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.

 

The Systematic Sidelining of Complaints

On 28th March 2013 local County Durham pensioner John Arthur Gibbon Marley visited the Shadow Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, Helen Goodman M.P., at her scheduled Constituency Surgery, at Barnard Castle, in the company of investigative journalist and film maker Rupert Ferguson. Mr. Marley, a repeat victim of crime, harassment, bullying, anti-social behaviour, criminal damage and general all round nuisance at the hands of his neighbours, was there to obtain assistance in relation to a number of matters outstanding, in particular a complete failure to take appropriate action on the part of the Police.

Amongst the subjects under discussion, in addition to the lack of Police action, was the involvement of certain criminal elements and their various contacts within Durham County Council in what amounts to a possessory title scam on land that they had previously squatted at nearby Quarry Heads. During the course of the conversation the subject of a dossier of documents that had formerly been in the possession of the local District Councillor, Joe Smith, was raised in relation to Quarry Heads; to which Goodman appears to have responded that quite a number of others like them appear to have gone missing too; during the course of the change over from the old District Council system of local government to the new Unitary Authority System.

In the embedded sound file at the top of the page Goodman can also be heard assuring her constituents that she will be contacting the new Police and Crime Commissioner, Ron Hogg, with a view to getting the situation with the Police rectified. Needless to say that, in spite of her assurances, Mr. Hogg has neither seen fit to contact Mr. Marley directly, nor has he taken the time to visit him at his home as he had assured him that he would do at a joint surgery that he and Goodman had held in June, the best part of three months later: where he was to repeat these self-same assurances verbally himself.

Readers of this blog who may be unaware of Goodman’s involvement with Red Houses and Teesdale Housing Association, who manage the Estate, may therefore not find it uninteresting to note that she was first approached by residents in relation to the situation on the Estate in November 2006. More than Six-and-a-half years on and the same criminal families are causing trouble for residents, whilst she has done nothing other than make verbal and written claims that she is in some way concerned about the daily plight of residents; who have had to put up with a persistent on going nuisance that has been further compounded by the diet of lies and deceit that they have been force-fed by Police and Housing Association alike.

Of further significance still is the fact that in spite of being directly involved in the official opening of Teesdale Housing Association, in which she was a guest of hounour and participant, Goodman seems incapable of actually getting a straight answer to a straight question out of them in relation to any of the issues that her constituents want raised. Why? One explanation that has been put forward is that the present Labour Front Bench is ‘scared of its own shadow’, to quote from the blog of local Anti-Bedroom Tax activist Ben Sellers; who has been retweeted via social media by Michael Meacher and others.

Conspiracy theorists who are less charitable about Goodman’s lack of action see an interesting parallel in her various career moves to those previously taken by Tessa Jowell, whose estranged husband David Mills has been linked to a number of high-profile corruption scandals involving disgraced Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi. Like former D.F.E.E. Minister Jowell, Goodman was with the Department for Work and Pensions, which succeeded her old department in a similar way to which the old D.E.T.R. has evolved into the C.L.G. Now Goodman has stepped into Jowell’s shoes again as Shadow Minister for Culture Media and Sport.

Whatever the substance, or lack of it, in relation to any on going conspiracy theories,  it is fact that if Goodman had really wanted to get things moving with regard to sorting out the Red House Estate she would have done. Instead she has sat on her hands. Why? Given the fact the criminal element on Red Houses have clear and proven links to a matrix of corruption and criminality at Durham County Council that can be traced back several decades, criminality in which the recently merged Teesdale District Council were themselves provably implicated, does she have involvements of her own that have prevented her from taking any action?

DVC01097

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?

PICT0001 002Lies_2

A Law Unto Themselves: Former Council Staff Able to Threaten and Harass Others With Impunity

The situation with the Slacks on Red Houses is one that seems to have prevailed for a period of some twenty years. Previous to the dismantling of the old District and City Council system in Durham, and the subsequent amalgamation of all of these respective arms of Local Government into a single Unitary Authority, little has come of the extensive promises that appear to have been made to bring about an end to the blatant corruption and criminality exposed in the pages of ‘Private Eye’ magazine’s ‘Rotten Boroughs column at the hands of Tony Martin; the celebrated Durham Cobbler. In fact, thanks to the extensive disappearance and shredding of many important documents, much of the corruption previously referred to appears to have been getting worse.

A valid case in point revolves around the land at Quarry Heads, which lies adjacent to the estate at Red Houses; from which the Slacks have been able to organize burglaries, thefts, drug dealing, harassment, anti-social behaviour and a whole host of inter-related low level criminal activities for years; with little or no real action being taken against the primary instigators of the problem at source. Indeed, as early as 2008 a former District Councillor, who had sat on the Shadow Board of the Housing Association that had been set up to manage all of Teesdale District Council’s former housing stock in the run up to the setting up of the Durham Unitary Authority, had brought the activities of the Slacks directly to the attention of the Local Government Ombudsman.

At about the same time as the Local Government Ombudsman’s subsequent Report and Ruling into the matters then under discussion, documents which actually go so far as to ignore key pieces of evidence which were submitted in the run up to the Ombudsman’s supposed investigations, another report and ruling was simultaneously published; this time by the Independent Housing Ombudsman Service. Once again, members of the Slack Family are mentioned directly as being key trouble makers and nuisances right the way across the estate, not to mention the surrounding area. So why has so little yet to be done about them?

Apart from the alleged family ties between certain members of the Slack Clan and a former Housing Manager at Teesdale Housing Association, there is also clear evidence of some kind of direct involvement with certain serving Police officers and their families. This, it would seem, would appear to be at the heart of the Slacks’ seeming ability to deal drugs, burgle, steal, make threats, and engage in anti-social behaviour with virtual impunity: the absolute bare minimum of what should to all intents and purposes be recognized as the appropriate action in cases such as this ever having been actually taken. Something that was at the core of the former District Councillor’s provably logged complaints against them with the Local Government Ombudsman. Indeed, during the course of the above complaints he himself is on record as having testified to the Ombudsman in relation to being on the receiving end of the kind of abuse that one of his former neighbours can himself be seen being subjected to in the embedded video at the top of this page. For those unable to grasp sufficiently what is being said during the course of this albeit brief exchange, on account of the somewhat poor quality of the sound, an accompanying sound recording of the entire incident has been embedded directly beneath it.

So. why have the Police and their partner agencies still failed to take what should have been the appropriate affirmative response in relation to all of this, unless actually forced to by the persistent complaints of residents to organizations such as the I.P.C.C.,  now that more than four years have passed since the filing of the Ombudsman’s report? According to one account, a number of vested interests have wanted the block of flats outside which this incident can be shown to have taken place demolished for quite some considerable time. Unfortunately, due to the fact that all of the former and current tenants that effectively occupied the block before its wholesale vandalism by the Slacks and their various cohorts, of whom only two out of a dozen or so one time occupancies presently now remain, were possessed of Assured Tenancies, the only way to get them out without paying them the compensation to which they were entitled was by means of harassment like this.

At the bottom of this page the witness who can be seen talking to Kevin Slack, from the relative safety of his own car, can be heard telling the individual at the focus of the above harassment what Mr. Slack had previously told him. As it would appear from this, Mr. Slack has been walking past the windows of residents on the Red House Estate staring aggressively into their living rooms, whilst they themselves have been attempting to go about their daily business, for quite some considerable time now. In view of this, it is perhaps significant that another sound file, consisting of a discussion between the present focus of the Slacks’ attentions and his former Housing Officer, Nicola Stout, which is currently lodged with the Clark Willis Law Firm at Darlington, would likewise appear to indicate that she herself has been speaking to other residents who have been experiencing similar problems at the hands of the Slacks’ extended criminal network into the bargain. And, the fact that a number of these people have since been forced to relocate on account of Teesdale Housing Association’s apparent lack of action in relation to this may well add further substance to the theory that has just been put forward.

So why has something yet to be done, given the fact that this last mentioned recording was provably made in excess of fourteen months previous to the incident recounted here actually taking place? It should be noted that Kevin Slack is himself a one time employee of Durham County Council, who, it has been alleged, has only recently left their employ, for reasons that are still unclear. So, is this last mentioned fact in any way relevant with regard to how the Slacks seem to be a law unto themselves? Many local residents seem to think it is. In due course we shall look at things in relation to the matters described here in more detail, with particular reference to the land at Quarry Heads. And, with regard to this so far unanswered question, to which no one who is supposedly in ‘authority’ has thus far been able to provide anyone with a direct and satisfactory explanation, even their own elected political representatives, we shall attempt to provide the possible answer: now that all of the previously made inquiries have thus far met with a characteristic wall of silence; as is so often the case with anything vaguely awkward in relation to the workings of local authorities generally.