Rhiannon’s Story

Rhiannon is the Campaigns and Research Officer at the Southwark Group of Tenants Organisations. SGTO is an independent voluntary organisation representing and promoting the rights of tenants and residents groups within the London Borough of Southwark and has been in existence since 1984 supporting tenants through training, information and advice. In this podcast she discusses housing disrepair, the power of collective action and how to overcome the challenges that Covid-19 has presented when tackling housing problems.

Full transcription

Welcome to the FixMyBlock podcast. FixMyBlock.org is a project from Tower Blocks UK, created in collaboration with mySociety, funded by the Legal Education Foundation. The FixMyBlock podcast series captures the stories of tower block residents and community organisers around the UK.

Hello, and welcome to the FixMyBlock podcast. Today we’re talking to Rhiannon who is a housing campaigner as well as the Campaigns Researcher at the Southwark Group of Tenants Organisations.

Thank you Danielle

Hi, and thank you for joining us. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your various roles?

So, I am a campaigning research officer for the Southwark Group of Tenant Organisations which is also known as SGTO. So SGTO has existed independently since 1984. Before that, it was part of a larger body, but since 1984 it been specifically for Southwark tenants and residents. The term ‘tenant’ refers to anyone living in Southwark-owned property. Then in my role I do campaign and research. I am the ‘officer of the people’. So it’s all kind of tenant-led and if people instruct me to do something, then I’ll do that on their behalf.

In the area where you work, the London Borough of Southwark, there are 174 high rise properties which are owned and managed by the council. What are the most common issues that you tend to hear about from those tower block communities when it comes to disrepair?

Sometimes it’s hard to realise that they actually are in tower blocks. People kind of come to you with the issue that is normally within their properties, they might talk about the hallway. I think it seems a lot more intimidating for people when it’s inside their actual individual property. So people might talk about in the, kind of, communal areas, it might be people taking drugs into the communal areas – people that don’t live there. So people that have managed to get into the high rises and kind of use the stairways as places to take and sell drugs. But that’s not the people that live there. Sometimes it can range from people reporting that there’s blood smeared on the walls, to like people fly tipping in communal areas. So it’s like a massive, massive range of things. Within the properties, it tends to be damp, that’s like a massive, massive one. So I used to work as a legal advisor at a legal advice centre, based in Camberwell, which is in the middle of Southwark, and we saw a massive range of legal problems to do with housing. So that was things like damp. People would also come with photos of the communal areas. So it might be people leaving loads and loads of rubbish in the communal areas, and then as an advisor I was invited to Bells Gardens – which is where Southwark Group of Tenant Organisations is based, because it was when, just after Grenfell, the Ledbury Estate were having issues with the cracks in the walls, and it was obviously a major, major issue for the tower blocks, and there was an activity arranged at Bells Gardens where different legal advice agencies were invited to give legal advice to tenants. That was, I mean, even as an advisor, it’s really overwhelming because there was lots of people coming in with children, and were really, really distressed and there were like a lot of elderly people that were really distressed, and that was the kind of, the first time I’d seen collective action. So as an advisor, I’ve been really used to doing one-off advice to people and taking one-off cases against landlords, whereas when you kind of see that there’s a massive group of people that are affected in the same way, and that groups like SGTO – Southwark Group of Tenant Organisations is there to support them, you realise that collective action is a much stronger thing. And also, the fact of like, some people that we used to see at the advice centre were really, really, really vulnerable and they didn’t always bring documents with them. Not very many of them had smartphones, whereas kind of, the advice sessions that were happening at Bell’s Gardens, people had loads and loads of evidence, loads of photos of what had been happening, were keeping all their documents that they’ve been sent from the landlord. So it’s just, it was really interesting to see it from a different side. And obviously, the vulnerable tenants need a completely different, more hands-on support, and a lot of the tenants that are organising to improve housing conditions are doing it on behalf of their vulnerable neighbours.

Yes. And so on that point about collective action – why do you think it is that sometimes people might struggle more? When they report something to the landlord individually, as opposed to getting together with their neighbours and taking collective action together? What do you think it is about that that makes it so effective?

I think when you report it individually, it’s hidden. So you do a, you normally would ring up somebody that’s in the call centre, you report the problem. If I’m doing it as a worker with somebody, then I’m only with that person for 30 minutes. And sometimes people can be really rude when you speak to phone operators, and they think that your a tenant, they speak to you really differently as to how they speak to when they think that you’re calling on behalf of a tenant, which is absolutely ridiculous! So I think, yeah, because it’s hidden, because that person comes to you for half an hour to get support, and then they go away. And then they might not have heard anything for three weeks, they come back for half an hour to get a next bit of support. Whereas, if people are doing it collectively, there’s a group of people putting pressure on the landlord, and it happens in all different ways. It might be that some people take to social media, and some people have a direct route with councillors, or some people have a direct route with housing officers. It used to be that housing officers would have their like pictures, name and telephone number on all the noticeboards, so if you had a housing problem, you could go to them. Then it kind of progressed that Southwark Council, the landlord – the social landlord that we normally deal with in Southwark, it progressed that they had a website, you put in your postcode, and it tells you instantly who your local ward councillors are, who your housing officer is. So that was really positive, because you can then contact all of those people collectively, and then kind of, push for something. So I think when there’s more eyes on something, then people feel more obliged to address it. Equally, if you’re a group of tenants that are creating loads of different eyes that are watching something and seeing something that’s being dealt with, then it tends to be responded to better. Social media is so good, that it’s gone in the direction that it’s gone in, with regards to engaging with your….not ‘engaging’ sorry – reporting on your landlord, it’s really effective, because you can send videos, you can tag stuff. I’ve seen Tower Blocks UK get tagged in a lot of stuff. We get tagged in a lot of stuff @SGTOonline on Twitter.

For tenants coming forward to get advice – SGTO are very good and very effective in communicating with residents around the borough so that people know that they’re there. Unfortunately, not every area around the UK has a Tenants Federation like SGTO. But from your experience, at what point do you find that residents come to you for advice, and what things have they tried already before turning to you?

The kind of point of entry to groups like us can be all different. We’re really privileged in the sense of whilst we are a really small team, people can just call our number and get through to us and we run the kind of open-door service so people can just come and knock on our community centre and get advice. Whereas normally if you’re trying to access something like the Citizens Advice, there’s a massive – not gatekeeping – that makes it sounds too harsh, but you have to go through quite a vigorous process in order to get an appointment, which isn’t always great if people have an emergency and they just want to speak to someone. So yeah, it really depends. Sometimes people access us because one of their neighbours have told them to come to us. Some other people have accessed us from the other end, and it’s because they need help and they don’t know how to get help, and they’ve done like a Google search maybe. But then the other side of it is that sometimes Southwark Council might actually tell people to contact us because there are additional things that we can do and additional pressures that we can put on the landlord, but maybe the landlord needs to come from an independent body. So yeah, it’s lots of different ways that people access us really. Sometimes it’s through social media, because they see us, kind of, contact them through those routes. And hopefully it will be through people listening to this as well!

So I just want to touch a little bit on the challenges that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought forward. So for example, Sheffield council recently reported that they have a six-month backlog of repairs in that borough. In your experience – what additional challenges have you seen your community facing with disrepair during this time? And how much of the universal problem do you think this is, or it’s going to be, going forward?

I’m not too sure. With regards to disrepair, people are, kind of, being offered appointments, that might be quite a long way down the line. We haven’t seen any major ones recently. So it’s been more that people have like maybe infestations. I know that infestation – the way that they’ve been dealt with by Southwark Council was really celebrated recently in their ‘Council House Britain’ series. But I think people are still having to wait quite a long time to have things investigated. The major issue, as October has now started, is going to be district heating. So every year, there’s kind of annual district heating breakdowns. Most of the district heating systems come on at the start of October, and again, have had breakdowns. So that’s kind of what we’re bracing ourselves for now, because the answer to that is that you’re given a plug-in heater, which are really expensive, and people are too scared to put them on, not just because it costs loads of money, but also because of the fire risk. That’s one issue. Sometimes it’s like lifts breaking down. A few days ago, there was a flood in one of the blocks, and that caused the lifts to eventually break down. A massive issue on the estates is damp, and that’s because…I make the presumption that it’s because the properties aren’t designed to have the radiator systems that they have, I’m sure. Some of the properties are overcrowded, because people don’t have any other properties to move into. So people are kind of just stuck with having lots of people in the two bedroom flat, and then that causes moisture in the air, because you’ve got more people than the properties are built for. That causes damp. When you report that there’s damp, you get sent a booklet with loads of ‘tips for how to decrease damp in your property’. But you have to have done that for six months before any follow-on action can be taken. We see emergency repairs being responded to as an emergency, and it tends to be that those repairs really shock people and if people turn to social media to report them, then everyone’s so shocked that the council, as a landlord, is quite responsive to that type of repair. But I think it’s probably the longer ongoing repairs. That probably affects lots of vulnerable people that aren’t able to make a big noise.

When we developed FixMyBlock, you kindly agreed to be involved in helping us shape some of that. I know that we were in conversation about that, and obviously at that point, that was before the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the things that we found, one of the areas where we’ve been limited, is in our ability to go out onto estates and do door-knocking and really have a sort of a one-to-one service for vulnerable people in the areas where we wanted to pilot that. So one of the things that we thought might be a potential way to assist with some of that is to work more closely with Law Centres and Citizens Advice Bureaus and organisations like SGTO. So where people who might not be computer literate, for example, or people who are vulnerable might seek help they can come and be supported in using FixMyBlock, and some of the tools that are in are included in that. One of the other things that we were really keen on is that the site is accessible to as many people as possible. So we translated it into 20 languages and have the ability to develop that further. So, I wanted to say thank you as well for your input into helping to shape it. But I’m curious to know from you as to what elements you think at this point in time, given the significant change in circumstances, would be most useful for the tenants?

Yeah, so thank you Danielle, it’s a privilege to be part of it. And yep, so I think door knocking is absolutely the key thing. I think, from our experience, it’s probably not something that the legal advice agencies would do. Tenants do get leaflets through the door from solicitors – I can’t remember what it’s called – like when you’re trying to get jobs. So people might get leaflets through the door cold calling – cold leafleting is it called? Basically saying like, ‘are you in disrepair’? So we’ve raised that a few times, but apparently, that’s not actually an infringement of any kind of rule from a solicitors angle or from like a data protection angle. But we’re just saying people shouldn’t – they should try and get free legal advice, where possible. So from our own experience, the most effective way that we’ve been able to engage with vulnerable people is through door knocking. As an example, when there have been district heating outages, so communal heating outages in estates, we’ve gone to people’s doors, to see how they are and that is exactly what needs to be happening if there is another lockdown. So that needs to be figured out, how we can kind of do a call to arms, because it’s going to be an emergency – if communal heating breaks during winter, and people are housebound, it’s going to be a complete, complete emergency. So I think it is really important that people do door knock. It’s been really good, during this period, that neighbours have looked out for people, and I think the whole mutual aid movement is very akin to the tenants movement, and that is all very much about people checking in on their neighbours, making sure their neighbours are okay. Normally TRAs would be having TRA meetings on the estate, and that might be some of them have community centres in the middle of the estate so they kind of collect there. Some people have like, maybe a flat, like a disused flat where they meet, or some people just have their neighbours around to their front room, and then hold tenant meetings, to try and organise around how you’re going to improve housing on the estate or on the street properties. But obviously that can’t happen at the moment. So that can be really detrimental for people. So what SGTO also does is hold public meetings on estates and council properties from all the local area are invited to come to those public meetings. And we discuss again, I’ll give the example of communal heating breakdowns, so then we’ll write to the solicitors, and advisors and campaigners, so we can try and figure out what the next steps needs to be and how we can lobby the landlord to sort it out very quickly.

As it stands at the moment, obviously, you’ve had a look at the FixMyBlock website, are there any elements that you think are particularly useful amongst the tools that are on there?

So I think the stories are really, really helpful. I think that’s something that I’ve been really impressed with. Sometimes when you’re in housing, in bad housing, you don’t realise that you’re in bad housing, and you don’t realise that you don’t have to be in bad housing, and it’s not okay for your landlord to not be doing anything. So I think it is really good to see the stories of – this is the situation I was in, and this is how I dealt with it, because I think it shows people that it’s not okay. But also it’s not like, I think what can be sometimes frustrating is when you’re just given loads of information and loads of like ‘do you have this problem?’ – you do this this this, and this. That can be quite overwhelming for people. So I think guides can, like, kind of softer guides are really, really useful. And I think the stories show how things can be used to improve the housing situation, rather than putting the burden back on the tenant. I think all the information I read about forming a TRA was also really helpful. I don’t know if, when people go to get legal advice, if that is kind of part of the package is like, oh – have you thought about collective action? Because again, they’re coming from different angles, legal advice tends to be an isolated thing. So if you go for free legal advice from the Citizens Advice, it’s normally like one-on-one advice to get that one issue dealt with. Whereas forming a tenant and resident association or trying to join your tenant and resident association, is getting the issue dealt with, on a, kind of, mass scale – so not just for you, but for lots of other people. So I think that was a really positive aspect of it. But yeah, also the fact that seeing the kind of profile of people who have dealt with the housing issues, and that you can be one of those people is quite exciting. Equally the other side of it, it kind of allows people, if they do want more information about the issue, then they can delve deeper into it. So I think that’s also a really positive side of things. Things kind of tend to be oversimplified or over complicated. Whereas I think the FixMyBlock platform, deals with it in different ways and allows you to delve into as much as you as much as you want.

I’m glad that you thought that the case studies were really useful, because that’s really what we want. We want people to be able to hear what others have gone through, where they’ve had successes, and perhaps try some of those things on their own situation, or at least feel like they’re not alone in what they’re going through, and perhaps reach out. It’s worth at this point, just reiterating to listeners that if you have tackled a housing disrepair issue in your block, or you’re experiencing one now, we would love to hear from you. Perhaps you’ve got something that you could share with others, some little trick or some tip that you could impart to the rest of us to learn from. And it’s that idea of coming together as a collective group, around the country really, and learning from those stories from each other. So do get in touch. You can email us at contact@fixmyblock.org and if you go to the contact page on our FixMyBlock.org website, there are other ways to reach out and get in touch with us as well. So just finally, Rhiannon – I’m keen to hear from you on what FixMyBlock is missing or what it could benefit from further. So next year, we’re looking to expand to include Scottish law. Obviously, Scotland has a lot of tower blocks, but it’s a separate legal jurisdiction. So we need to make sure that we’re including the different law that exists there. So that’s one of the ways that we’re hoping to expand and develop further but I wondered if you had any thoughts about what other things we possibly need to do to grow it and make it accessible and useful to everyone?

So the campaigning toolkit that you have on the FixMyBlock platform is a really good toolkit to get people thinking about the housing issue that they have, and how they can campaign for change. And it kind of separates it into different steps of the kind of goal and objectives, and the plan for future and people that might benefit and producing a story and a call to action. And I think the call to action, coming from a tenants movement aspect, is always the exciting bit. And it’s exciting, well not exciting – it’s tragic, but it’s so needed when someone has a housing issue, and that there’s kind of a collective of people available who can support and tackle that housing issue. So maybe an idea could be that a call to action actually be – is like, a physical thing. So it’s kind of like ‘we are calling to action’. So when something, when in a housing issue gets really crucial, we could all be a collective that can be tapped into, and everybody can respond to that call to action. As a housing campaign that could be a really beneficial thing, if we agree to the call to action! I think that could also be sometimes a struggle with campaigning – everyone presumes that everyone’s got the same aim and that having a joint call to action, housing campaigners generally have the same aim because they want better housing for people essentially. So we can do, if a call to action could be something on the FixMyBlock website, that we all as campaigners register for, and then it can kind of, launch collective action, I think that would be really beneficial. It’s really great that Southwark Group of Tenants Organisation exists to fight the rights of tenants in Southwark, and then you have the London Tenants Federation, which supports – is the kind of umbrella organisation of us. In the heyday, when all local authorities would have a tenant federation, and so they’re the kind of the umbrella organisation for us. But lots of local authorities don’t have housing federations anymore. So the idea of that we could all kind of do a call to arms and lobby something more nationally, I think would be really beneficial because all of our pushback is against the council. Whereas if we could do something that demonstrates why the council is in the situation that it is in. Obviously if it hasn’t dealt with repairs, then it hasn’t dealt with repairs, and they need to be told, they need to be forced to deal with those repairs. But perhaps there is a a bigger issue that the government needs to also address within that. So yeah, I think that would be my tip.

That sounds really interesting, and you’ve already got my cogs whirring in my brain thinking about how we could potentially do that! Thank you. I suspect that’s something that we’ll talk about further. I can hear that you’re having some lunch in a cafe somewhere, so I will leave you to enjoy it. But Rhiannon thank you for joining us, thank you for all the input and feedback that you’ve given us in developing FixMyBlock and a big thank you to the Southwark Group of Tenants Organisations for, not only supporting us, but supporting residents all across the Southwark borough through hard times and beyond. So a big thank you to all the staff there, and thank you for listening.

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