Opposite Swanage Town Hall is the Burr Stone Mead sheltered housing bloc. It is home to 26 elderly residents. Many have lived there as part of our community for more than twenty years. But this year is off to a rocky start for them. They fear for their health and safety as, like many pensioners across the country, they face the loss of their live-in warden, Linda.
At the end of January, Sanctuary Housing announced that due to government funding cuts, each resident would have to pay an extra £16.72 per week or live without Linda. Sanctuary states the £16.72 figure is ‘a national average’ but according to local councillor Robert Gould, the actual shortfall is as little as £4.58 and could be covered by local housing benefit, making it possible for Sanctuary “to mitigate any reduction in funding imposed by the council at no cost” to residents. However, Sanctuary has rejected their proposal.
Many Burr Stone Mead residents are also visited by community carers, but they and their relatives fear the prospect of losing round the clock support. Linda also plays a crucial role liaising on their behalf with doctors and social workers and provides daily support for those with impaired vision and other disabilities.
“We all came here because that is what we need,” one resident explained. “We need that help. And what if one of us fell? There are no neighbours to help us in an emergency.” Back in June, Ann Clwyd MP demanded an investigation into sheltered housing safety standards after a 92-year-old resident was trapped for hours on the ground floor of his flat having fallen down the stairs. The accident occurred after warden cover was cut in his building.
Now, pensioners across the country are being faced with this fear, although emergency assistance from a familiar warden is the main reason most pensioners enter sheltered housing in the first place. For this reason Anne Ludlow, secretary of Sheltered Housing UK, has found changes to be unlawful, adding that “the warden was the lynchpin in the community life that gave the elderly residents a sense of security and belonging. With that lynchpin removed, this vital national commodity has lost its identity and its purpose.”
Richard Drax MP is “extremely sympathetic” to the residents’ cause. He states that maintaining the warden, “if not a legal obligation, is certainly a moral one.” Drax has promised to visit Sanctuary in person to advocate for them and expressed concern about the psychological impact of Sanctuary’s conduct.
The vast majority of tenants at Burr Stone Mead say would be willing to pay the extra to keep Linda on. Some are even willing to cover the shortfall left by those unable or unwilling to pay. But there is a twist: to keep her, Sanctuary demanded 100 percent consensus from tenants. That’s a stronger mandate than a government needs to declare war. Unsurprisingly, it proved unachievable.
The ‘consultation period’ for Burr Stone Mead lasted just three weeks, and residents complain no real consultation has taken place. They spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s wicked,” said one. “A disgraceful lack of care. What sort of democracy is this?”
“Most of us are strongly opposed, and there’s nothing they can do?” continued another. “That’s not consultation. And for all their talk of ‘customer choice’, it’s not that either!” The others shook their heads in agreement. “It’s a PR stunt, the voting, the illusion of choice. It’s ‘choice’ for those who can afford it. We feel blackmailed.”
Sanctuary committed to providing Tenancy Support Officers to assess individual needs, but nobody has yet seen or heard from them. One resident reports being told “there are only 15 of them for the whole country! So it would probably just be phone support… most of us can’t even hear the phone!” She forced a smile.
“We felt like people before Sanctuary took over. Now we’re just numbers,” said another. This is a common complaint against Britain’s biggest housing associations, of which Sanctuary is the largest. There are entire support groups on social media, made up of hundreds of complainants taking action against Sanctuary, for everything from failure to make repairs to toxic mould.
In a standard written statement, Sanctuary expressed regret that funding cuts have created the need “to make some difficult choices,” but points out that because Burr Stone Mead residents are classified as ‘independent’, “the support our staff provide would not, and has never included any element of care.”
Of course, government cuts are hitting services hard across the board. But while residents tighten their belts, landlords – including housing associations – have been posting record profits in Austerity Britain. In 2013, a costly merger made Sanctuary the largest ‘social landlord’ in the UK. Although it qualifies as a non-profit group, Sanctuary turned over a cool £72 million in 2013, tripling profits from previous years. Its chief executive, David Bennett, takes home over £300,000 per year. Two-thirds of that comes from taxpayers.
These mega-associations control more than a quarter of all rented housing in the UK and retain billions in public funding, having acquired much of their stock from local councils in the 1980s and 1990s in what has been described as “the most successful stealth privatisation ever.” Back in 2011, now Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell condemned their lack of accountability and recalled how since the 1980s these specialist social co-operatives had mutated into large corporations in all but name, “indistinguishable from private landlords.”
Tim Burness, a housing campaigner who has spent years scrutinising Sanctuary’s practices, adds that Cameron’s government “has done away with what little regulation there was. Cutting back on wardens is a classic example of what results.” And in a letter addressed to him and seen by the Purbeck Gazette, Margaret Hodge, then Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, confessed that there is no independent monitoring “of social housing performance against, or in compliance with, the consumer standards.”
Back at Burr Stone Mead, Linda’s wages have already been cut from full to part time in recent years. “But she still goes above and beyond for us,” say tenants. “That’s the sort of person she is. And we don’t want to lose her.”
This hasn’t stopped them speaking out, and so are sheltered housing residents across the country. In Angus, pensioners have been protesting on the steps of the town hall, forcing the local council to reiterate that no decisions have been finalised and their views will be taken into account. In Leek, residents are also raising their voices against Sanctuary’s ‘determined’ attempts to get rid of their wardens. According to 85 year old John Broun, quoted in Leek Post and Times, Sanctuary kept the proposals secret for two full years and, “knowing that this would be an unpopular decision, tried to make it look as though it was the decision of the residents.”
When asked if they would move out of Burr Stone Mead because of the changes, the ladies shook their heads. “We have nowhere else to go.” But rather than resigning themselves to the loss, the residents are resolved to defend their warden. They have started a petition, are seeking legal advice and are far from alone in what is in fact a national fight of grave concern to us all.
Click here to add your name to the petition