Housing chiefs at Bristol City Council admit they had concerns about teaming up with a developer accused of creating “human warehousing”.
The local authority announced in August that is to house hundreds of people who are homeless or in temporary accommodation at a former council office block in south Bristol owned by Caridon Property.
The company has been subject to two BBC investigations by Panorama and Newsnight in the last 18 months because of alleged conditions at similar buildings it had converted into flats in Harlow, including crime, substance abuse, cramped living and the fact some rooms have no windows.
In a speech to Parliament in February 2020, the Essex town’s MP Robert Halfon branded the situation “human warehousing” and “social cleansing” and demanded urgent government action to stop vulnerable families living in “ghettos”.
Responding to the Panorama probe aired earlier that month, which featured two properties Caridon owns and manages, the firm said its accommodation was built and managed to the highest standard.
It has been converting Parkview Campus in Whitchurch, which it renamed Imperial Apartments, into flats under controversial 2013 legislation called permitted development which allows offices to be converted to residential use without planning permission.
The accommodation does not have to adhere to the usual regulations stipulating minimum sizes and developers are not bound by rules over the amount of affordable housing.
About 70 people taken off Bristol’s streets and given hotel rooms at the start of lockdown will be given permanent new homes in the complex, as well as 150 people – individuals and families – currently in temporary accommodation.
A report to Bristol City Council cabinet members, who approved the deal on Tuesday, September 1, said: “There are concerns with the development being high density and the flats not meeting planning space standards, however, the apartments are finished to a reasonable standard and are suitable for mid-term next-steps housing. Due to the size of two-bed units, we suggest in general that no child over five-years-old moves in.”
The report said the agreement gave the council the say over who lived there: “Bristol City Council will hold Caridon to account on standards of management and provide support to meet tenants’ needs. This site provides accommodation at a time when we need to move people out of hotels.We will be providing targeted support to tenants and community engagement activities to aid the creation of a sustainable community.”
Cabinet member for housing Paul Smith told the meeting: “We were concerned as a council when we found out Caridon had purchased this site.Just before they purchased it we tried to buy it ourselves as it’s right next door to the Hartcliffe Campus development and across the road from the Hengrove development.
“We were aware of Caridon’s track record in Croydon and Harlow. We’ve had concerns and we’ve been talking to them for some time to look at how we can mitigate some of those issues.We’ve tried to make sure we have learned from the experience elsewhere and from the issues around permitted development and homelessness.”
Smith added: “If we hadn’t got involved and taken this action now, the flats would still be there and they would still be occupied and to be honest they would probably be occupied by homeless people from London. But there would be no rent control, there would be fewer communal facilities, there would be no support workers going in, there would be no community development workers going in, there would be no welfare advice service people going in, there would be no restrictions on the occupation.
“We would also see quite a large number of homeless people in Bristol either return to the streets or we would be stumping up huge amounts of money – hundreds of thousands a month – to pay for hotel bills to keep people in their homes, whereas this allows us to pass the cost of housing these people onto the housing benefit system and central government.”
He said the deal required Caridon to flag up tenants’ complaints to the council.
The cabinet report said the project would cost the authority £738,000 over three years, including staff and up to £150,000 in match funding to bring the properties up to standard, including a play area, IT suite, pop-up coffee shop and outdoor gym.
In its response to BBC’s Panorama in February, which featured Caridon properties Terminus House and Templefields House in Harlow, the company said: “Secret filming took place and specific allegations were made against certain members of our staff regarding tenant privacy, security and reporting procedures.
“We take these issues extremely seriously and were disappointed with the footage and some of the views expressed.
“We are grateful to Panorama for bringing them to our attention and as soon as we were made aware of them we instigated an internal disciplinary investigation. Caridon does not tolerate criminal and antisocial behaviour of any kind at any of its buildings. We act robustly and swiftly when made aware of such issues.”
Adam Postans is a local democracy reporter for Bristol.
Main photo: Bristol City Council