The Strange Case of Quarry Heads


Although this blogspot has been outwardly inactive for well over eighteen months now, we’ve been extremely active behind the scenes, as a major scandal looms on the horizon for Labour controlled Durham County Council in the wake of the implementation of a new local government initiative to off load land, buildings, and other assets still temporarily in Council hands, over to community ownership. With the government’s ‘forced austerity’ measures still in full swing and no sign of a change in direction in the event of a Labour victory in May, under the new county wide ‘Assets Transfer’ policy Durham County Council are looking at ways to transfer as many of their presently owned assets over to community ownership as possible; with a whole array of different public bodies including community groups, housing associations and parish councils just some of the organizations getting directly involved.

When last we were visibly active we raised the issue of the former Council land at Quarry Heads, Toft Hill, just outside of Bishop Auckland, with which Etherley Parish Council, Teesdale District Council and Durham County Council have all had direct involvements over a period of some thirty or so years. The scandal itself first erupted in the early nineteen nineties when members of a well known criminal family managed to obtain some sort of rights of possessory title over part of the land by what can best be described as highly irregular means. In spite of a major public hue and cry and repeated written representation being made to the then District Council and other related parties by former Labour District Councillor Joe Smith, nothing was ever done and all further attempts to get the situation rectified were subsequently ignored.

During the intervening period the criminal network involved were to successfully manage to establish a power base on the land in question, which, in spite of their claims in the local press, in which it has been described as a ‘Pets’ Plot’, resembles something more akin to a Taleban Compound than a place to keep one’s furry little friends. And, in more recent times, the situation had been allowed to get so bad, with the Police and their various ‘partner agencies’ both failing and refusing to get directly involved, that an article in the Teesdale Mercury which appeared in the wake of a meeting of Etherley Parish Council, at which the Council’s proposals to hand over responsibility for the land to the Parish were discussed in full, described Quarry Heads as a ‘no go area’. Although the Quarry Heads were now being described as a ‘no go area’ in the press, something which it had been for many residents for a considerable period of time, the Police still seemed incapable of providing a credible explanation as to why such a situation had been allowed to develop in the first place.

In addition to providing a reasonably detailed and up to date report on both the County Council and the Parish Council’s current position on the Quarry Heads, the ‘Teesdale Mercury’ also revealed that members of Council Staff who had become involved in trying to rectify a situation which years of what the article itself was to describe as ‘illegal encroachment’, on what had formerly been publicly owned land, had actually been physically threatened by the criminal family at the centre of the controversy around which the land itself is still effectively surrounded. For residents of the nearby Red House Estate which is situated directly adjacent to the land at Quarry Heads, although things there are considerably quieter there than they were when this entire controversy erupted well over twenty years ago, it is quite astounding that the late Joe Smith’s attempts to get the situation rectified were effectively sidelined for decades. During the intervening period however when Police and Council alike failed to take the appropriate action necessary for bringing the situation under control, hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of damage appears to have been done to many of the properties on the estate, whilst large numbers of residents appear to have been forced to go elsewhere in spite of the public authority that is presently responsible for the up keep and management of the Estate making widespread claims to the contrary.

In the meantime, and in spite of the outward appearance of normality, little or no sign of any direct change appears to have taken place with regard to the ownership and stewardship of the land itself. According to present reports the area is still frequented by the same undesirable element who were previously responsible for the alleged threats made to Council Staff referred to in the ‘Teesdale Mercury’. And, in spite of a clear Council commitment to getting the situation resolved, there seems little sign of the kind of drastic measures that need to be taken to restore the land to its rightful owners: the people of Toft Hill and High Etherley, actually manifesting on the ground.

 

An Interesting Reason as to why I Have No Lights!

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In spite of the fact that Teesdale Housing Association have repeatedly claimed that they have no idea of the whereabouts of general all round nuisance and serial troublemaker Michael Tray, they have not only been given adequate proof as to which properties on Red Houses he has been operating from, by way photographs and video, but have also been given hard evidence that he has been involved in the systematic plundering of electrical wiring and copper piping from the block which he and his associates had previously been able hijack; right under the very noses of Teesdale Housing management and staff.

Evidence that at least some staff members may well have been in some way complicit in aiding and abetting those responsible for driving all but two of the law abiding tenants out of the block, whilst simultaneously allowing the block itself to be rendered largely uninhabitable, is provided a recording currently lodged with Clark Willis Law Firm of Darlington. The recording itself, to which the current Chair of the Parish Council, Peter Ray, along with a number of interested parties have themselves been offered access, consists of a recording of one of the Housing Association’s former joiners attempting to explain to a tenant in residence why it is that he and his fellow tenants have had no lights in the communal areas of the block for several weeks.

According to this explanation, the extinguishing of the lights was supposedly as a result of the copper wire from the central junction box in the communal area in the centre of the block having been removed by contractors working on the Decent Homes Standard upgrade the previous year. In reality however it would have been physically impossible for the lights to have been working for the intermediate period between when the contract work took place, and the point at which they had ceased to function, if the explanation that is given here was in any way correct.

The photographic stills at the top of the page on the other hand provide an altogether better explanation as how the lights had become permanently extinguished at the time this recording was made in the first place, as the video clip from which they were taken clearly shows Michael Tray walking away from the building, in the company of a third party who is also a well known local nuisance, with some of the copper wire that had gone missing in his hand. These facts take the situation out of the realm of science fiction. in which Teesdale Housing Association had previously put it, and into the real the world of crime and disorder into which Red Houses has been plunged since the Housing Association first went against the terms and conditions of their own Offer Document, first presented to tenants at the time of the change over from Council ownership to Housing Association administration, when known criminals with multiple convictions were allowed into block alongside law abiding tenants.

So why would Teesdale Housing Association be so keen to help a professional criminal such as Michael Tray to cover his tracks in the first place, if they were not in some way complicit in what was going on? According to no fewer than four serving or retired former Councillors, Teesdale Housing Association had a hidden agenda to demolish the block from which Tray and his associates were formerly operating long before they took the grant money from Central Government to refurbish the block as part of the Decent Homes Standard regeneration programme. This would appear to suggest that their motivations from the outset were criminal in intent.

Whereabouts Unknown…..?

In the closing months of 2012 a serial complainant resident on Red Houses at High Etherley in County Durham intiated yet another in a series of official written complaints, as a response to letters from the Department of Communities and Local Government and the Homes and Communities Agency, setting out the course of action that they themselves felt to be appropriate in relation to the matters then in dispute between himself and Teesdale Housing Association. During the course of the complaint, and the Panel Hearing that was to follow, Teesdale Housing Association made a variety of claims relating to the whereabouts of serial trouble maker Michael Tray, who had himself been instrumental in the mass exodus of tenants from the last remaining block of flats on Red Houses; that had followed months of anti-social behaviour and nuisance in and around the village in which the estate is situated.

In spite of the fact that, thanks to the previous agitations of this self same serial complainant, the Estate had been declared a so called ‘L.M.A.P.s’, or ‘Local Multi-Agency Partnership Problem Solving Zone’ by elements linked to the local Community Safety Partnership, as far back as October 2011, it would only be in the summer of the following year that Teesdale Housing Association would eventually climb on board. By which time, all but three of the law abiding residents in the block from which much of the anti-social behaviour and all round criminal nuisance was at that time regularly emanating, had themselves been systematically driven out.

The video clip embedded at the top of this posting is intended to demonstrate the kind of regular harassment that residents of the Estate who won’t comply with what the late Joe Smith was to repeatedly refer to as ‘The Mafia’ want on a regular basis. A former District Councillor, Parish Councillor and retired Inspector of Special Constabulary,  who had campaigned vigorously for years in an unsuccessful attempt to get the Estate cleaned up, Joe Smith was not the only person in the village who was of the opinion that many of the problems on the Estate were being micro-managed from inside Teesdale Housing Association itself.

Definite proof of this is provided by Teesdale Housing Association’s repeated written claims that they were unaware of the whereabouts of serial trouble maker Michael Tray, at the time when much of the nuisance that was to drive the majority of residents out of the block in the first place had been initiated by the criminal element to begin with. In fact, as members of L.M.A.P.S. they would have been fully aware of the true facts as regards this, and would have been informed by their other partner agencies that he was in fact residing with one of their very own tenants; and had been provably visiting others on a regular basis. Something that would have meant that they were under a statutory obligation to carry out set procedures of tenancy enforcement that would have nipped the problem in the bud.

The previously referred to video clip embedded at the top of this posting shows the kind of welcoming committee that Michael Tray and his associates would organize regularly for tenants in the block on Red Houses which he and his associates had effectively hijacked as a power base from which to organize their criminal activities; whilst the sound file below, which has been isolated from the clip and digitally enhanced, should give the reader some kind of idea of the level of insult and regular harassment to which the law abiding tenants in the block were themselves to be regularly subjected. Hardly surprising then that there has been a complete exodus from the block in which the criminal element had formerly established itself, in view of the Housing Association’s complete failure to act in an appropriate fashion as regards this.

A Consistent Failure to Accept Responsibilty for Anything

The Red House Estate at High Etherley in County Durham has a reputation across the locality for excessive levels of criminality and anti-social behaviour well in excess of the realities of what has been happening on the ground. Regular Community Safety surveys in the largely rural area in which it is located have revealed that fear of crime far outstrips levels of actual crime within the community in terms of its overall impact on local residents. One of the reasons why this is so revolves around the fact that most of the crime that is carried out is the responsibility of a hard core minority of criminal families, whose network of contacts within the power structure has meant that in a large number of cases they have been allowed to continue with what they are doing while the Forces of Law and Order effectively turn a blind eye.

One such individual, who was recently incarcerated, for his part in a serious disturbance that took place in Etherley Cricket Club at the end of 2012, is Michael Dunn, aka Michael Tray. For years Michael Tray has been part of a group of professional criminals and genuine all round nuisances who have controlled much of the low level drug dealing in and around Red Houses. Their involvement in the theft and reselling of scrap metal is also well known. And, in spite of the fact that both he and his oft times dancing partner, Daniel Slack, were caught engaging in those self same activities during the early summer of 2008, offences for which they were subsequently convicted, a situation that should have resulted in legal action being taken against them by Teesdale Housing Association, nothing of any consequence was ever done about it at the time.

The fact that the Housing Association failed to take responsibility for this was to result in a number of other, law abiding, residents being forced to seek alternative accommodation elsewhere; in spite of being the ones who were more often than not in greater housing need than those who appear to have been tormenting them. Again, Susanne Bellas, the former Housing Officer with Teesdale Housing Association responsible for dealing with such matters appears to have been as much to blame as anyone; as a series of  sound files presently lodged with Clark Willis Law Firm of Darlington, consisting of a number of telephone conversations between herself and a resident of Red Houses, who had been suffering continual harassment from Tray for a period of several years at the time that this recording was made, would seem to provide ample testament.

Similarly, the embedded video file at the top of this page  shows the kind of activities in which Tray has been accustomed to indulge for years on Red Houses, with very little to show for it but a handful of largely insignificant harassment warnings which, if anything, only serve to increase his standing amongst the criminal element with which he associates. Whether it be following people around the estate in the fashion that you see here in an attempt to frighten them, or else walking past their living room window staring into their flat, house or bungalow, this is the sort of thing that Tray has been allowed to get away with for years; whilst anybody else would have been punished for it straight away.

So how is it that someone like Tray can have been allowed to get away with what he has clearly been allowed to get away with for so long? Many of the people for whom he has created problems in and around the village where he lives are of the opinion that he has inside knowledge of certain corrupt relationships between certain Police Officers, former Police Officers, and their families who have well established and proven connections with Etherley Cricket Club which can be traced back more than a decade. As to whether or not this is genuinely the case remains to be seen.

A Reinterpretation of the Rules

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For years High Etherley‘s Red House Estate near Bishop Auckland was a crime and disorder black spot renowned throughout the district as a magnet for trouble and anti-social nuisance. Although the hardcore of the troublemakers are just about under control, the situation was only rectified as a result of the activities of one resolute resident: whose gathering of evidence on those responsible for the systematic running down of large areas of the estate, and diligent logging and reporting of the evidence he had gathered to the relevant agencies responsible, was to bring what had amounted to a ten year reign of terror to an end. A fact acknowledged before witnesses by Bishop Auckland Beat Inspector Martin Peace at a meeting between the Police and a pair of somewhat dissatisfied residents at Bishop Auckland Police Station on the afternoon of Tuesday 6th August 2013. A full ten and a half years after a damning report into anti-social behaviour in the village had appeared in the pages of the Teesdale Mercury.

Although the Police can accept at least some responsibility for a state of affairs that has resulted in much needed social housing being systematically run into the ground, most of the blame for what has happened on Red Houses can be laid at the door of Teesdale Housing Association. With the present Coalition Government’s attempts at Welfare Reform requiring people residing in properties that are considered too large for their needs to downsize into smaller dwellings, flats that should be being used for that very purpose are now largely uninhabitable, primarily as a result of what basically amounts to what some would see as  the deliberate waste of large amounts of tax payers’ money on properties that have been allowed to fall into a state of serious disrepair.

The fact that the flats at Red Houses have entered a near state of dereliction in recent years, in spite of large amounts of money having been spent on them as part of the previous Labour Government’s ‘Decent Homes Standard’ refurbishment scheme, is something for which Teesdale Housing Association must accept almost all of the blame. In the years leading up to the last Labour administration’s nationally funded refurbishment of the existing Social Housing stock, which was intended to maintain the viability of vast numbers of homes for a generation, thus perpetuating the habitation of dwellings in a sector that had been systematically starved of cash by previous Conservative governments, a series of important pieces of legislation were put through Parliament to prevent such a situation to begin with. Pieces of legislation that Teesdale Housing Association, and its predecessor, Teesdale District Council, have essentially seen fit to ignore.

These were to include amendments to the Homelessness Act 2002 giving local authorities powers to restrict access to the Housing Waiting List for people with a history of anti-social and criminal behaviour. It has primarily been as a result of Teesdale District Council’s failure to implement or enforce this nationally adopted government policy in the first place, that was to lead to the situation that the estate is currently in to begin with. Of particular significance, in relation to the matters previously referred to above, is the fact that the then Head of Housing at Teesdale, at the time at which these then newly introduced measures were originally supposed to come into force, was former Managing Director of Teesdale Housing Association Peter Slack. An individual who the late Joe Smith, a former District Councillor and member of the Shadow Board that had supervised the change over from Council to Housing Association management, was of the opinion was in some way related to one of the principal criminal families in the village; the Slacks of Red Houses and Witton-le-Wear.

Another member of staff with whose performance the late Councillor Smith was less than happy with, a state of affairs that he was to raise repeatedly with the then Chair of the North Star Housing Group that oversees the ultimate management of Teesdale Housing Association, before the latter’s death and his own retirement from the Council, was former Housing Officer for Red Houses Suzanne Bellas. One of Bellas’s tried and trusted techniques for freeing herself of any responsibility for the conduct of the tenants who she herself had given access to the properties to begin with, and in breach of the Housing Association’s own policies as set out in its Offer Document at the time of the change over from Council to Housing Association control, was to attempt to fool residents into thinking that the agency responsible for enforcement on tenancy agreements was not in fact the Housing Association, as was genuinely the case, but the Police; when nothing could have been further from the truth.

Amongst a series of sound files currently lodged with Clark Willis Law Firm at Darlington, some of which may well turn out be incriminating and to which a number of interested parties have likewise been given access, is an item consisting of a telephone conversation between Bellas and one of her former tenants which was recorded in November 2009, when the anti-social behaviour which has since resulted in the wholesale exodus of tenants from the area of the Estate that has been most run down was still very much on going. The previous year the Local Government Ombudsman had conducted an investigation into the situation on Red Houses and recommended that action be taken against those tenants responsible for causing the trouble to begin with. Amongst those interviewed was a pensioner referred to during the course of the above mentioned conversation, who expressed concerns that the estate at High Etherley was at that time even worse than the one in Sunderland from which he had previously moved some three years earlier. In spite of this, not only was no action taken, but what appears to have amounted to a wholesale cover up of the affair seems to have been implemented by the Housing Association Management Structure, at the highest level, as a means of denying any responsibility for a situation that had been created as a direct result of its own maladministration.

The documents embedded directly below, which were obtained from the local area Neighbourhood Watch Coordinator, attest to the situation on the Estate at the time, and immediately leading up to, when the recording was made; and clearly prove that the allegations at that time being made by the complainant were in no ways without foundation. In spite of this however, a Housing Association survey into Anti-Social Behaviour on the Estate, which had itself been conducted by staff members clearly anxious to restore their own reputations in the wake of the Ombudsman’s less than complimentary report to the then Chief Executive at Teesdale District Council, appears to have deliberately misrepresented the pensioner’s grounds for complaint; in spite of the fact that the complainant in the recording had obtained sound recordings and other hard evidence in line with the findings of the compilers of the Neighbourhood Watch newsletter.

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A Situation of Utter Denial

Amongst the key pieces of legislation introduced under the previous New Labour administration by the two Home Secretaries perhaps most obsessed with not only talking tough, but actually appearing to be tough at the same time, in relation to Anti-Social Behaviour, Jack Straw and David Blunkett, was the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003. Described in the wording of the Act itself as ‘An Act to make provision in connection with anti-social behaviour’, the A.S.B. Act 2003 was to give not only the Police, but also social landlords, a wide range of powers with which to crack down on those involved in the taking, distribution and sale of hard drugs from premises directly located within what remains of the country’s Social Housing stock.

The idea of the Act to begin with, and the principal motivation for its passing into law in the first place, was to create a situation in which housing estates that had become major centres for drug dealing, and the sale and distribution of ‘Crack’ cocaine and heroin in particular, under the previous Conservative administration, could be cleaned up relatively easily without the complex or expensive legal procedures that had previously hampered local administrative bodies of one kind or another during the nineteen eighties and nineties. One of the reasons why it was deemed necessary for such pieces of legislation to be introduced at all was the government’s intention to initiate a country wide upgrading of the Social Housing stock during the second half of the ‘Noughties’, as a means of improving the living standards of huge swathes of the community who it saw as having been left behind by the Thatcher and Major administrations that it had succeeded.

In spite of the best intentions of many of those who were  to serve within the Blair and Brown governments under which this legislation was to be introduced, implemented and originally enforced, in Tony Blair’s own County Durham Constituency back yard of Teesdale in what was formerly the South West Durham Coalfield, none of this legislation appears to have been used at any time during the whole of the last Labour Administration. And, as if that wasn’t enough, many of those who, under normal circumstances, would have been responsible for seeing such matters through appear to have been active in attempting to subvert the will of Parliament directly; for what may well turn out to be their own financial gain.

As we have already noted in an earlier posting in this thread, on High Etherley‘s notorious Red House Estate, the Slack Family and their associates appear to have been able to conduct a campaign of harassment and nuisance in relation to their neighbours and fellow tenants, with complete and utter impunity, for a period of some twenty years. In addition to allegations of some sort of a direct physical relationship between a number of family members and a former Housing Manager with the Housing Association that took over responsibility for the estate from the now defunct Teesdale District Council in 2006, the Housing Association has operated a policy of utter denial whenever it comes to complaints about any of the activities with which the Slacks themselves are known, and can be proven, to have been involved.

Following a series of well ordered written complaints to a number of senior Police Officers within the local power structure of the South Durham Area Command, the Red House Estate was declared a Local Multi-Agency Partnership Problem Solving Zone (L.M.A.P.S. Zone) during the closing months of 2011. Following the initial serving of warrants on key premises on the estate where the kind of activities referred to in the opening paragraphs of this posting can be proven to have been carried out, further raids were conducted in and around the Estate, culminating in the arrival of a veritable convoy of Police vehicles during the course of the evening and night of Wednesday 6th and early hours of the morning of Thursday 7th June 2012.

In spite of this Teesdale Housing Association appear to have taken little or no action at the time of these Police actions, even though, as a member of the so called L.M.A.P.S. Partnership, they were under a statutory obligation to do so. In due course we shall examine these events in more depth and detail. In the mean time it would be sufficient to present evidence that at the centre of these Police operations was a flat at that time occupied by an individual generally referred to as Gareth Slack, whose involvement with the wholesale theft of copper and other metals was well known to Teesdale Housing Association well before they saw fit to install him in the premises to which we refer in the first place.

The edited and embedded video clips at the top of this page show the last of the Police Operations referred to during the course of this posting actually taking place, whilst the photograph below shows the individual generally known as Gareth Slack being arrested by Police in connection with a related matter in the weeks that were to follow. In spite of this, as the extract from a written response from Teesdale Housing Association with regard to a complaint that was submitted to them by one of several disgruntled tenants at the time this was going on clearly shows, the canteen culture of denial that has persisted within the above institution in relation to anything vaguely connected with the Slacks, until those in charge are actually forced to take action by situations such as the campaign of written protest of which this complaint was a part, can still be seen in evidence some several weeks after the events you see here had actually taken place. Why?

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