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.