Imperial Apartments

Today’s blog is from Councillor Tom Renhard, Cabinet Member for Housing Delivery and Homes.

In the past month we’ve been talking a lot about housing. We always seem to be talking about housing – either about affordable housing, social housing, the local plan, brownfield versus green belt/greenfield, and even homes in back gardens. Of course, it is one of the most important topics to discuss in Bristol.

Having a safe and secure roof over our heads is key to ensuring we all have the best possible opportunity to live a happy and healthy life. But what happens when there’s not enough housing to go around at a price that everyone can afford? In simple terms, it means that low-income households have to rely more heavily on organisations like the council and housing associations for support into housing, that those organisations in turn have to find more and more housing at prices that people can afford, and we see more housing in Bristol start to lie empty or have their rents inflated to near unaffordable rates. It’s a dangerous spiral that inevitably leads to more homelessness, greater inequality and lifelong difficulties for many.

In Bristol, you can see this challenge clearly in the 16,000 people waiting on the housing register, many with little chance of receiving a council house due to a crippling lack of homes available. We have over 1000 people in temporary accommodation, 580 families, after having been made homeless and needing longer-term housing. This has been further compounded by out of control rents, the growing gap between Local Housing Allowance rates and rents, alongside the continued use of no-fault evictions (which the government promised to bring forward legislation to end over two years ago), and a lack of long term security for many.  An example of what this challenge looks like is the residential housing block in Hengrove called Imperial Apartments.

The site is owned by a private company called Caridon Property Group who converted the old office block into flats following changes to legislation, meaning there was little opportunity for council planners to get involved and help shape the development. The site has 465 flats ranging from studios up to two bed flats. Back in 2020 the Council entered negotiations with Caridon to find a way of making use of 316 flats to support people out of temporary accommodation, away from hostels or to prevent those in need from becoming homeless. We have acknowledged many times that this is the least worst option given the circumstances, but it is still an option that has supported over 300 households away from homelessness.

Our arrangement with Caridon is clear. Our role is to refer people who are in need of housing and that we consider are suitable for a tenancy at Imperial Apartments. Caridon decide whether to offer those persons a tenancy and if they do Caridon enter into a tenancy agreement with those persons. Caridon are both the owners of the properties and the landlord, Caridon manage the properties and they assume all of the rights and the responsibilities which would normally fall upon a landlord. That includes responding to the day-to-day expectations of those living there – whether it’s to do with security, utilities or noise issues. We work and co-operate with Caridon and have agreed to provide support and advice to Caridon, in some of those areas.

These are roles we expect all parties to take seriously. For our part, we’ve put in place support services delivered by the Salvation Army, LiveWest and our own housing teams to make sure people can settle into their new tenancies and can manage their own circumstances. These services provide low level support and are on hand to help signpost people to further support they may need. We hold weekly meetings with the landlord and support services to raise problems, tackle issues that come up and find solutions that put the safety and wellbeing of residents first. These meetings are also used to plan events to support tenants settle in and begin to build relationships and community.

I guess you won’t read about these more constructive aspects in the local press, so I’d like to say here that I don’t think the generalisations and insinuations made about the people living in Imperial Apartments are fair. I also know that not all residents agree that the coverage reflects their experience. Where there are concerns, we will work with Caridon and hold them to account to ensure issues are addressed in a timely manner. This includes expecting a zero tolerance approach to be taken to bullying, harassment of any form, hate crime and criminal behaviour more broadly. I want everyone in Bristol to have a safe and secure home and to be part of a community. We’ll continue to work with people across the city to make that the case.

Although this approach is keeping people out of temporary accommodation or away from the threat of street homelessness, we are being careful about who we nominate for these flats. We’ve been clear from the start that anyone being nominated for a flat needs to meet certain criteria. This is to protect them from signing up to a tenancy or a living situation they couldn’t maintain whilst ensuring the support services in place meet the needs of the residents. This strict referral criteria has been in place since we began nominating people for tenancies at the site and is discussed with all potential nominees when speaking to them about all of their housing options.

Our experiences so far have shown us clearly that there are challenges to stepping up a housing site like this in a short space of time. Not least that our original concerns about the size of some flats need to be reviewed again, particularly those that were offered to families. I am grateful to South Bristol MP, Karin Smyth, for her recent letter on this. I have utilised her intervention to take the decision that listings of flats for families will be paused whilst we carry out the review. We will look at the circumstances of those families already living there too.

Whilst Imperial Apartments provokes debate and raises clear issues that are being addressed, what can’t be ignored is that the scale of the need across the city outstretches the amount of housing available. We are investing heavily in council homes and delivering affordable homes but the housing crisis still remains a key challenge.