Prize draws, panels, and problems left unsolved

In her latest column about life as a tenant at Marlowe Road Estate, Michelle Edwards casts a skeptical eye over new council initiatives

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A Nasa survival exercise was used to determine whether tenants were suitable to sit on a new council panel

The contradiction between public consultations associated with improving engagement with residents and the failure of council staff to address the concerns of residents on the ground continues.

When I wrote about the fire safety fears of residents at the 21-storey Northwood Tower situated in Marlowe Road for two previous editions of the Echo, in the aftermath of Grenfell, I wasn’t exactly singing the praises of Waltham Forest Council. Six months on, the concerns I raised are all still outstanding, with the exception of just one – the council has announced it is fitting sprinklers in all 61 of its ‘high-priority’ housing blocks.

As per my previous columns, tenants have yet to secure a reply to their email from July addressing twelve long-standing fire concerns, despite two small fires at Northwood last year. The council states its ambition “is that everybody in Waltham Forest enjoys a quality life” but how is this possible when some residents can’t even get an assurance that they won’t die in their own homes?

The council launched an online survey last November to find out how residents engage with councillors and decision-making in the community. Respondents were entered into a prize draw for a £50 Love2shop gift voucher. But what can we conclude from the survey question asking about community ward funding? Having allocated £10,000 of funding annually in all 20 wards of the borough to spend on local initiatives since 2011, are they now seeking to remove it? According to the council, the survey is merely “part of a wider piece of ongoing work to determine whether there is an awareness of the scheme”. We will find out soon enough.

In October I attended a ‘resident selection session’ at the town hall, at which the council was picking people to sit on its new Strategic Tenants and Residents (STAR) panel. This is a group of trained council tenants and leaseholders who will meet regularly to “influence strategic decision making concerning housing services”. It is replacing the long-running Waltham Forest Tenants’ Council, disbanded last year.

I entered the council chamber knowing I wouldn’t be selected. A NASA survival exercise was used to determine our suitability for the panel, with everyone asked to rank 15 items of equipment in terms of importance for a scenario in which we were stuck on the moon. The entire proceedings were witnessed by the portfolio lead member for housing and, obviously, he wouldn’t want anybody too mouthy to hold him to account. Despite statements to the contrary, I believe that’s why the tenants’ council was disbanded last year.

My suspicion was confirmed ten days later by email: “Unfortunately, while you scored well on the aspects to which you contributed, the fact you missed the beginning of the session meant that you were unable to score on some key aspects through the first exercise. As a result, we are unable to offer you a place on either of the two standing panels. We would, however, like to invite you to be involved in the training and personal development offer, along with engaging in resident scrutiny.”

I should explain; the panels carry more weight, and while I haven’t managed to speak with all attendees, those I did speak with assured me that I barely missed a thing by arriving late. Finding a voice and engaging politically to safeguard the rights of the little people is something yet to be met favourably.