The joint leader of Leeds City Council who in principle opposes PFI, Mark Harris, has described this ballot as "a complete put up job", articulating that "A ballot should not be held if people are not willing to accept the outcome of that ballot".
After lengthy delays to the Little London PFI scheme caused by delays in "regeneration" projects elsewhere, the council can no longer act on the result of this ballot.
So now the council are trying it again under the "Comprehensive Regeneration Option" (CRO). The Council consultation is costing in excess of £2 million, and is supposed to be presenting tenants with a fair and balanced presentation of two options, CRO and the Decent Homes proposal being proposed by the Arms Length Management (ALMO) that is Leeds North West Homes.
The Decent Homes proposal falls short of what tenants in Little London need, but does offer a £20 million investment to fulfil obligations in bringing all accommodation up to the mandatory decent homes standards by 2010. The CRO offers "£85 million", while Councillor Harris opposes PFI in principle, the other Conservative leader of Leeds City Council. Leslie Carter proclaims this money to a "a once in a lifetime opportunity". What of course is not being emphasised is that 30 percent of this money can be written off at the start, as this is by how much the cost of any PFI contract will supersede any government one.
Community activists have spent time presenting a "counter exhibition" alongside that of the Leeds City Council. I can say from having seen the presentation that council employees are giving to tenants in the towers blocks of Little London, that this is in no sense a fair and balanced consultation. It is an unspeakably biased exercise.
There are supposed to be "opportunities" and "disadvantages" presented for both options. Within what should be stated as opportunities for the decent homes option, there begins an actual list of negative statements. "No new council homes will be built" is the statement, rather than "no homes will be demolished". Conversely, "125 new council homes" is proclaimed on the laminate promoting the opportunities for CRO (where everything stated is truly positive). It does not state that 450 council homes will be demolished, giving a net loss of 325 units.
Another comparison is that "No new homes to buy" under opportunities presented by decent homes with "400 new and refurbished homes available to buy" under CRO. One of the refurbishment projects will be all three of the Lovell Park multi storey blocks. The tenants will be evicted and the properties sold to a private developer. You can see a twenty foot wide banner stating "Improve not Remove" hanging from one of the towers in protest. Other tenants in the Lovell's are becoming increasingly militant as on the other side of the road from the Lovell's, the future of the area stares them ominously in the face. You can see the Aspect 14 development of flats, with a staggering average rent of £850 per month. Outside of Aspect 14, you cannot help noticing the "for sale" and "to let" signs testifying to the ridiculous cost of small units of accommodation that are not worth a fraction of their asking price. In contrast there are fifty applicants for each council vacancy in the area, due to the attraction of affordable homes close to the city centre.
Looming ominously over the whole Little London Estate in also the latest student development being constructed by Unite Properties. (The same property company who left student halls of residence in Sheffield in turmoil after deciding the venture was not profitable enough.) The advertising for this "student plaza" must be truly nauseating for so many in Little London who have seen their community driven into the ground by deliberate under investment. The projection of Unites latest venture in Leeds is reminiscent of a block of holiday flats in Majorca, and community activists feel they are now seeing the end game of the council strategy to claim Little London as an extension of the City Centre and as an investment opportunity for their closely connected private financiers.
After community activists discussed the biased nature of the presentation with two council employees in the lobby one of the Lovell Park towers, one of them stated she hadn't even really looked at it properly, it was just a chance to get out of the office in East Leeds. She was so sympathetic having looked at it properly, that she said she was going back to the housing office to ask serious questions. Another sympathetic ear was given by a man representing the Banks of the Wear, who have been bought in to make sure the consultation exercise is legitimate. He informed them that the biased nature of this consultation had been raised with the council, and that it had been stated to the council that they would be setting themselves up for accusations with such an unbalanced exercise. The council’s response is that they are promoting CRO as their "preferred option".
The day after this discussion took place, activists were informed by the two council employees on arriving at the Carlton Close maisonettes that their bosses had said they were no longer allowed to bring an alternative presentation into buildings.
After action taken in Little London with the alternative presentation, petitioning, questioning in the public meetings, we now have a situation where the Conservative councillor Leslie Carter accuses the community activists of deliberately misleading residents. On the contrary, it is clear from the nature of the consultation which party is truly misrepresenting the PFI agenda. On a separate occasion where residents of Carlton Towers (scheduled for demolition under CRO) were being "consulted", a council representative was overheard informing a tenant that under CRO he would "definitely be rehoused in Little London". Only a week earlier Councillor Harris had said at a public tenants and residents meeting that this guarantee could not be given. When the council representative was challenged on this (after the conversation with the tenant had been allowed to run its course), the response given was that the CRO "is a 30 year scheme". There you have it, they can make guarantees of resettlement back into the area over a 30 year framework, music to the ears no doubt to tenants such as Lloyd who in their old age have lived in their flats for more than fourty years.
The consultation exercise will be completed by the 20th of February and the inevitable result announced on the 9th of March. The activists remain upbeat. The demolitions will not begin potentially until 2008, giving many further opportunities for resistance. There is a day of planning for community action pencilled in for the 5th of March, with films, speakers and food. All support is most welcome.