots of rubbish in the car park,” the minutes say. “Forty hours cleaning [is] not enough to keep on top of such a large site. Feedback that some people are rejecting Imperial Apartments due to this, so needs sorting.”
The landlord agreed to take further action on the state of the flats. But staff told council officers Caridon had been unable to find anyone able to advise “how the site could be modified to reduce energy bills for tenants”. Caridon added that it would be “happy to pay for advice if a suitable contractor can be found”.
A Bristol City Council spokesperson said the authority remains “in close contact with Caridon about the accommodation at Imperial Apartments”.
The spokesperson added: “While some areas have improved following discussions earlier this year, there remain some issues we are keen to see improve. We will continue to meet with the landlord, monitor the situation, and consider further action as required.”
The Cable has also approached Caridon for comment.