Help Green Our Neighbourhood

Get involved with the Columbia Tenants and Residents Association Gardening Group

Columbia TRA has been getting green fingered over the last few years.

We are working to provide ways for more residents to grow on our estates; to improve environmental awareness and sustainability; and to get outdoors and make new friends in the local community.

Lockdown has made getting outside, growing things and getting in touch with nature more precious than ever, especially since so many of us do not have a garden of our own. We want to make Columbia Road bloom seven days a week, not just on Sundays.

If you want to be part of this, then ask for an invite to the online meeting below, and if you can’t make the meeting email anyway and one of the CTRA Gardening Group will chat and introduce you to what is going on.

What Have We Been Doing? In 2020 we:

  • Established a community plant nursery, began raising seedlings and installed hot composters
  • Continued to improve planting in public borders on Chambord Street and in front of Sivill House
  • Added a circular bed with flowers and vegetables behind James Hammett House
  • Secured and planted two new shared herb beds and a bird bath on the Dorset Estate
  • Cleared and replanted neglected flower beds in front of Cuff Point

In 2021 we want to widen our activities. This will include:

  • Planting, weeding and watering flower and vegetable beds
  • Planting and managing trees (including fruit trees for an urban orchard)
  • Woodwork, DIY and design
  • Raising seedlings at home
  • Running virtual and live events for residents
  • Making food and craft products from things we grow

Join our online meeting: Bring a cup of tea and join us online to meet some of our active members, hear what we have planned for the start of 2021 and let us know what you’d like to see growing in your neighbourhood! Get in touch here for an invite link – gardening@columbiatra.org.uk

Community gardening leaflet: http://www.columbiatra.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Jan-2021-housedrop-A5.pdf

Opinion: Community on the Fringe – Why Sadiq Khan Should Reject THIS Proposed Bishopsgate Goodsyard Development

by Penny Creed, Vice Chair, Columbia Tenants and Residents Association

Developer’s own representation: The proposed building on the corner of Commercial Street and Shoreditch High Street

For many in our community, the question is not whether the Bishopsgate Goodsyard should be developed, it is whether THIS current proposed development should be allowed.  Here’s why.

In recent years, City Developers have had their beady eyes on our back yard as space to move into. Not because they desperately need the space for more offices, but because they have a constant need to create new product to rent and sell on. Money makes the world go round and while interest rates remain low, property has been where institutional and private equity investors can make profits.  

A steady stream of sky-high new developments have sprung up on the north east side of the City casting shadows across our community, and now, with the Bishopsgate Goodsyard back in play, the greedy neighbours want to breach our back fence.

The planners like to call our area “The City Fringe” like it is a bit of trimming belonging to the City with no substance of real worth. But you know what, they are wrong. It is Brick Lane Market, it’s Petticoat Lane, Hoxton Square, Bangla Town and Columbia Road Flower Market. It’s Lubetkin’s Dorset Estate and London’s first and iconic social housing development – The Boundary. This is Bethnal Green and Shoreditch, communities founded long before the glass, steel and pinstripe.

An area where small creative businesses have incubated themselves in small low-rent commercial units before, launching into the wider world. Where many London artists and artisans have based themselves. Where clubbers of the nineties and noughties climbed the first rung of the housing ladder and stayed to raise families. Welcomed by East Enders as the latest in a long line of displaced groups such as Huguenots, Jews, Bengalis, Vietnamese, and students that have formed this wonderful, diverse, and thriving community. This is the East End, rich in culture, history and community and it needs protecting.

The Bishopsgate Goodsyard is so called because it surrounds a railway line. That railway line for decades has provided a natural boundary, protection from the City’s grey monolithic sprawl. In the 80s and 90s as the City outgrew the square mile, so an outpost in the Docklands was launched as the second financial district displacing what was there before. Now the financial district wants even more space, and its eyes are firmly on the other side of the tracks.

The Bishopsgate Goodsyard developers have an option to buy the land that is currently owned by Network Rail – a publicly owned entity. It does not reside within the City of London. The ten-acre site straddles two London Boroughs – Hackney and Tower Hamlets. Boroughs that have a combined housing list thirty thousand strong whose populations lack green space and meeting places and affordable retail and workspace.

27 hotels have been built and/or are currently proposed in the Shoreditch area in the last ten years, yet another is planned for the Goodsyard. A large proportion of the development is for offices – all to serve the city. Just 10% of affordable workspace has been provided. The remaining market rent spaces are bound to inflate the rents on surrounding units on Brick Lane and Bethnal Green Road populated by the every-day shops we local people need. The proposed green space is highline and looks like it will be managed much like the maligned and eventually scrapped ‘Garden Bridge’.  

The accommodation proposed is for a maximum of 500 units where a local plan by Tower Hamlets a few years ago estimated 1500 would be possible on the site. 70% of the proposed homes are one or two bedrooms.  Pied-à-terres favoured over family homes. Developers have upped the percentage of ‘affordable’ bedrooms but reduced the number homes in total. A win, they claim with only 45 truly affordable homes (maximum) planned but that pales into insignificance when you compare it to the 20 units recently shoe-horned onto a small estate carpark on the Dorset Estate.

The scale, height, massing and overshadow though, this needs to be addressed. The site sits south of Bethnal Green, between our community and the sun and the shadows cast onto residents of the Avant Guard Tower and the conservation areas of Redchurch Street and the Boundary Estate, will plunge them into darkness for most of the winter. The recently adopted Hackney Local Plan states that new developments “should respect the prevailing building heights of Shoreditch High Street” such as the Tea Building. This proposed development will dwarf them and set context for future high-rise development in the immediate area. 

We believe this still publicly owned space should be better used to serve the community it resides in. We need our local businesses, new businesses and workspaces protected. We want the GLA to safeguard our heritage from the march of the overbearing light-taking soulless skyscrapers. We need the City to respect our community boundary. We need to keep Bethnal Green.

***CTRA Statement on Major Works Bills***

Major Works Actual Bills:
In early October, many leaseholders received major works actual bills with their service charge actuals for the period April 2019 to end March 2020.

For some, these bills came in much higher than was estimated by Tower Hamlets Homes (THH) with residents expected to pay thousands of pounds in extra costs. The bills came with no itemisation nor explanation for these cost increases. Leaseholders were not pre-warned by THH to expect increased bills despite THH knowing, in some cases, a year before that costs had spiralled.

On hearing reports of this from residents, the CTRA sought an explanation for the bad handling and lack of open accounting and clear communication with leaseholders.  

In a telephone conversation with the Head of Leaseholder Services, the CTRA was promised an official written response to our concerns by the end of October 2020. Despite chasing, at the time of writing, this response has not yet been received.

Following our call for more clarity, we understand that some but not all leaseholders have been written to with a breakdown of their major works. However, the itemisations we have been shown have been very unclear with difficult to understand descriptions. It does not provide a comparison of actuals to the estimates like service charge actual bills do. Nor was the itemisation accompanied by an explanation as to how and why costs increased to so high.

Admin Charges:
It is our understanding that some leaseholders who had been issued an estimate major works bill in a previous year where works were then postponed have been charged an ‘admin fee’ against that estimate of up to 10% of the total (Note: this may be described as a ‘Better Neighbourhoods’ charge on bills).

Following CTRA’s enquires about this, Tower Hamlets Homes has admitted that, in some cases, this was a mistake. We also believe this could have happened in previous financial years. The CTRA requested, in a meeting with senior management, that an investigation take place to understand who might have been affected by this over the last three years so that refunds could be issued. At the time of writing, we have not heard if this investigation has been initiated or not.   

Major Works Estimates:
It has also come to the attention of the CTRA that many leaseholders across the Borough have been charged on estimates for major works that have then been postponed. It was the policy of THH to charge in advance of works until recently and, our investigations have uncovered around 50 blocks where this has happened in the last three years with the sum total of billings reaching over £4 million.

We are told that THH changed this policy at the beginning of 2020, but we have not seen evidence of THH actively seeking to refund residents for any money paid against estimate bills before October of this year.

During our conversation with the Head of Leaseholder Services, the CTRA secured the agreement of THH that interest would be paid on any money paid against estimates for major works that have then been postponed. Furthermore, that where residents have incurred additional costs in relation to raising monies to pay the estimate these will be reimbursed by THH if evidence is presented.

The CTRA has confirmation of these undertakings in writing from the Head of Leaseholder Services. Though a month on we are yet to see guidance on how interest will be calculated or how refunds and reimbursements will be made nor how they will be communicated by Leaseholder Services to those affected.

Summary:
We were promised an official response to these issues by THH. To confirm, we would still like to see that response. We strongly believe that it in THH’s interest to work closely with us and other TRAs to resolve this kind of resident issue.

We have in the past on more than one occasion offered to work with THH to improve their communications with residents. We also repeat that offer here.  

It is well documented that the CTRA is far from impressed with the way THH has handled major works projects in our area. This issue is just one in a long line we have seen relating to major works projects.

In Summer 2020 we wrote the Mayor John Biggs to bring to his attention the serious failings we have seen and to request a full public inquiry into THH’s managing of major works across the Borough in order that lessons can be learned and the outcome of projects improved. As yet we have had no confirmation such an inquiry will take place.

We will continue to monitor major works projects across the Columbia Estates and hold THH to a higher standard than we have seen of late. We urge all residents to do the same.

Advice for Leaseholders:

  • If you have received a major works bill:  
    • Contact leaseholder services to request a breakdown of costs
    • Compare bills with other leaseholders in your block
    • Ask for further explanations where you need them
    • Contact the CTRA if you think items of your bill are incorrect or need further clarification from THH
  • If you have paid on an estimate for major works that has not yet gone ahead:
    • You can request a refund
    • You can request interest be paid on any money THH billed you in a previous financial year for works that have not started
    • You can request payment for any costs you have incurred in order to pay your estimated major works bill where works have not started e.g. interest paid on any loan or mortgage agreement you had to take out in order to pay the bill
    • Check bills for an ‘admin charge’ against your major works bill in last three years. Seek a refund from Leaseholder Services  

CTRA will be holding a residents virtual meeting to discuss major works bills and answer any questions you have. Email info@columbiatra.org.uk if you would like to join that meeting.

Introducing – Orwell House

The Columbia Tenants and Residents Association will soon be welcoming a new group of members as the new build ‘infill project’ on the former Baroness Road car park opens its doors to residents.

Orwell House, as seen from Baroness Road

The block has been named ‘Orwell House’ after former Tower Hamlets Mayor John Orwell. Mayor Orwell was first councillor for the Borough of Bethnal Green before becoming Alderman for Tower Hamlets Council when it was formed in 1965. A charismatic figure, John was known as the ‘Singing Mayor’ and ran regular fundraising events at the Town Hall for the Labour Party in Bethnal Green as well as senior citizens’ clubs at Oxford House and at Mayfield House. He was also one of the first local politicians who stood up for the growing Bangladeshi community – lobbying and campaigning for their rights. He is survived by his centenarian wife and former councillor Beattie Orwell, famously a veteran of the Battle of Cable Street.

The new block will accommodate 20 new households in five one-bed, eight two-bed and seven three-bed flats including two adapted flats for wheelchair/disability use. Residents are due to move in from 19 October 2020 onwards.

Orwell House, as seen from Ravenscroft Park

The CTRA was invited to visit the new block during a socially distanced site visit last week. There we learned more about the block’s design and features:

  • The block has been designed to echo the colour scheme as the rest of the Dorset Estate
  • A roof terrace is available for all residents to use and all flats come with floor to ceiling windows to let in natural light and large balconies
  • It has been designed with security in mind – access fobs only allow residents up to their own floor
  • Smart-meters have been fitted to all flats and the block has high-speed internet connection capability
  • The block has a secure bike store

The CTRA will be working with Tower Hamlets Homes to welcome new residents to the area.

Balcony views of the park

Gascoigne Greening Project – UPDATE

The CTRA and Gascoigne Neighbourhood Association have been working hard to develop plans for the Gascoigne Greening Project. These are the latest plans for the project, which will transform the area around Dunmore Point and Wingfield House. 

Please take a look. The works are planned for early 2021. If you want to find out more, there will be a Zoom meeting about the plans on 20th October at 7pm. Please contact info@columbiatra.org.uk for an invite. 

Site overview plan – Download this image as a pdf via links below
Proposed elevationsDownload this image as a pdf via links below
Naseem’s Garden detailDownload this image as a pdf via links below

PDF Image Downloads (opens in a new tab): Site overview plan; Proposed elevations; Naseem’s Garden detail.

Residents plant out new community herb gardens on Dorset Estate

CTRA members spent Sunday morning buying herb and edible flowers from Columbia Road and planting out the new community herb gardens on the Dorset Estate.

The planters were a donation by Bouygues, the contractor building the new block – Orwell House on the old Baroness Road car park. Bouygues kindly donated the materials and built the accessible raised beds last week.

The idea, conceived and driven through by CTRA treasurer Ed Furey with support of the Committee, was to create a space for residents to share herbs for cooking but also to brighten up the space in front of the DCA. On seeing them Ed commented, “I am thrilled with what a beautiful job Bouygues made of building the beds, a lot of thought went into it”.

Once the plants are a little more established residents will be able to help themselves to a sprig or two to add to their food.

The beds will be maintained by the CTRA Community Gardening Group with plants provided by the CTRA and other donations. Anyone wishing to join the gardening group is welcome to. Just email gardening@columbiatra.org.uk or speak to a member of the Committee.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank Bouygues for their kind donation.

Joint Statement following the BBC London News Piece on ‘Car Bars’ on the Boundary Estate

On Friday 14 August 2020 Gareth Furby of BBC’s film on ‘Car Bars’ on the Boundary Estate was aired. It shone a spotlight on a growing problem that has plagued residents of the Boundary Estate and surrounding area for the last two years. Where increasingly visitors to the Shoreditch Night Time Economy (NTE) drive to the area, park on residential streets and use their cars as a base to socialise, before and after they visit the bars in Shoreditch. Sleepless local residents call them ‘car bars’.

BBC London Special Report on illegal parties in East London – 14 August 2020

Heralded by their loud music, car bars tend to arrive in the early evening. Their owners and guests ‘pre-load’ with cheaper shop-bought alcohol, nitrous oxide or other party drugs before moving on to the bars and clubs that serve much more expensive drinks. Some even set up mobile drug and alcohol shops selling on to the inhabitants of other cars.

In the small hours, when the official bars shut the ‘car bar’ customers return and the ‘after parties’ start. This is when things get really disruptive for residents. Party-goers continue to drink and/or use drugs. The noise gets louder. With no public toilets around, attendees start to use resident’s front doors as urinals. Often fights break out and occasionally cars race each other around the streets, and on more than one occasion, crash.

But why is this only a recent phenomenon? We believe this is down to the growing and shifting nature of the Shoreditch NTE. Something about which residents have been warning local councillors and officers for years. Ten years ago, bars tended to be confined to the more commercial area around Hoxton Square and Old Street (from Old Street Roundabout down to Curtain Road). But in recent years, mass redevelopment and a takeover of buildings for office-use has shifted the bars down to Shoreditch High Street and increasingly Hackney Road. New developments in the City have similarly shifted bars frequented by City workers down towards Shoreditch High Street and the opening of Box Park has seen more activity moving down Bethnal Green Road. All this has led to a century old quiet residential area being enveloped by the NTE.   

Shoreditch has also increased in popularity with more and more visitors coming in from outside the area at the weekends supported by a huge increase in the number of hotels that have opened in the area (we’ve counted 27 in ten years!). We’ve even heard told of party-goers referring to Arnold Circus as its own ‘scene’!

Of course, the NTE has been very welcome to some in that it brings much needed revenue to the area in the form of local business rates and the much talked of ‘Night Time Levy’.

This is where things are complicated by Borough boundaries. The majority of the NTE’s bars are based in the London Borough of Hackney, but the nearest residential area (in some places just one street away) is across the border in Tower Hamlets. Therefore, the proceeds of these bars go to one Council, but the majority of the problems fall on another.

Residents have been calling on Tower Hamlets and Hackney Councils to work together to manage the NTE for a while now and, although this is starting to happen, much more needs to be done. Hackney and Tower Hamlets police forces merged two years ago and that should have helped but in reality the police commissioned by Hackney council to manage the NTE have only really been present in recent months and have been mandated to stay by the bars and not venture into residential areas, even if they are just meters away.

Shoreditch has become for 2020 what Soho was in the 1980s and 90s and it needs to be managed as such. Planning and licencing policy needs to define its boundary to stop further sprawl into residential areas and resources need to be available to both sides of the Borough borders and well after the bars close. Car bars are not subject to licencing hours!   

Whilst residents appreciate the lengths Tower Hamlets officers and councillors have gone to in bringing in new parking measures to tackle car bars. These need constant enforcement. Similarly, whilst some measures to be brought in with the ‘Liveable Streets’ programme this year may have a positive effect; we fear that others may exacerbate the problem.

Of course we very much welcome and appreciate the instant reaction of Tower Hamlets in bringing enforcement officers out in number last night. However, this isn’t the only issue the Night Time Economy brings and we believe it warrants a holistic and ongoing management approach across the Boundary. Something we have been calling for some time.

/Ends.

This is a joint statement provided by Weavers Community Action Group, Columbia Tenants and Residents Association and Boundary Residents.

Contact vicechair@columbiatra.org.uk for press inquiries.

Concerns Over Freehold Purchases Driven by a Third Party

A situation has arisen on one of our estates that is causing great concern among residents. It is not unique; it has happened in other blocks across Tower Hamlets and more widely across London. The Columbia TRA Committee has written to Mayor John Biggs and other senior managers at London Borough of Tower Hamlets to try and understand the Council’s policy and future intentions.  

Companies, describing themselves as ‘developers’, have been targeting the leaseholders, where they are the majority in a block* and offering to manage the process of buying their freehold from the Council.  In exchange for organising this buy-out process these companies are tying leaseholders to certain obligations, such as insisting that a building management organisation is set up under their control and/or giving them the right to build additional properties on the land and/or building e.g. additional storeys, extensions etc. Leaseholders coming together to exercise their right to buy their freehold (known as ‘collective enfranchisement’), if all in agreement would not necessarily cause a problem but as it has turned out, third-party agreements can create huge issues for leaseholders and tenants living in a block, particularly when pressurised sales techniques have led to some leaseholders signing away their rights before speaking to their neighbours or getting legal advice.

Given that for most leaseholders their home is their biggest life asset all residents should take extra care if approached by a third-party advocating for them to buy their freehold on their behalf. The pitfalls can be huge, including:

  • Hard sales tactics that put pressure of leaseholders to sign agreements quickly without a chance to seek expert advice and speak to their neighbours
  • Divide and conquer – some residents will be for it and some against, fault lines can split a community and turn neighbour against neighbour
  • Verbal promises that any future major works costs will be offset by these companies, but then the contract offered stating that leaseholders will be fully liable for them
  • Contractual promises can be broken if sold on to another company. The company you enter into the agreement with can sell it on and your terms could change
  • Companies without a strong financial standing can easily go bust, leaving residents with an uncertain future

Our advice:

  • NEVER sign any contract or agreement without speaking to a legal professional – Free legal advice, if you need it, is available locally through St Hilda’s and nationally via the Citizen’s Advice Bureau
  • DO take your time – This is a huge decision, do not allow offers or hard sales techniques to rush you
  • DO talk to your TRA – we can help you arrange meetings with other residents and signpost you to expert advice
  • DO talk to your neighbours – do not allow yourself to be divided as a community
  • DO consider council tenants – discuss this with them. Any change of ownership essentially means they have a new landlord which will have a huge effect on their lives
  • DO your research – find out about the company approaching you, look at their Company’s House filings and find out about their other projects and how they have gone;  understand your rights within the law;  speak to an estate agent about how this might change the value of your property.

Contact us is you are approached by a third party suggesting you buy your freehold.

* Where at least two thirds of the property are leaseholders, then as long as a 50% of those leaseholders agree, it is their right to buy this freehold.

Sivill House Grade II Listed by Secretary of State for DCMS

Sivill House has been Grade II listed today following an application by residents wanting to ensure the building’s original design is preserved. The block, on Columbia Road, was designed by leading modernist architects Douglas Bailey, Francis Skinner and Berthold Lubetkin and completed in 1966. Currently undergoing a major works programme, residents have had to fight against Tower Hamlets Homes plans to replace the windows with a new designs that would “destroy the integrity of the composition” of the building as well as other unsympathetic design plans put forward by the management organisation.

The listing application was supported by John Allan (Lubetkin biographer) and the Twentieth Century Society who cited Lubetkin’s “reputation and legacy as one of Britain’s most prominent architects of the C20”, the building’s material palette, its form and plan that “enables light to reach all flats” and its central spiral staircase. They also paid tribute to the success of Sivill House as “gauged by how current residents have sought listing for the block, as well as their ongoing efforts to retain original design features in the face of proposed alterations.”

In their Advice Report, Historic England noted that “As the social housing programme of the post-war years recedes further into the past, the scale and ambition of what was achieved appears increasingly remarkable. Clearly not all of what was built served its cause well, so it is important that those that best did, and which have survived high rates of attrition, are recognised as exemplars in what has proved to be an exceptional period in the history of public housing.”

Kevin McKenna, a Sivill House Resident and Chair of the Columbia Tenants and Residents Association, said, “The listing of Sivill House will protect a building that is incredibly important to all its residents and which is of undoubted architectural merit. Sivill House anchors Lubetkin’s Dorset Estate to Columbia Road and has an important place in the long history of the fight to provide decent homes for ordinary Londoners.”

Mark Sullivan, who made the application on behalf of the Sivill House residents group, said “I have been staggered at the support that this application has generated. Sivill House is clearly valued as much by the general public as it is by those who live in it. I hope that the listing of Sivill House will remind the council that, going forward, it should involve residents in the decisions that it makes, rather than forcing through unnecessary, costly and divisive changes regardless.”

In summarising their decision Historic England went on to say “We have carefully considered the architectural and historic interest of Sivill House, and conclude that the overall composition of this important post-war public building type, its meticulous planning and detailing, and its importance as a late work by Lubetkin, confers special architectural and historic interest.” The full Historic England listing report can be read here.

Press enquiries to vicechair@columbiatra.org.uk

CTRA Statement on Government Plans to Re-Open Outdoor Markets from 1 June 2020

Columbia Road Flower Market sits at the centre of our community. It is a colourful, vibrant London market and we are lucky to have it on our doorstep. The fact that the Covid-19 lockdown, quite rightly, closed the market for so long jeopardising the livelihoods of the traders, some of whom have owned pitches for generations, has been a great cause for concern locally.

The Government’s announcement on Sunday 25 May 2020 that outdoor markets can start to re-open from 1 June 2020 means that Columbia Road Flower Market may re-open from Sunday 7 June 2020. Given how busy and tightly packed the market can be on a usual Sunday, we urge the Council and traders to work together to find a safe solution that allows and enforces social distancing to safeguard local residents, visitors and traders alike. If no safe solution can be found then, sadly, we would prefer to see the market stay closed for now.

We await to hear plans for this reopening from representatives of London Borough of Tower Hamlets.