On the Isle of Dogs in Tower Hamlets E14, less than a half a mile away from the tall high rises of the Canary Wharf Estate, resides the Samuda Estate – comprising of 505 homes, originally part of the Tower Hamlets Council Housing Stock and home to approximately 1,500 people.
As someone who has been working with local residents on the Estate – the essence of community, helpfulness and friendliness with humility, levies warmth that is difficult to match elsewhere. Here lies a well established community of Islanders.
In 1991 or thereabouts, the Samuda Estate Local Management Organisation (SELMO) was established by Tenants of the Estate, enabling them to have a say in the management of their home. The Estate comprises of 4, 6 and 25-storey blocks arranged around a central, pedestrian only square, which houses a Community Centre that SELMO have been using and managing since 2008. The Centre was formerly called Club 55 and is now known as the SELMO Centre (or SELMO).
Debbie began working at the Centre in 2008 and manages the day to day running of the space and kindly explained, “We are a Community Centre for the Community. Current users include Young at Heart (over 55’s Group), the Bengali Womens Group, the Musidal School (Educational Programme), Tiger Tots (Mother & Toddler Group), Kung Fu and Yoga classes. The centre is hired out for special events and functions. For example on Eid recently, the hall was hired by a local resident for prayers and later by another resident to host a family dinner. We host free parties for children on the Estate here at Christmas, Easter and Halloween. We have cooked pensioners Christmas dinner over the past couple of years.” By keeping their prices low, people in the local community are able to have a space they can utilise.
In 2005, under Privatisation measures, the Samuda Estate was transferred to Toynbee Island Homes. In 2007, this was taken over by the One Housing Group (OHG) who is the current Landlord of the Samuda Estate.
In July 2013, the OHG’s Executive Management Team notified SELMO that they had been de-recognised – citing ‘irreconcilable differences, non-cooperation and non-compliance with OHG’s policies and procedures’ as the reason. This means that as far as the OHG are concerned, the Samuda Estate has no Tenant Residents Association to provide input to them as Landlords.
On 10th October 2014, the OHG in their capacity as Landlords issued a draconian 28 day Notice of Eviction to the occupiers of the ‘Samuda Community Centre’. Threatening Possession proceedings and legal costs in the event that the Notice is not complied with. Thus under OHG efforts, the control and management of the SELMO Centre would be transferred from the Tenants to the Landlord.
This is a story of David and Goliath.
What do Residents of the Samuda Estate have to say?
When I asked Tom why, he explained “Everything that the OHG Group touches, turns to rubbish. They do not put themselves out. They continuously make promises only to break them.” As an example he shared “They were going to clean the drains, we are still waiting for this. Every time it rains we can’t get into the office or use the steps by the shops or other side, which is the main access to Hedley House.
I do not trust the OHG. External lights in communal areas above the steps and in other places are still not working. I have been complaining for 10 weeks. They are still not fixed. I am 89 years old and it begins to get dark at 4pm.”
Tom and his wife started the ‘Young at Heart Club’ over 20 years ago. The club has always met at the SELMO centre. “We began this as people were stuck in doors on their own, so we started playing cards together and dominos here. We bought a pool table which cost us £250, which we paid for entirely with donations. We charge 50p as a user fee.”
Patricia – “I have lived on the Samuda Estate since 1969. We used to use a Community Centre by Ballin Court and we were ushered out by the Council. We did make a stand against it but we failed. From there we came to the SELMO Centre and we have been here ever since.
I am opposed to the OHG taking over the centre, because we are happy as we are – with the Tenants running it and we don’t want the running shifted to the Housing Association.
There have been a number of issues in the way that the OHG are managing the Estate as Landlords. Many residents have reported numerous difficulties with basic management issues, like repairs not being dealt with in a timely manner.
I am happy with the way Tenants are running this Centre. We are organised, we communicate well with each other, we are neighbours, mates and there is a real community feel. I would like the SELMO Centre left in the hands of Tenants. Putting us under the jurisdiction of the Landlord is going to create problems.”
Sheila – “I have been living on the Samuda Estate since the late 1960’s and am one of the last original residents. At that time it was run by the Council. I voted to stay with the Council as I found them to be good landlords. I was shocked to see the Samuda Estate sold off to a private Housing Association.
Since ownership transferred there have been many changes. Before, if there were any issues I could easily go to the local Council office where staff were very helpful and got the job done. To me it felt more like a Community. I knew the staff who worked for the Council by name.
With One Housing, when I go their local office I do not get the same satisfaction. It feels like I don’t matter. I don’t think any issues here are resolved. All they seem to concentrate their efforts on is landscaping. For example, there is dog poo everywhere which never seems to get cleaned. There are not enough caretakers to manage all the day to day jobs to maintain the Estate. It is very dirty, there is litter everywhere. The OHG is letting the Estate run down.
I was a board member of SELMO for 8 years. I think the OHG have been trying to disband the Tenants Association for several years.”
I asked Sheila if she is opposed to the OHG taking over the running of the SELMO Centre – she replied “I would like to say No – if they don’t make any changes. But with my experience, when the OHG became Landlords, there were many changes and not all for the good. The OHG doesn’t seem to have the experienced staff or consideration to be reasonable landlords.
I would like SELMO to keep going and for the Centre to be managed and run by the Tenants and also for the Tenants and Landlords to communicate better to get along.”
Wesley has been living on the Samuda Estate for 5 years. “I have been teaching Wing Chun Kung Fu at the SELMO Centre since 2013 to both children and adults. A few months ago, we gave a Kung Fu demonstration to members of the Public which was attended by East London News.
I feel it is important to be able to offer these classes as they keep kids off the street and teaches them confidence through self-defence. The users are mainly from the local community.
There is a definite financial divide on the Island. People living on this Estate tend to be unemployed and if working, working a lot of hours for little pay. Kung Fu is a way to offer people a way out, a release.”
I asked Wesley about his view on the Centre being run by the OHG instead of SELMO. He replied, “It cannot benefit the Tenants. Hardly anyone on the Estate trusts a Housing Association let alone One Housing. I am a Tenant of the OHG. I was here when the Estate was run by the Council. We were asked to vote if we wanted to be run by a Housing Association instead. I voted for the Council and speaking with other Residents, I do not know of anyone who voted for the Housing Association – yet we were transferred to them.
The OHG does not run the Estate properly – the Council ran it much better. The OHG run if for profit and not for the benefit of residents. Charges and rent went up immediately after the transfer of ownership. For example, water used to be included in the rent. The OHG made that separate. Things got harder and it is harder to make ends meet.
If I raise a complaint, for example, there were cockroaches in a neighbour’s home. It took the OHG 3-4 weeks to get a fumigator in.
I asked Wesley about his view of how the Centre is currently being run. “Residents have done a good job running the centre. The Best people to look out for residents are residents.
Especially bear in mind, they are knocking down flats in this Estate. We need a Tenant Residents Association to have a view and a say in what happens in the rebuilding and redevelopment of this Estate, otherwise we will be forced to comply with any decisions they make – which benefits them and not us.
I lived on an Estate before, where they let it run down -so that the only option was to demolish it. And I think that is what is going on here.”
Wesley confirmed that he had approached other Community Centres on the Island and said “the prices are extortionate, ranging from £20-45 per hour. They also have regular hall users so it would be difficult to get a specific slot on the Island.”
My own experience with many Community Centres on the Island is that prices are high, which means it is difficult for many to afford to hire them. As a result, often more established organisations and/or those in receipt of Council funding are able to utilise the Centres against the exclusion of others in the local community.
Many Residents I spoke with expressed a genuine fear, that if they spoke out against the OHG they would be evicted.
A further point raised suggests that SELMO may have an official status giving them historic rights. By de-recognising SELMO, the OHG may be hoping for SELMO to be extinguished, thus relinquishing Tenants of their historic rights in respect to the Samuda Estate.
With austerity measures hitting the poor and vulnerable the hardest, it is unreasonable to push people so far. This is a vibrant, caring, supporting and engaging community and they have a right to be heard by their landlord, as a collective body and to have a Community Centre which they are able to occupy and manage.
One thing for sure – they will not go down without a fight. The ‘Selmo 4 Samuda Community’ have a facebook fan page which you can like here. Please help to generate awareness and support of the residents campaign by using the #SaveSelmo
With thanks to all for their contributions and support.
Peace and Love. Sky