L&Q Media Centre put spin on Silwood Under 5’s Playgroup

Meeting between community steering group members and L&Q staff, in which staff asked not to be filmed or photographed

Meeting between community steering group members and L&Q staff, chaired by Southwark Councillor Anood Al-Samerai (left). L&Q staff asked not to be filmed or photographed.

Major “Registered Social Landlord” of Silwood Estate (SE16), London & Quadrant’s ‘Media Centre’ have published a report on the re-launch of the Silwood Estate Under 5s playgroup, which omits many aspects of the story that we considered crucial to our report last week. L&Q’s alternative report portrays the company as having played a large part in saving the playgroup, neglecting to mention the eight month battle Silwood residents faced to secure the £11,500 of funding they have finally received, which is a one-off grant not expected to be renewed next year. Nor do L&Q mention that many believe the funding, and far more money, belong rightfully to the community, who were promised the Lewington Centre to replace their previous community building as a condition of the estates redevelopment, which began in the early 2000s.

At a meeting between L&Q staff and community steering group members last week, L&Q’s long-standing obligation to hand the building over to the community was reiterated by Southwark Councillor and leader of the Southwark Liberal Democrat group Anood Al-Samerai – who reminded those present that the centre should ultimately be run by a committee comprising predominantly local people working with a minority of L&Q representatives. Alarmingly, this was met with apparent confusion from L&Q staff, who, under their Section 106 obligations, are supposed to have been working towards this goal since the centre opened in 2009, if not before.

Among a slew of now-broken promises, Silwood residents were led to believe they would have at least priority access to the building, which in actuality was made unviable as a venue for many community events by apartments being built above the main hall. Large parts of the building are also regularly leased to a local college, making them unavailable to the community. As we reported, and L&Q failed to mention, money collected from the Lewington Centre flats each week was meant to be set aside for the community, to make up for the restrictions they impose on using the building. By the same logic, profit made on renting the space should be shared with the community, who are, after all, supposed to manage the building.

Instead of mentioning these things, L&Q appear to be trying to use the re-launch of the playgroup to promote themselves. They boast that, “Children and families in and around the Silwood Estate, Southwark, are celebrating the re-launch of their local playgroup thanks to the work of the Silwood Community Steering Group and an £11,500 grant from L&Q housing association.” They go on to describe themselves in favourable terms, as, “One of the largest housing associations in the capital,” owning “70,000 homes across London and the South East as well as being a leading residential developer of new and affordable homes.” The PR department seem oblivious to the fact that, given London property prices, £11,500 for a company that owns 70,000 houses doesn’t come across as an especially generous sum.

Karen Westbrook, Resident Services Manager for L&Q, concludes the ‘Media Centre’ article, saying, “Helping the Silwood Community Steering Group to re-launch a playgroup service was a great opportunity for us to step in and support the nearby community and L&Q residents of the Silwood estate.” This is an interesting take on what many would consider to be a story of community disempowerment, in which a resource has been effectively taken away from residents and then reluctantly lent back to them by L&Q after a long campaign and apparently in exchange for undeserved good PR.

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The Pocket Park: SafePlay’s Response

P5050416.JPG

Due to the issues surrounding the closed Pocket Park, Silwood Video Group contacted SafePlay, the company named by London & Quadrant representative, Melanie Banton, as being responsible for its maintenance. The reason given by L & Q for the park having remained closed all summer, when residents were promised back in May that it would be open, was said to be loose screws and other minor tweeks waiting to be done.

According to SafePlay, however:

“I am afraid we have had no instruction to carry out any works at this play area. Almost two years ago we quoted to install some new equipment but we did not win the tender, that was the extent of our involvement.”

Silwood Video Group have emailed L & Q with this information and await a reply. We also asked them why, when they are reporting more than 50,000 per year profit from the Lewington Centre, they cannot pay for someone to open and shut the pocket park, rather than relying a volunteer to do it. L+Q’s failure to “attract” a volunteer is widely held by residents to be the true reason the pocket park has remained shut all summer. We have invited them to confirm or deny these rumours.

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Silwood Soil Contamination: Higgins’ response

Once they were gardens

Based on residents’ concerns about the mysterious and unspecified “soil contamination” of the back gardens of dwellings in phase 3A of the Silwood estate we put together our own “Frequently asked Questions” and put them to Higgins, the contractor:

9th July 2010

Re: Removal of topsoil on Silwood Estate SE16

Given the confusion among residents over this issue, we are contacting you formally to ask several questions about the topsoil, the contamination, and the ongoing digging works. Our questions are:

From where was the topsoil currently being removed brought?

Have soil tests been conducted on the contaminated soil, and if so, what did the results of these tests reveal?

What are the health consequences related to this soil contamination?

How is any contamination thought to have arisen?

For how long has Higgins Construction known about any contamination present in the topsoil?

Will any contamination have affected the fruit and vegetables grown in some residents’ gardens in such a way as might adversely affect the health of anyone who might eat them?

On what basis was the £250 compensation for each affected garden calculated?
How long will these works (removing contaminated topsoil, replacing it with new topsoil, and repairing residents’ gardens) take?

How much will these works (removing contaminated topsoil, replacing it with new topsoil, and repairing residents’ gardens) cost?

In addition, we were informed during a conversation on Silwood Estate with a Higgins Construction employee that some paperwork related to the contaminated topsoil had been lost. We would therefore also like to know:

Of what nature was this lost paperwork?

How was this paperwork lost?

If this lost paperwork was in connection with the contamination of the topsoil, why is the issue only being addressed now, several years after the topsoil was bought and laid in residents’ gardens?

As I am sure you will agree, it is manifestly in the public interest to have these question answered, since any environmental contamination constitutes a matter of public health and safety.

At first there was  silence, we sent the letter again and then we got a phone call from Keith Briggs Director for Preconstruction at Higgins Construction PLC. He wanted to know if we were an “elected representative body ” because if the Silwood Video Group were not elected Higgins did not need to answer our questions. I asked him to put his response in writing, here is an edited version below:

15th July

our Ref:C2292/KB/as

Dear Sirs,

[…] As we established in our [phone] discussion your organisation is not an elected representative body to speak on behalf of the residents […]
It is not appropriate for Higgins Construction PLC to enter into discussion with any party not forming part of our contractual obligation.

In other words Higgins was refusing to answer the questions, many of which only they could answer, on the spurious grounds that only an elected body was entitled to ask questions.

Dear Keith,

Thank you for your reply.I understand that Higgins are refusing to answer our legitimate questions regarding the soil contamination at the Silwood. In a democracy residents do not need to ask questions via an elected body. Indeed there is no such elected body on the estate. To use this as grounds for refusing to answer legitimate questions goes against accepted notions of freedom of speech and accountability.

I would like to draw your attention to your own website:

Corporate Social Responsibility

When it comes to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), Higgins believes in going beyond the minimum requirements. [….] we have developed a CSR policy that’s based on 6 core principles:

1 Environment – taking responsibility for the mark we make on the environment

If Keith had not been so keen to jump on the fact that the Silwood Video Group was not an elected representative body I could have told him that almost uniquely I  was in fact democratically elected by resident members as  Chair of the SVG. But he thought he had his excuse to ignore us and got off the phone in haste.

As Higgins suggested we did write to the two Registered Social Landlords (RSLs) London and Quadrant and Presentation (now part of Notting Hill Housing Association ). We await their reply…

Those few residents who have now had their gardens put back as they were have received their compensation cheques for £250, interestingly not from  the RSLs but from Higgins.

Meanwhile residents sweat it out (indoors) worrying about their health.

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Digging Down Deeper at Silwood

Yet another twist in the Silwood tale as around 50 residents are having their back gardens dug up because of ‘contaminated’ topsoil.

All residents in Phase 3a of the estate plans will have to endure this disruption, as diggers roll in to pull up plants, trees, and even patios.

And the reason behind these noisy – and presumably expensive – works? Topsoil that is apparently contaminated with ‘light traces of oil’, said a spokesman from Higgins Construction, the building firm working on the estate.

The gardens affected were previously filled with topsoil bought in from elsewhere. And it’s unclear whether the soil has been contaminated right from the start. Some residents suspect as much, saying that plants seeded in the soil haven’t grown easily. One pointed out a rose bush planted five years ago – still barely more than a few shoots.

But the Higgins Construction spokesman we met suggested that oil could have made it into the soil through people ‘redecorating’ their sheds and fences. It would have to have been fairly large-scale redecoration to have contaminated the soil in so many different gardens.

There’s also the mysterious matter of some missing paperwork regarding the topsoil bought in several years ago. It was lost, apparently, somewhere between Higgins Construction, Lewisham council, and the contractor. It seems that the relevant paperwork was not in place when the original bought-in topsoil was laid down.

Residents are certainly confused about what’s been going on. The first they heard of the new digging works was a note through their letterboxes saying their soil was contaminated.

They weren’t allowed to opt-out of the works, and many feel that they  weren’t given sufficient explanation as to why their gardens have to be destroyed in this way.

Several residents also expressed great sadness at the loss of their gardens – and some who had been eating food grown in their plots were worried about the effect the contamination could have had on their fruit and vegetables, and therefore on their own health.

The Silwood  Video Group plans to write to Higgins Construction, London and Quadrant, and Lewisham council asking for a formal explanation of what the contamination is,  how it occurred and the health implications. We also want to find out how long the works will take – as some tenants say the disruption has already gone on for longer than was promised.

Keep an eye on the Spectacle Blog for updates on their responses.

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