Barton House tenants demand council bosses pause their rent in tense scenes at City Hall

Hundreds of people were evacuated from the tower block last month but many must still pay rent
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Tenants of Barton House urged council bosses to stop charging them rent during a tense public meeting at City Hall.

Hundreds of people were evacuated from the tower block last month but many must still pay rent to Bristol City Council despite their homes being unsafe.

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Questions were also raised about what would happen to tenants if the building is found to be unsafe, with survey results expected next week. But the council is not expecting to rehouse the majority of evacuees staying in a hotel in the city centre for “the short or medium-term”.

So far the evacuation is forecast to cost the council £3.5 million, and a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, December 5 heard details of how much has been spent. Barton House tenants used the meeting to ask council bosses about a rent pause and their long-term future.

John Wisbey, acting chair of the Barton House tenants association, said: “We, the residents of Barton House, demand that there is rehousing for those who feel unsafe in the building, and everything should be done to support those who wish to remain within the building and support the community that has developed therein.

“We would also like an independent investigation and rent to be paused for those currently paying it, because this is causing financial difficulty for those of us who are living in hotel accommodation. We also demand accountability and answers from the council. We need a timeline of how events unfolded from the moment the government made Bristol City Council aware of the defects of the building in 2017.”

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Many people living at Barton House have all or part of their rent covered by housing benefit. A previous council statement warned: “If we were to stop charging rent, any tenant of Barton House in receipt of Universal Credit and/or Housing Benefit would see those benefits needing to be recalculated.” 

Barton House, a 14-storey tower block in Barton Hill, was built in 1958 using a construction method known as ‘large panel system’. The council said its oldest tower block was built in a specific way, with concerns that concrete did not properly join floors to load-bearing walls.

The government wrote to councils in 2017 about new concerns over LPS tower blocks, but a survey on Barton House didn’t take place until earlier this year. Four other council tower blocks in Bristol also have LPS design, but the council said it has “no evidence” of similar issues.

The majority of Barton House tenants are now staying in a Holiday Inn which the council has block-booked until the end of January. Some vulnerable tenants are staying in serviced apartments, while others have remained in the tower block despite the safety warnings.

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Labour deputy mayor Craig Cheney said: “I want to thank the residents of Barton House for their cooperation and resilience as we wait for the full results of the structural survey. I want to place on record our thanks for those in the community who have helped out with the response.

“As someone who lived in Barton House once upon a time, I’m pleased to see that residents are able to come in and contribute to the agenda today, and it’s good to have you here.”

Cllr Cheney was chairing the cabinet meeting as Marvin Rees, the mayor, was away in Dubai for the Cop28 climate conference. Mr Rees was also out of the country on November 14, the night of the evacuation, as he was attending another conference in Rwanda.

As well as the evacuation, the council has faced several challenges with its tower blocks in recent years. Two were hit by fires last year with one tenant of Twinnell House in Easton falling to his death trying to escape, and many blocks were found to have flammable polystyrene cladding that needed removing and replacing.

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One tower block which has faced significant challenges is Gilton House in Brislington. In autumn last year the council removed cladding from the building, and a long-delayed programme to replace it has still not finished. Elderly residents have now begun enduring a second freezing winter without proper insulation in their homes.

Nigel Varley, who lives in Gilton House, said: “I’m very concerned about the ability of the council to negotiate with residents, given that I’m a victim of the cladding replacement. I live in a freezing cold flat with astronomical electricity bills because of the absolute shambles of the insulation replacement programme by the council.

“The council must surely now be planning for the worst-case scenario whereby Barton House has to be closed, demolished or repaired in the long-term, along with the other LPS blocks in the city. We have to consider what’s going to happen to people, where are they going to be rehoused, if that should happen?”

One option is the roughly 300 empty council homes in Bristol. Usually when a property owned by the council becomes empty, some refurbishment works take place and quite a few weeks pass before the next tenants move in, but this process could now be sped up. The council also has £11 million in a housing fund which could be used to buy new properties.

Residents of a tower block in Bristol have had to leave their homes after structural problems were discovered.Residents of a tower block in Bristol have had to leave their homes after structural problems were discovered.
Residents of a tower block in Bristol have had to leave their homes after structural problems were discovered.
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Labour Cllr Kye Dudd, cabinet member for housing services, said: “We need to get the results of the structural survey back, which we hope we should have within the next seven days. We’re looking at various scenarios, what if this happens, what if that happens.

“It’s important that the surveys are properly analysed by the building safety experts here. We’re hoping that within the next week or so we’ll be able to get back to residents about what the long-term future potentially is.

“We’re not expecting to rehouse anyone anywhere else, apart from the Holiday Inn. Although there are some cases where, due to the needs of particular families, we have found alternative accommodation. But we don’t expect any changes to the accommodation in the short-term or medium-term future.”

Council bosses were also urged to negotiate with residents and recognise the newly reconstituted tenants association at Barton House, as well as Acorn, the community union which represents many tenants in the tower block and across Bristol. Acorn said it has dozens of members from the building, with many signing up to refuse to pay their rent.

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Mr Varley said: “The important thing is not to inform or consult, but to negotiate with residents. There’s a difference. When you consult, you’re just telling people what’s going to happen. When you negotiate, you try and achieve an agreement.”

Cllr Dudd said the council would “consider supporting” the tenants association to get set up, but would not agree to recognise Acorn as representing tenants of council tower blocks. Despite being asked why he wouldn’t recognise Acorn, he did not offer an explanation.

One Barton House resident requested to ask a question at the end of the meeting, but Cllr Cheney said she wasn’t allowed to as she had not submitted one in writing in advance. This sparked anger among the tenants in the public gallery, and another unnamed Barton House resident began shouting at the deputy mayor urging him to “show some respect”.

He said: “Have some respect and let the girl ask her question, it’s just that simple. She wishes to ask a question, have the dignity to give her that moment. What’s the point in us being here? You’re giving us absolutely zero, absolute disrespect. You need firing. You say you used to be a tenant there? Then let the girl ask the goddamn question.”

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Cllr Cheney replied: “We will happily speak to you, but there is a process to this meeting that we follow. You’re pointing and shouting at me, so we can talk about ‘out of order’ all night, if you want.”

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