Barton Hill’s tower blocks are one of the most prominent features of Bristol’s skyline, but despite the fact they can be seen from miles around, some residents feel invisible – ignored to the point of neglect by their landlord, the city council.
It’s in times of crisis, like last week, when the lives of 400 residents were completely turned upside down as they were chaotically decanted from their homes in the city’s oldest high rise, that this feeling is most palpable.
Tenants of Barton House were given just hours to pack their things and get out, many not immediately given a clear reason why. They were directed to a nearby community centre for more information, where no one from the council was there to receive them.
Surveys carried out on three of the building’s 98 flats found there was a “risk to the structure of the block” in the event of a fire, explosion or large impact. Further surveys are currently being carried out, meaning residents will remain in temporary accommodation for at least the next couple of weeks.
But why the local authority felt it was necessary to order the evacuation in this manner, taking residents by surprise, without giving itself the time to properly organise a response, remains a mystery. Did it have to be this way?
And with a lack of clear information about what’s going on, rumours inevitably filled the void, making matters worse for residents whose lives have been thrown into disarray while they anxiously wait to hear if and when they can return home.
This story – one of poor communication and planning by those in power – is a familiar one to social housing tenants in the city, particularly in Barton Hill. Lessons could have been learned, in fact, councillors promised they would, but the experience of residents the Cable has spoken to over the last week shows that they clearly haven’t.
Left in the dark
“We’ve been left in the dark with minimal support, poor communication, and no idea what the long term plan is,” Ali, who lives in Barton House, told demonstrators gathered at City Hall last Friday. “We’ve not received the opportunity to speak to decision makers.”
The protest had been organised by tenants union ACORN, who brought with them demands for the council that included rent freezes and reimbursement for Barton House residents, compensation for loss of earnings and mental health support.
The council building’s foyer was bustling, packed with residents, ACORN members, with demands scrawled on cardboard placards. Meanwhile, news cameras jostled for view and reporters swarmed around residents filming vox pops on the fly.
But notably absent, were those from whom ACORN had demanded answers. “It’s telling that none of the [council cabinet members] turned up today, or our MPs,” ACORN Bristol Branch secretary and Barton House resident Shaban Ali told the crowd.
One after another, residents took the mic to give testimony, with the council’s absence and poor communication a recurring theme in their speeches. Speculation about what the authority knew, and for how long, was also rife.
“The thing that upset me is,” Nua Sherriff told the protest: “is the media know before us… I got a feeling [the council] knew this was going to happen for a long time, but they don’t act on it! They knew it, and they put 400 people’s lives at risk.”
The council previously told the Cable that senior council officers were first briefed on the problems on Monday afternoon, 24 hours before the decision to evacuate was given.
The speeches were suddenly interrupted by news that the council was removing people’s possessions from their homes. Demonstrators then made for Barton House, and within the hour, the building’s stairwell was packed with protesters and residents.
Bristol City Council later tweeted that this was just a rumour and that they were moving the belongings of a few households who had consented as part of an investigation into the building’s structure that meant surveys needed to be carried out in their particular flat.
“It is chaos,” says Abdi Asir, of the Bristol Somali Community Association. “None of it had to happen like this, not if the city council just came out and spoke with the people, if they were not cowards and did not hide from us.”
Was there another way?
Danielle Gregory was a resident of a high rise on the Ledbury estate, in south-east London, which was evacuated in 2017 after safety checks following the Grenfell Tower fire found that the building had been at risk of collapse for decades.
Southwark Council, which owned the blocks, sent letters to residents of the 242 flats saying they would need to decant the blocks temporarily for emergency works. It immediately ordered the gas supplies to be cut off, leaving residents without cooking facilities or heating.
Like Barton House, which was completed in the late 1950s, the Ledbury blocks were constructed using a method called large panel system (LPS), where huge concrete sections of the building were bolted together on site.
The same technique was used at Ronan Point, a tower in east London which partially collapsed in 1968 due to a gas explosion. The construction method was blamed for the incident, in which four people died.
A notable difference between how the Ledbury and Barton House evacuations were handled, Danielle says, is that in the former, the council’s crisis planning management appears to have been thought through properly.
“Immediately [Southwark Council] put up a satellite office that was open 24/7 so people had someone to speak to, face to face,” she says. “They published a daily newsletter, employed extra staff, every block had a named person residents could call, and the Red Cross was involved.”
“Southwark did put a lot in place, and it seems like Bristol really haven’t organised themselves,” says Danielle, a social justice advocate who founded the Ledbury Action Group. “It’s really unbelievable, I don’t think I’ve seen a worse case of decanting an LPS block.
“I don’t know where [Bristol] was getting their advice from. Where was their crisis response?
She says there may well be a reason that the block needed to be evacuated in this way, but that the council had failed to give a good reason why.
“As far as I’m aware, Bristol is the first local authority to undertake an immediate full evacuation of an LPS block following discovery that it doesn’t meet safety standards… we need to know why that is.”
She says it’s clear the poor communication and organisation is continuing, referring to the reports that residents have been moved to hotels infested with bed bugs and chicken pox outbreaks, while the council continues to charge them rent.
“The way these people are being dealt with is really quite disturbing,” Danielle adds. “And that they still have to pay rent, that’s absolutely ridiculous. There should be a rent freeze straight away. In fact, I believe they should be entitled to some rent they have paid back.”
A bit of an understatement
Kye Dudd, Bristol City Council’s cabinet member for housing services and energy, this week said the authority’s move to evacuate residents could only have been “better” if it had “more time to plan and structure this in a better way”.
Speaking to Bristol 247, he added: “Given the information I saw and the advice from the fire brigade, we had to act as quickly as possible, which meant maybe communication is less than you would expect it to be.”
A bit of an understatement, maybe, given the scale of its communication issues and mismanagement on the night of the evacuation and the week that followed, which fuelled wild speculation about what was going on.
In addition to the rumour about the council removing people’s belongings, there was speculation that the fire service would not attend incidents at the building due to the safety issues. The source of this rumour, which was later denied by the council and Avon Fire and Rescue Service, is not clear. The council has since denied another rumour that power and water would be cut off at the block.
As speculation fuelled the anger being felt by residents, things turned sour when Bristol’s mayor Marvin Rees, who had been in Rwanda at the time of the evacuation, popped up on Friday at the Holiday Inn in the city centre where displaced residents were staying.
Footage showed the mayor checking his phone, as Wesley Bear, a member of ACORN, was trying to raise issues with him on behalf of Barton House residents. “Stop charging them rent,” he says, “where have you been Marvin?” he asks.
Footage later posted on social media shows Bear being manhandled by security and forcibly removed from the building. Bear has since gone to the police alleging a security guard threw a punch at him.
The same old story
For residents of Barton Hill’s tower blocks, the perceived lack of interest and lack of communication from the council is nothing new.
After fires at Twinnell House in Easton and Barton Hill’s Eccleston House last year, ACORN accused the council, among a series of other issues related to safety of its tenants, of avoiding accountability by not meeting with residents.
At the time, the Cable reported how residents who were left traumatised by the fires had been met with a wall of silence. Tom Renhard, the council’s cabinet member for housing delivery, admitted that its communication could be improved.
And it’s not just in moments of crisis. Rehan Ishmael, who spoke at Friday’s protest and who has lived in Barton House for four years, says the authority’s handling of the latest situation follows a trend of neglect.
“The stuff I’ve been through in Barton House – it’s literally disgraceful,” he says. “They never reply to any of your emails or any of your phone calls, and when they do try to reply, they’ll tell you they’ll give you a contact back – that never happens!”
Abdul, another resident, says the authority promises to improve the area but nothing ever changes: “We don’t have dentists, we don’t have libraries, we don’t have youth centres, we don’t have nothing. And I can tell you, this would never have happened in any other area.”