Peter McLoughlin is a tower block tenant who has been living in a 14th floor flat in Netherthorpe, Sheffield since 1988. He was formerly Sheffield’s Cabinet Member for Housing and continues to lobby for safer housing conditions across the city, particularly in tower blocks. In this episode, Peter discusses his history in the tenants’ movement and what’s led him to campaign, carry out his own safety and disrepair audits and write many reports on housing over the past 40 years. (Image credit: Sheffield Star)
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Hello, and welcome to the FixMyBlock podcast. Today we’re talking to Peter, a tower block resident in Sheffield. Hi Peter, thank you for joining us.
Good evening to you.
So you live on the 14th floor of your block. Is that right?
Yes, the top floor.
Could you tell us a little bit about the history of your tower?
Yeah. We both moved in in 1988. I got through fortunately, through the homeless situation at that time, and given Sheffield at that particular time, had a lot of, sort of, properties that weren’t high demand – particularly in tower blocks, so that’s how we got here.
In terms of the construction of your block is, obviously it’s not particularly new build?
No, it was built as part of the Tory government’s policy of stack em’ high, pack em’ in, where they give subsidies for anything above a certain, you know, ground level subsidy. So a lot of councils jumped on the bandwagon because they saw it as a cheap solution of getting rid of the old, sort of, back-to-back properties that were predominant in places like Sheffield, and other northern cities.
You’ve got a very long history in housing.
Yeah. It started before I even came to Sheffield because I lived in Blackburn in East Lancashire for 13 years prior to coming to Sheffield. When I was in Blackburn, I was involved in the trade unions, as a trade union convener on the Blackburn Borough Health and Safety Committee when it first started, some time, I think it was around the early 80s. I got involved in a national campaign called PAC, which was the People’s Action Campaign about asbestos, predominantly in high rise flats, and I was intricately involved with others who campaign because of the particular problems. Particularly in the Shadsworth, which was a notorious – similar to Park Hill that we have still in Sheffield, now being glorified for gentrification for middle class people! It’s a pity they didn’t spend this sort of money on social housing, but nevertheless, we’re where we are.
Anyway, so that was my involvement going back when I was in Blackburn. Then when I came to Sheffield, as I say, when we moved in here, both myself and Howard, it didn’t take us long to realise that we needed to actually get involved with the Tenants Association here, which was predominantly run by elderly women predominantly at that time. They were basically just a social gathering and bingo, they had a bingo. But we eventually got involved and basically guided them in a direction to be actually looking at the state of what these flats were in, and they weren’t in a pretty state. We had damp problems, pigeon problems, water, lack of water pressure into the -anything about the 12th floors. There was a whole range of spalling concrete – that was before they were refurbished, in 94′. There was a whole raft of other issues, infestations of, you know, due to the openness of the balconies we had. The windows were in a poor state too. All these concerns we raised and then we started then looking at how can we take the council on to rectify some of these endemic problems? So we started to look at my previous involvement in health and safety, Howard’s ability of being a creative writer, and we merged our skills together. Then we started looking at issues around damp. We involved certain faculties within the University, which basically we’ve now become part of the campus of Sheffield University and because of its spread of development around our area, which is another story in itself. So they were quite good in taking analysis of certain damp. So we could then use that scientific evidence as part of our report about the damp problems associated predominantly, with people who have vulnerable health issues, and elderly people. Then use these reports, submitted them through the Housing Committee structures here in Sheffield and also maximise the embarrassment by being very proactive within media, of making sure that, you know, people remembered us in the sense that things could not stay as they were.
Then we started looking at the other more important issues of fire safety and electrical safety. That was when we first produced a very extensive report called ‘Shock Horrors and Burning Concerns’ – the shock being electrical safety, burning concerns being issues around fire safety. To some degree, part of that report was alluding to things that unfortunately happened, both, in two of the main disasters that we had at Lakanal House in London, and then Grenfell, so, I was not shocked when these incidents happened, given both my involvement as a tenants representative, but also, when I became a councillor in 1994, within a matter of three months, I became the housing spokesperson for our political group. Then when we took control of Sheffield in 1999, I became Chair of Housing Direct Services, which was interesting in the sense that there I was, as a tenant now being in charge of my house! But also then being in charge of the works department, which did all the repairs, which I was uncomfortable with, because there’s a potential conflict of interest of me being Chair of Housing, but at the same time, awarding contracts to DSO, and knowing quite well, the problems that we had with that particular department. That particular department, DSO, was outsourced as part of my involvement, because of our concerns when we brought consultants in to do a test of its ability to function. When the report came back from, I think it was KPMG, it wasn’t very flattering of the service we had here in Sheffield. So that was work here was brought in to take over that contract, because A – we were losing money on the service. I think it was about £7 million across the whole service of DSO’s as they were known at that time. Plus, we had an horrendous backlog of repairs here in Sheffield. Plus we had, I think it was something where over £800 million on Housing Revenue Account debt. So Sheffield was in a pretty mess. It was the legacy some would argue, of the South Yorkshire Republic Syndrome, where housing revenue money allegedly was syphoned out of the Housing Revenue Account, prior to the Housing Act of 88′ which prohibited councils from using the HRA other than for housing, which in my view, I think was absolutely right. Because I think it was fools gold to think that the Housing Revenue Account was subsidising cheap bus fares and supporting the Student Games fiasco, which eventually, along with Supertram helped to bankrupt Sheffield, to the tune, I think it was about £1.4 billion and in about 1993/ 94. So that’s a bit of a climax, you know, of the background to some of the endemic problems we have here in Sheffield.
On a local level, I saw a report recently that you kindly sent over, just showing the effects that the Coronavirus pandemic has had on the ability to manage housing and repairs. So I understand that in Sheffield, there’s a six-month backlog of repairs during this time. Around the same time you’ve started putting together an audit of issues in your block, a very comprehensive audit. Can you tell us what led you to decide to do that audit?
It wasn’t my idea actually. I normally think I’m a trailblazer, but on this occasion I didn’t! I actually picked this up at one of the London School of Economics conferences. I think it was late – almost coming up to four years ago since the tragedy at Grenfell. I was asked to speak because of obviously, my previous experience over the years as a tenants’ representative, but also a cabinet member, or previous member of Sheffield Council. I found it rather interesting that I kept hearing that, you know, one or two people talk about audits and it didn’t grab me right away. It didn’t grab me, actually, until I got back home. Then I was writing a feedback to the council, you know, because they paid for me attending, and they paid for the accommodation. As a justification of that, I felt only obliged to write a report of what I felt it was about, was it value for money, what did I learn, and all that sort of stuff. The one thing that I did pick up was this audit, and I thought to myself – wearing my previous hat as a trade union safety representative, audits used to be something that used to be, when we used to do like health and safety inspections, which is another form of auditing, you know, how good is the company that you’re inspecting is on all aspects of safety. So it was that element and I thought, yeah, this is something maybe, it is possible. I have spoken to several people who are very expert in the sense of all aspects of tower blocks. But what I wasn’t picking up was the issues outside Grenfell. In other words, what was concerning me was this other emphasis, and rightly, obviously, of the tragedy at Grenfell but then at the exclusion of looking at other issues, that in my own personal opinion of living in a tower block, right, is we’re ignoring. We know for a fact that Sheffield City council is very, very clever at what it calls programme maintenance filtering, in the sense that as a means of, because of the resource problem they have, you know, how good are they really, at being proactive of dealing with issues prior to them becoming major issues of disrepair? Our lifts are a classic example of that. Then when you then have these repairs done, and then you have the incompetence of an organisation, as we have had in this Christmas, right, due to people not doing the most basic element of looking at what we used to call stress-testing. In other words, when they start these projects, what risk assessments did they carry out of what lift was more problematic of breakdowns than the other lift. And then, because they had one particular social aspect of somebody that wanted to, you know, had some timing element to it about their particular circumstances, that criteria resulted, and therefore, they actually dealt with the good lift or the lift that wasn’t as problematic first, and then worked on that. It takes about, normally about three weeks for the total refurb of a brand new lift to be put in. So you’re therefore relying on just one lift, and this lift happened to be the more problematic lift. Those of us that saw this happening, we knew what was going to come and unfortunately, it happened. So therefore, throughout the whole Christmas and New Year period, that lift broke down. So basically, we had no lift at all. What I found interesting is when I then complained to the Director of Housing, who immediately got me to meet the head of maintenance for the lift section, which I went and met. The first question I asked ‘what did you do to find out risk assessment before you started?’ None, he said, quite brazen. Then when I pressed him on the argument, his justification was that basically, the problem was it, you know, it was it became like a perfect storm. I said, well, I don’t know how you can say that, because if you had, if you’d have done your risk assessments, we would have given you, as tenants, our knowledge of knowing what lift was more problematic, even though your recording obviously may not be up to scratch as it should be, and in a post-Grenfell environment, that’s concerning, because if it happens here, where else is it happening? He then turned around and said, well, what the problem really was, we couldn’t find the parts because there was no proper recording of what we have and don’t have. I just thought to myself, this is just, you know, how can this be happening?! With the technology we have today, at the press of a button, we should be looking at. Lifts today can be operated now on wireless where- before you even come to the block, you don’t need me to tell you about it because it can actually show up on computer now with wireless operated lifts. Anyway, that’s another issue, that you constantly see that the inability of a system that, as I said, we are victims of maybe the complexity of the stock itself. But I do then question, you know, if I know this, surely managers do. We’re paying good salaries that we as tenants are paying for, you know, why aren’t they picking this up? Sheffield has always had a history of being very good on tenant representation. Unfortunately, that is now dying away. For whatever reason, and there are several reasons, main reason being – the people that initially started the Tenants Association’s in the 70s and 80s, they’re no longer with us because of age, or are too frail to continue. Plus people have got better things to do with their time in the leisure services and so on. So therefore there’s less and less people now being, active within TARA’s, which is a worrying aspect, particularly in a post Grenfell situation. But a more crucial element to that is, in my view, what, which was something I picked up when we had our tower blocks refurbed – our blocks were refurbed, due to a lot of the work that our Tenants Association did 10 years prior to 94′. All the reports we talked about earlier on. It was due to them reports that the council successfully got an SRB bid in 93/94, which I think it was about £38 million for this particular area in Netherthorpe and Upperthorpe. As a result of that, these flats were refurbished to what I consider a reasonable standard, definitely a lot better than what we experienced from 88′ moving into 94′ where we had external cladding, proper, you know, wooden frames made in Sweden, you know, they weren’t just a cheap version frames, you know, we got a good deal there. Then we had the central heating, which is from the incinerator burning rubbish at Bernard Road, which, again, I was involved with, due to my political connections at that time, that the heat and power were building the pipe through our estate and because the disruption that it would cause, you know, we sort of leant on them embarrassingly, saying, well the inconvenience – you know, you’re just sending all this heat to the universities. Well, do you not think elderly people, you know, who have got no proper heating system, don’t you think they should benefit from this? Anyway, fortunately, we got it. Before – we had underfloor heating, which was very unreliable, not very efficient, with the one bar fire in the front room. That was it. And I’m not joking – it wasn’t pleasant being in winter. So to have the heating system with the insulation, immediately, your quality of life, you could never believe how different it was. I’ve been asking now for the fire inspection reports of the tower blocks, which I asked for going on now 13 months ago, I still haven’t received them, so there’s been issues that you have to look at, beyond just the structural repair situation. It is, in my view, a competence issue of staffing these type of tower blocks, which I believe is not what it should be.
What you brought up there, in terms of the audit and the problems that you found. I think that will resonate with a lot of people listening, a lot of tenants will be able to empathise with that situation, in that they’re seeing money being spent on patch-up repairs, the local authority or the landlord are not engaging with them as experts in their block, and there’s general mismanagement going on. I suppose in your case, there’s a slight advantage in that you are so, because of your years of experience and your connections – you’re so well connected, that you might be able to get the attention of the right people more quickly than the average tenant, and I suppose I wanted to ask what your advice would be. So in terms of FixMyBlock, the concept of the website is to help tenants and residents to take action on various matters of disrepair. So it includes things like template letters, stories and case studies that people can learn from and hopefully people will be able to learn from your experiences as well today. We have other elements like a directory of legal advice services and campaign groups. Just in your opinion, what do you think, are the most useful elements? Just in your experience, what do you think would be the most, you’ve obviously had a look at the FixMyBlock website. I wondered what your opinion was and what you think is useful about it, and whether these are tools and services that you would consider using or recommending to your neighbours in this in their situations?
Obviously, any information of the quality that FixMyBlock documents is absolutely excellent, you know, can’t escape that. But it’s all right, having this knowledge, but even with this knowledge, I’m often responding – if this is happening to me – God knows what is happening to the less informed and more vulnerable people. You know, you can have all the knowledge in the world, but even with all what I’m doing, you know, I’m sorry, it’s still not working. So the only thing I’m left with, if I’m being totally honest with you, is the courageous guy in Grenfell, who was victimised as being a troublemaker, who minuted, and minuted, and minuted, what he was doing, if only people realise he was leaving a paper trail. The paper trail, in my view, is an audit, but it’s an audit that if you’ve got the commitment, like I have, and hopefully others will try and do, is to put pen to paper and keep pushing, and keep pushing. Because unfortunately, accidents do happen, or deliberate actions are created by neglect. And if the paper trail, and I name names when you read some of the reports, when they eventually put them in fact, you’ve I think I’ve sent you about three already. Just look through them and see the way I name officers. Name, shame, because to me, when something happens where can they hide? Where can the people in Grenfell hide, after the marvellous minutes that I’ve read about this guy down there who was victimised and stigmatised for doing his duty of raising genuine concerns of what was going on there. When I eventually finish this report it is not going to be flattering, and obviously with being an ex-cabinet member for housing, it’s going to give some juice to a media person, ex cabinet member – can you imagine?! You’ve read through the report, would you say they’re flattering of what’s going on here now?
Not at all no.
And they’re the tip of the iceberg to what the other 40 odd headings. And in them 40 odd headings, some of them headings alone have 20 under headings, so you can see the extent of this. So the extent of all this, to be honest with you, is a mammoth task, which a lot of people are not going to bother with. But I’m not asking people to mirror what I’ve done. I suppose I’m either crazy or unique in doing what I’m doing. But what I want to do as I get bit more longer in the tooth being in 76 is like – it’s a legacy. I believe you know, at least what you’re doing with FixMyBlock is absolutely good. What I’m doing is of similar nature, but more detailed on personal input and, you know, things that I may be more knowledge than some of the people that have written your report, in a sense, because what I sometimes question is when I sometimes get criticised, because I’m critical about maybe tower blocks not being looked at holistically, as opposed to just looking at fire protection. I do honestly, believe that it has to be done, because we owe it, and particularly for the type of people who can’t speak for themselves. Because of the lettings policy – coming back to that, those of us that are capable either educationally or by tenacity, we owe it other more vulnerable people.
You’ve sent me, and we’ve actually published it on the Tower Blocks UK website, a report that you put together in the 90s called Up In Arms. Would you be able to tell us a little bit about that?
Oh, yeah well again, that came about over anger. It was during the time when the Labour Party nationally weren’t doing well, against Thatcher and major governments. And there was an almost unforgivable blame-game going on, within certain politicians. And even here in Sheffield, I could name names. Two in particular, one is still an MP, another now is no longer an MP, who, in my view, came out with some pretty revolting comments about women having children to be housed in Council properties. Me and Howard, politically, we just thought this, because we knew the women, because obviously, we ran the Tenants Association, and we knew that that was NOT the case at all. These were women predominantly fleeing domestic violence, violence – all the elements of relationship breakdowns. They were victims, along with their children. And we just thought, no, this no, we can’t just let this go by. Particularly when we knew that, why are these people being put into blocks, when the medical and social aspects were so well known, of the potential dangers of that policy of housing children in tower blocks. So we thought we need to get into this, so we we went into it, like everything we do, we tried to go into it in both the medical aspects, the social aspects, you know, to try and give it some, you know, authenticity, of what it is like, and the experience and the dangers and particularly of children. So, that’s how it started. It took about 18 months of obviously research, then winning the confidence of the individual women, because obviously, there was issues there of security and particularly of being identified, particularly of women fleeing domestic violence. So we had to, obviously make sure that there was no compromising their safety. But again, it was the council’s resistance to that because it wasn’t ideal, because it meant difficulty for the lettings issue, which again comes back to the whole issue earlier on, of what I said, because I do believe that one of the biggest issues that I foresee in the future that I am hoping to get some recognition on the agenda is the whole lettings issue of appropriately, or what I call ‘appropriate lettings’ of putting people. Now I enjoy living in a tower block, otherwise I wouldn’t have been here. Somewhat more concerning now because what I have seen over the last several years, both in the Upperthorpe tower blocks and now here for the last four years or so. There’s been a big, big increase of ethnic families, sometimes with three to four children being housed in the tower blocks. Their issues in my view, got to be issues there around size, appropriate size. For the size of the families, there’s got to be an issue there. Particularly why almost every time our flat one of our flats becomes vacant, on the top floor, it’s always filled with young families with very young children, and bless their heart and soul, they can’t help it. How do you deal with a language difficulty? And then in a restriction of height, isolation. Does anybody really understand that? Because if they did, why are we still doing it? And doing it ever increasingly?
I would certainly recommend everybody read your report.
This was written was it 91? I think the date was 91/92. And here, we are still now. In 2020, we’re still talking about same issue. In fact, it’s become more endemic, to say that there still aren’t fundamental issues that were raised in that report are not relevant today. Absolutely – they are relevant today. Not all aspects, but they are still important issues that I believe that the city councils and the government should actually be doing more, because what are we saying? That children are damage? Then what are the economic elements of that down the road for social services, health service, possibly police because of the inappropriate behaviour that sometimes can develop with children? You know, being restricted of natural growth, natural habitat, it’s, you know, it is criminal, it really is criminal.
The audit, even just the headings that you put down there could help other people as a template to start making those contemporeaneous notes about their housing environments in the way that you described, that Edward Daffarn did from Grenfell Action Group and how important it is to keep those notes.
Paper trail. It’s evidence, it is evidence, Believe you me, that is what, in my view, will eventually, if there is a price to pay, of the criminality that went on in Grenfell. The evidence, in my view, was that Gentlemen, I wish I could remember his name.
Yeah, to me, that guy deserves a Nobel Peace Prize, to be quite honest with you, or equivalent of a Nobel Prize, because to be quite honest with you, the dignification of that guy, after the fire was, to me, amazing. Never mind the tenacity and the courage to take on power. Because make no mistake, both I have done the same in the past, I’ve taken powerful people on because of my background, you know, of being an orphan, you know, and seeing our organisations, institutions, they don’t like sharing power, they don’t want to get rid of that power. So it’s important that people like him and others, take them on as the tenants movement ceases to be more powerful, more engaging, for whatever reasons or the justifications, then to me, you know, it is more important that individuals now start doing this themselves. Because I don’t think you can rely any longer on you know, the sort of traditional tenants movement that we have been accustomed to over the years. That’s what I’ve learned. So people don’t have to join a Tenants Association. That’s not me saying that Tenants Associations are bad per se. I’ve been very critical over the Federation that used to run Sheffield, because it was luddite. It wasn’t progressive enough to keep up with issues around equal opportunities and various other issues. You know, homophobia was rife, still is.
Clearly you have done a lot of good work over the years and actually think we probably need to do a second podcast talking about discrimination and a lot of the other issues.
Well you will see there’s issues around it because we actually need to get the Council on about taking issue with Tenants Associations. I mean, some of the remarks I still hear when the few meetings I attend. Sometimes the language I hear at some of them Tenants meetings is appalling, no it’s appalling. So much so. I mean, the last one I went to, there was an Asian woman sat next to me, who had to hear the most overt racist implication remark from an older white tenant, and it was just dreadful! I was proud because you know, I normally have to do it, but on this occasion, she actually took it on, but she didn’t take it on in a ranty way, she took it on in a measured way. What concerns me looking around this room today, this is the most I’ve seen of people of colour. There were maybe five in a room of predominantly 15. I’ve never seen that here in Sheffield, but I totally understand why people of colour wouldn’t come to some of these meetings, given what I hear from these meetings at times!
So I think we’ll have to wrap it up there. Again, thank you for your time and do appreciate you taking part so thank you Peter, have a good night.
Don’t mention it.
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