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Meet the estate residents picking up trowels and spades to fight harmful social housing stereotypes

A gardening group at Dove Street, one of Bristol’s landmark high-rise estates, has battled negative representation in the media, fire safety issues and the threat of demolition – and in the process forged a new sense of community.

Photo: Tom Whitson

Area in Focus

If you weave through Kingsdown’s 18th-century alleyways, heading down the hill towards Stokes Croft, you soon emerge to the sight of three tower blocks painted in pastel shades of blue, green and pink.

Look more closely and you might spot a newly-constructed bird box hanging from a tree or fresh yellow crocuses poking through the grass.

Children named a new community garden on the estate ‘Dove Gardens’ (credit: Tom Whitson)

The high-rise Dove Street estate, which was built in the 1960s after the demolition of Victorian and Georgian housing, sits below one of the most affluent neighbourhoods in Bristol. 

In recent years, Bristol City Council has held internal discussions about potential redevelopment of the estate. In 2021, Tom Renhard, cabinet member for housing, said council tenants would be fully consulted over any proposals, and have a veto over demolition. 

But residents then heard nothing further, leaving many feeling anxious about the future of the estate, at a time when the community has been trying to build a greener, more social neighbourhood. 

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, a guerilla gardening group on the estate has secured thousands of pounds of funding from government and council grants, such as the Levelling Up Community Infrastructure Levy, in order to kickstart environmental projects – and has pushed back against negative public perceptions of the high-rise estate. 

A hotspot of criminality? 

Residents say the area is all too often portrayed as a place of urban deprivation, poverty and criminality. In September 2021, six residents spoke out after a BBC series about criminal gangs was filmed on the estate. They claimed the comedy-thriller from Stephen Merchant, called Outlaws, painted the neighbourhood in a negative light. 

Bernie Munoz-Chereau (left) founded a guerilla gardening group during lockdown (credit: Tom Whitson)

“We don’t think all publicity is good,” says Bernie Munoz-Chereau, who founded the gardening group on the estate during lockdown. “The council should consider the storylines and what is being represented.”

Munoz-Chereau says the filming crew was disappointed to see colourful vegetable and flower planters visible in the communal areas, which the community has worked hard to build, because it didn’t align with the image they were trying to portray. 

“We get quite excited when our area is on telly, so we do watch it,” says Sudi Ahmed, another member of the gardening group. “But they are mostly about the same thing – offenders, drug dealers and families on low income.”

It’s important to start with making complaints because it helps you understand what people value – but you can’t stop there.

Bernie Munoz-Chereau, Dove Street resident

At the time of the row over the filming, Bristol City Council told Bristol24/7 it was important to strike a balance between supporting productions and everyday city life, and that letters were sent to residents about the filming, with a designated contact provided to respond to concerns. 

A publicist for the Outlaws said Dove Street was the home of one of the lead characters in the show and would not paint the neighbourhood in a bad light. 

But residents disagreed and led a successful pushback, resulting in £1,500 in compensation, which they used to create a series of short documentaries about the area. Bristol’s volunteer-run Cube Cinema, which has been based just below the flats since the late 1990s, screened the films.

These initial projects empowered the community to start doing more, Munoz-Chereau says. “It’s really important to start with making complaints because it helps you to understand what people value,” she says. “But you can’t stop there.”

Last October, a once-barren outdoor terrace next to Carolina House was brought to life with new basketball hoops, picnic tables, water butts and murals. “We invited everyone [to the celebration] who had been supporting us and working with us,” Munoz-Chereau says. “It was an incredible day.” 

Previously barren areas of the high-rise estate have been brought to life (credit: Tom Whitson)

Mike Stuart, a resident who has lived on the estate for 20 years, says the atmosphere was like a festival. “It felt like real success, such a change to what it used to be when nobody knew anybody and everybody felt a bit scared,” he says. 

History of action

Until lockdown, community action on the estate had been dormant for years. But it wasn’t always like that. Two decades ago, a group called Dove Street Action Group, founded in 1988, was at its “heyday”, Stuart says, with an aim to revive the community spirit of the neighbourhood. In 2004 the group threw a summer street party, funded with money from BBC One’s Casualty, which used to film on the estate.

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But the group’s leaders eventually got burned out and the group dissolved, Stuart says. Since then, residents have told the Cable that they’ve felt isolated and worried about their children playing outside alone. 

During lockdown residents started organising events again. When Munoz-Chereau started the community garden in July 2021, which children on the estate named ‘Dove Gardens’, she uncovered a rosemary bush, apple tree and pear tree hidden in what had become a fly-tipping corner. “We were building on somebody else’s idea,” she says.  

“One lady said to me, ‘I’ve lived here for five years and I’ve never felt part of the community until today’,” says Kath Baker, who lives in Carolina House. “It’s about breaking down the fear and letting people know they’re not on their own”. 

Improvements at last after fire safety fears

While the Dove Street community has been re-energised, it has continued to face significant challenges. Last year, the Cable revealed how the council had kept the tenants of Carolina House in the dark about multiple fire safety issues, which were only uncovered after Kath and her partner Lee enquired about buying their home under the Right to Buy Scheme.

An independent safety assessment by surveying firm Easton Bevins found fire barriers – essential safety components made from fire-resistant materials – were missing in some parts of the flats’ cladding. 

At the time, the council said it was “confident” the whole system was fit for purpose, but just five months later, residents were told the cladding on some blocks needed to be replaced. “Initially, I was very angry,” says Kath. “You can’t be telling families that something is safe, unless you are 100% sure that it is.”

Last December, at a meeting at Elim Church, the council told Dove Street residents the process of replacing the cladding could take up to two years. The residents agree the flats need to be made safe, but some feel conflicted about the news. “I do feel slightly safer here [now],” Stuart says. “Although we’re now going to have two years of dust and noise. We’re basically going to be living on a building site for two years.” 

Residents believe the community needs to start acting collectively to ensure their welfare is taken into account. Some worry though that being too outspoken might put their council tenancy in jeopardy, with the potential threat of demolition also lingering in people’s minds. 

“A lot of people [have been] asking me if they were going to knock the buildings down,” says Munoz-Chereau, adding that the lack of any consultation, or formal meeting, with the council about the future of the estate had prolonged the uncertainty felt by residents.

A statement from Bristol City Council appears to finally offer the prospect of security to the Dove Street community.

A council spokesperson said the local authority would soon be writing to residents to advise that repairs and improvements have now been planned for Armada House, Carolina House and Fremantle House – the three high-rise blocks at Dove Street.

“Design works are due to begin later this year and will include removal of the [flammable] EPS cladding on the lower rise blocks,” the spokesperson says. “There is no cladding on the high-rise blocks.

“Residents will receive further information on the detail and schedule of works within the next two to three months, including additional information on how they will be able to give their views on future refurbishment options,” the spokesperson added.

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