Author Archives: Penny Creed

Major Works Programmes: Presenting Our Concerns to Mayor John Biggs

Scaffolding at 21-35 Old Market Square since May 2018.

Earlier this week representatives of the CTRA met with Mayor John Biggs and Cllr Danny Hassell to present our concerns about the ability of Tower Hamlets Homes Asset Management Team to deliver multi-million-pound major works programmes.

Following our evidence and case-study based presentation we reiterated our call of last year for an independent inquiry into the organisational management of major works. We also requested an independent review of spending across our block major works programmes to check for waste and inaccuracies and made a series of service improvement suggestions.

We now await a response from Mayor John Biggs.

A copy of the presentation can be found here.

AGM 2021 – The Outgoing Committee’s Report

Two years after our last AGM, the Columbia TRA was able to hold their AGM in person on Tuesday 19 October 2021. Despite unexpected disruption due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the outgoing committee was able to deliver a report covering a great deal of activity from the last two years.

Community gardening has blossomed during the pandemic as a great many residents have taken the opportunity to get outside during lock downs and improve our communal spaces whilst getting some exercise. Members of the TRA were also able to arrange a community picnic and a beano to Margate in the summer months.

The report covered efforts to improve services to our estates in areas like waste management, anti-social behaviour and major works.

Chair of the CTRA, Kevin McKenna thanked outgoing committee members for their efforts over the past years and called for residents to volunteer this year. He said “As ever, the CTRA is led by volunteers, doing what they can to help the community in their spare time. The only way that more can be done, is if more people get actively involved, in whatever capacity they can. That is why the AGM is so important as it gives the opportunity for more people to join the committee and help. Hopefully several more of you will volunteer this year and if you have a special project, or something you’d like to see happen more urgently, then this is your opportunity to take part.”

Read the full report here

Gascoigne Greening – Meet the Contractor Virtual Event

A revised date for Meet the Contractor event with Blakedown is now on Tuesday 25 May at 6.00 pm via Zoom.

We do not yet have a final confirmed start date for the project but we are hopeful it will be 7 June if all the supply lead in times are confirmed to be okay by Blakedown.
Here is the zoom link – https://us02web.zoom.us/j/88276056053

A letter will be going out to residents shortly. Further information on the project can be found here – http://www.columbiatra.org.uk/2020/10/07/gascoigne-greening-project-update/

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.