Waltham Forest Echo

Waltham Forest Echo

The end of life on the estate

Columnist Michelle Edwards says goodbye as she prepares to move out of the Marlowe Road Estate

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Marlowe Road Estate (credit: Penny Dampier)
By Michelle Edwards 20 November 2021

By the time you read this column, my last for the Echo, I expect to have been kicked out of my current home on the Marlowe Road Estate before the building is finally demolished next year. After six years worth of stories, and with so many that never made it into print, deciding what to focus on in my final piece was tough.

One of the highlights of my time as columnist has been getting to know the welcoming, non-egotistical, inclusive group of ordinary people that runs Fuel Poverty Action (FPA). For ten years, this grassroots, volunteer-run organisation has campaigned on behalf of the UK’s most vulnerable households to ensure they can heat their homes to a liveable standard. On the last day of September, I attended their anniversary party on Zoom, where members, friends and allies - both past and present - shared their stories and achievements.

The final portion of the meeting was devoted to launching a Crowdfunder, which aims to raise enough money to keep on their part-time worker - and experienced campaigner - Maddy Winters, for just ten hours a week at £15 per hour. That FPA needs to ask for donations to do this underpins everything that is wrong with political campaigning nowadays. Those uniquely placed to advocate on behalf of those in need are largely economically challenged and without essential resources; whereas those causing the damage earn good pay. Think MPs. Think excessive expenses claims. Think taxpayer-funded second homes.

With the recent collapse of nine small energy suppliers in response to record-high natural gas prices and the government's price cap (which meant they were effectively operating at a loss), FPA is critical. People are fed up with being shafted by the 'Big Six' energy companies (British Gas, SSE, E.ON, EDF Energy, Scottish Power and npower) through spiralling bills and rip-off prepayment meters.

For my part, I reached out to FPA for the first time about three years ago, after learning of the forced introduction of district heating - a relatively new, unregulated way of providing heat - in the estate’s new build properties. District heating systems use insulated pipes to channel heat from sources like waste plants and spread it to vast numbers of surrounding homes but, unlike other kinds of energy providers, people have no option to switch if they’re unhappy. Residents on the estate felt district heating had driven up their bills - and for good reason. At the time, I spoke to one man who moved in on 12th December to find his meter already showing a reading of minus £5, after construction workers left the heating on. By 20th January, he had already spent £60.

Even though she was overseeing five other campaigns at the time, FPA’s founding member Ruth London provided me with unconditional support and a catalogue of research data, which materialised in two columns in February and October that year. And my involvement didn’t end there; I was further persuaded to accompany Ruth to a meeting with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to test their policy proposals for a future regulatory framework for heat networks. Due to FPA's efforts, a big announcement on consumer protection is coming but, until it’s ready, my gob is effectively embargoed.

FPA aren’t the only campaigners I’m proud to have worked with over the years. Other notable mentions include Socialist Party mother-and-daughter team Linda and Nancy Taafe, disability campaigner James O'Rourke, filmmakers Melissa Herman and Ishmahil Blagrove, housing campaigner Truus Jansen and Waltham Forest Matters blogger Nick Tiratsoo, who tracks the (mis)use of public money like nobody else. What unites these people is a genuine devotion to local democracy and what happens to the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. Many people know nothing about the ways ‘little people’ like them have changed the law, certainly fewer than the number that have benefited from their work.

And, while I seldom pat myself on the back, for this final column I think I’ve earned the right. For the last two years I have been embroiled in a slog with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), calling for action against Waltham Forest Council over the way they handle Freedom of Information requests. Like all public bodies, Waltham Forest has a legal duty to provide information requested this way to any member of the public, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act. As the Government stated when creating the act in 1997, “unnecessary secrecy… leads to arrogance in governance and defective decision-making."

In July 2020, after years of having my investigative work thwarted, I finally secured a result. The ICO quietly published a 'practice recommendation' on their website, the first to be issued to a public authority in over a decade, having "reached the view that the [council's] request handling practices do not conform to the Freedom of Information Code of Practice." In addition, the Commissioner highlighted the council’s lack of cooperation with the ICO and poor record-keeping.

However, even this victory, two rulings and one face-to-face with ICO management has failed to alter the obstructive culture at the council. For example, despite submitting a Subject Access Request (SAR) for all personal information the council holds on me in April 2019, I am still without the requested data. I’ve since received multiple envelopes containing data I didn’t request, which it’s hard not to view as a deliberate attempt to piss me off.

Still, from now on, it's up to new Echo journalists to hold them to account, as I have successfully done. I'm heading online to continue my story, and the story of Wood Street more broadly, but for now I’ll say goodbye. Please accept my intense gratitude for your support, engagement, response and argument over the years.

To see more of Penny's photographer visit her website here