FEATURE: A home or a prison? How domestic abuse has spiralled during life under lockdown

Words by Adam Smith

(First published in the Erdington Local newspaper – March ’21 edition)

The increase in domestic abuse has been one the most disturbing consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. As lockdown restrictions are eased, and the country prepares to go back to the ‘normal’ we knew before, Erdington Local looks at how violence and aggression in the home are damaging the lives of hundreds of local people.

Domestic abuse rose by 45% in Erdington last year and now accounts for around 25% of all crime committed in the constituency.

Officers are now trained to spot tell-tale signs of abuse and if possible, help the victim. As well as prosecute the abuser which is a big difference from the 1970s when the law was unable intervene between a married couple.

However, lockdown meant victims had the double blow of being forced to spend even more time with their partner, whilst routes to safety and support were blocked by being unable to leave the house and even have private phone calls.

Experts who have been helping Erdington women escape violence since 1980 are keen to stress the lockdowns have not created domestic abuse but exacerbated an existing problem.

For more than 40 years Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid (BSWA) has provided practical escape routes for abused women and children, last year its 220 staff and volunteers helped 7,800 victims.

The charity’s fundraising manager Anna Fawcett told Erdington Local: “Prior to COVID-19 we would rely on face-to-face meetings with victims to unpick what they had been through, from eye contact to body language we were physically there for women.

“But like everybody else we had to change how we help people, whether it be through intercoms or WhatsApp messages, but we are still making a huge difference. Demand for our services has gone up in 12 months, but during the first lockdown we were quieter than expected.

“We soon realised people could not phone us if their partner was in the house so we introduced a chat facility to the helpline which made a big difference.”

Women’s Aid provide advice, counselling and crucially a housing service so women and children will not be homeless if they do successfully leave an abusive domestic situation. BSWA run seven refuges across the city, the locations are secret to prevent violent partners tracking women down, and demand is always high.

Anna said: “For every one room we have, seven or eight women need it. When one becomes available they are free for a matter of hours before being taken.

“COVID-19 is not causing domestic violence but it has heightened it due to the restrictions. But the police are doing a great job trying to prosecute offenders.”

The causes of domestic abuse are entrenched in society and Anna believes although attitudes have improved there is still a long way to go.

She said: “One in four women will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime so it will not be fixed overnight; the fact rape prosecutions are at an all time low shows how much work needs to be done.

“In the early 1970s police could not even intervene between a married couple, but perhaps with the Domestic Abuse Bill now in the House of Lords women will finally get equality. We need to keep talking about domestic abuse because our sisters, wives, and daughters are the victims.”

One Erdington mother of two, who now lives in an East Midlands town after her relationship ended violently last year, wanted women suffering in silence to know help is available.

She said: “Lockdown turned my volatile relationship into a living hell because my fella lost his job and could not go to the pub, so we spent more time with each other than we ever had.

“I suddenly realised I was trapped; I couldn’t phone my friends, sisters, or anyone without him knowing. I forgot to clear the search history on the computer and when he found out I’d been searching for hotels and hostels he snapped.

“He fractured my collar bone and broke my pelvis. But waking up in hospital meant I finally could get help, I never went back. The advice and support I got from my hospital bed with just my phone was incredible, it meant I could leave him and take my children too.”

She added: “I shudder to think what would have happened if I had stayed, but Women’s Aid and the police made me realise I was not alone. Loads of women have gone through the same trauma and come out the other side safe and well.”

Tragically, many victims do not escape their tormentor. In the last ten years at least two women every week have been killed by current or former partners in England and Wales, according to the Office for National Statistics, and 30 men die each year in similar circumstances.

Domestic abuse is also one of the main causes of homelessness. Birmingham City Council and Women’s Aid worked together to create Home Options which matched the expertise of BSWA staff and housing officers to ensure domestic abuse victims would not end up on the streets.

Birmingham City Council cabinet member for housing Councillor Sharon Thompson branded the new approach a success.

She said: “The Home Options is the first of its kind in the country and has demonstrated a valuable and much needed initiative, providing a specialist approach and ‘pathway’ for women and children at risk of, or experiencing homelessness due to domestic abuse.

“Domestic abuse is a complex and serious issue, both nationally and locally here in Birmingham, and remains one of the leading causes of statutory homelessness. It has a profound and long-lasting impact upon the safety, health, and wider life chances of women, children, and families; which can often lead to further crisis such as homelessness and financial exclusion.”

Inspector Haroon Chughtai, who decides the police’s priorities for Erdington, promised abusers who used the pandemic’s unique circumstances to their own advantage would feel the full force of the law.

He said: “Like all major events it (COVID-19) has brought both the best and worst out in people.

“For me, the worst is the perpetrators of domestic abuse who have taken advantage of the restrictions and made life unbearable for their victims. We will continue to everything to bring them to justice.

“Domestic abuse is a 45% increase which equates to around 800 extra victims. It is an abhorrent crime which we are determined to continue tackling and it is one of our top priorities.”

He added: “We have also started a pilot scheme in Kingstanding which takes a more enhanced approach at repeat offenders.”

The stereotype of domestic abuse is a husband emotionally and physically attacking his wife but there are many other scenarios which create victims.

Men have traditionally found it hard to admit or report their female partner abused them. Parents attacking their children, teenagers attacking parents or siblings, are also domestic abuse – as are altercations between same sex partners in the LGBTQ community.

The only way to eradicate the problem entirely is if everyone in society tries to stop it, from neighbours reporting violent incidents to employers offering employees help if they turn up to work with a black eye or bruises.

Kingstanding PCSO Meg Skelding wrote to residents about spotting domestic abuse and how to help.

She said: “Support a friend if they’re being abused, let them know you’ve noticed something is wrong. If someone confides in you, there is more information on how to support them.

“If you are worried someone you know is a victim of domestic abuse, you can call Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline for free, confidential support, 24 hours a day on 0808 2000 247.”

She added: “But if you believe there is an immediate risk of harm to someone, or it is an emergency, always call 999.”

If you have been affected by domestic abuse of violence, you can call Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline 24 hours a day on 0808 2000 247 or visit www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk

For more on Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid visit www.bswaid.org

For more from Refuge visit www.refuge.org.uk

EXCLUSIVE: Mother of murdered Sandy Hook schoolboy funds Kingstanding bleed control kits

Words by Adam Smith / Pics supplied by Scarlett Lewis

The inspirational American mother of a boy murdered in the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012 has funded ten new bleed control kits for Kingstanding.

Scarlett Lewis’ life changed forever when she was told there was a shooting at her six-year-old son Jesse’s school in Connecticut.

When the frantic mother got to the school parents were heading home with their traumatised children. However, Jesse was nowhere to be seen and neither were most his elementary class or his teacher.

As the day unfolded the full horror of what happened inside the school became clear. Armed with an assault rifle, former pupil Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six teachers before turning the gun on himself – earlier in the day he had murdered his mother, a former teacher at the school.

Scarlett told Erdington Local: “I put my children on the school bus and assumed they would come home safe. I never thought in a million years my son would be shot in the forehead in his classroom in one of the worst mass murders in US history.

“I knew it became my responsibility, so I dedicated the rest of my life to do what is right as these shootings are 100% preventable. It’s just like tackling bullying and drugs, we need to tackle the causes of these problems.”

The Sandy Hook massacre remains the USA’s most deadly school shooting and sparked a campaign to tighten America’s notoriously lax gun control laws. However, Scarlett wanted to understand why so many young people kill.

She said: “The tragedy could have been averted with social and emotional intelligence.”

The first step of Scarlett rebuilding her life was to forgive the mass murderer who killed her son.

She said: “I forgave him, he was not treated well. He had special needs which weren’t known. Often was seen in the cafeteria by students crying and shaking with anxiety and the only person who would comfort him was the anxiety. He was bullied, so I felt compassion for him.”

However, what Scarlett could never expected after losing her son in a national tragedy was being the target of internet trolls accusing her of being involved in a conspiracy claiming the entire massacre was fabricated.

She said: “Conspiracy theorists do not have the strength to believe something as awful as Sandy Hook could happen in their country, they would rather believe I am a ‘crisis actor’ and the whole thing was made up than face up to the truth and be part of the solution.”

Scarlett’s negative social media experiences were outweighed by the support she received by other bereaved parents.

She said: “Almost immediately afterwards I had parents of children who had been killed in similar circumstances reach out to me offering support. They helped me realise I would survive and now had a voice which would be listened to, which is why I decided to be part of the solution.”

Reading a heart-breaking message from her son, who saved the lives of several children by urging them to run as the gunman reloaded, also deeply affected Scarlett.

“Jesse wrote a chalk board message right before he went to school that day which I did not see until afterwards.

“He wrote ‘have some fun’ to his brother and then three words ‘nurturing, healing, love’. I knew instantly if the shooter had been taught to give and receive nurturing, healing and love the tragedy would never have happened,” she said.

“I also wanted to be a role model for my 12-year-old son TJ, I did not want him to spend his life angry and I wanted to be free of anger too.”

Scarlett began researching social and emotional learning and founded The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement which now offers free programming in 10,000 schools across every US state and in 110 different countries.

Scarlett believes love is the key to preventing mass murders and every child should be taught about emotions, connections, and relationships.

President Barack Obama was deeply upset by the Sandy Hook massacre and even addressed the nation from the school days after the tragedy. He failed in his bid to tighten gun laws but introduced Scarlett to his sister, a professor who helped launch the foundation. 

Kingstanding’s first bleed control kit was installed in October but another ten are needed for the area to be covered.

When Scarlett heard about deadly consequences of knife crime in Birmingham, she offered to purchase ten new kits, immediately.

“I totally understand the concept of zero responders and how bleed control kits can save lives. It took more than seven minutes for emergency services to get to Jesse’s school and a bleed control kit could have saved lives,” she said.

Bishop Desmond Jadoo and Majid Khan, from Yes2Life  – a Birmingham based group ‘campaigning against the effects of gun & knife crime’, were so impressed by Scarlett’s humanity they volunteered to be UK ambassadors for her Choose Love Movement.

Bishop Jaddoo said: “For a mother to forgive the killer of her six-year-old son, choose love and dedicate her life to saving lives is incredibly inspiring and because of her generosity lives will be saved in Kingstanding.”

For more information about The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement www.chooselovemovement.org

To follow the Yes2Life organsiation on Twitter,, visit www.twitter.com/_yes2life_

For more information about bleed control kits and the work being done by Bishop Desmond Jaddoo visit www.desjaddoo.org.uk

FEATURE: Erdington Foodbank, an increasingly essential local lifeline

As the numbers of local families in need of support double due to the coronavirus crisis, with thousands facing a “bleak winter”, MP for Erdington, Jack Dromey, visits the longstanding food distribution service at Six Ways Baptist Church.

Words & pics by Ed King – some images taken from Erdington Local archives

Erdington Foodbank has been feeding double the numbers of local families this year – due to the effects of the coronavirus crisis, including continued lockdowns and spiralling unemployment.

Operating two days a week, at 6 Ways and George Road Baptist churches, the long standing local food bank has seen ‘a significant increase’ – including twice the number of children, as compared to last year.

This year, so far… this financial year, we’ve provided food for 10,000 people and more than 3,000 of are children,” explains Reverend Gerrard Goshawk – minster at Six Ways Baptist Church, “that’s been a significant increase, doubling the number of children. Overall, we’re looking at being twice as busy as we were the last financial year.

We have new people coming all the time, where there circumstances have suddenly changed, and we have people who are coming to us week in week out because they’re stuck in a situation that’s hard for them. 

So, we open twice a week – and within a short space of time, when we open, we get very, very busy. As you can see there’s a big queue here today.”

Launched in 2013, supported by the Trussell Trust, Erdington Foodbank has been operating within the community for nearly a decade – offering free to access ‘three day emergency food supplies’ via a referral system.

Last year the local food bank distributed nearly 4,000 care packages, feeding people of all faiths. But with mass unemployment due to COVID-19 lockdowns the numbers of those in need have increased dramatically this year.

Stretching from the church hall doors out onto Wood End Road, long lines of people have become a regular sight at Six Ways Baptist Church – sometimes waiting hours in bitter weather to receive bags of food and essentials. And the same can be seen at food banks across the city. 

As we sink into what will be a bleak winter,” tells MP for Erdington Jack Dromey – whilst visiting the Six Ways centre, “for thousands of people locally in Erdington the demand for food banks is growing and growing.

We’re here today (Six Ways Baptist Church) talking to guys who were at work, who have lost their jobs, and who are now desperate – and they turn to the food bank This is a long standing food bank… but what they’re seeing is a sharp increase in families using it. The number of those using this particular food bank have doubled.”

It’s down to the Government,” tells Kenneth Ball – a qualified mechanic who now relies on extra support from Erdington Foodbank.

The way they’ve cut back benefits… bang. From ESA to Universal Credit, they’ve taken half of our money away – so, we have to rely on places like this (Erdington Foodbank).”

Universal Credit are monthly payments, but most people have deductions,” mirrors Michael Blake – a professional baker who lost his job due to the coronavirus crisis. “The money they’ve got left over can only support them for one or two weeks, but what about the other two weeks?

In this environment, the Government should cancel the deductions – I’m not saying they’re not doing a good job, but they should wait until everything’s settled down then put the deductions back into force. We know we owe the money… but give us a break.”

Echoing the call for compassion, Jack Dromey reiterates the growing number of local voices who have been left vulnerable – with thousands across the constituency seeking a range of support as the country begins a second lockdown.

In terms of the effects on people personally, and I say this with immense sadness, the scars that are being inflicted – unless we’re careful – will last for years,” continues Dromey.

The scars mental ill health, the scars of children not being able to go to school for months on end, the scars sometimes endured by women in this constituency as victims of domestic violence.

We need to act, to save lives and to save livelihoods, but then to have a strong community supporting the community. That’s why we have the Erdington Taskforce, of which I was proud to be part of establishing, which has been doing so well supporting people locally.

I would urge the people of Erdington to play their part with acts of kindness, good neighbourliness, and supporting one another. But as far as the foodbanks are concerned, they badly need food – the demand is soaring.”

To find out more about Erdington Foodbank, visit www.erdington.foodbank.org.uk
For more from Jack Dromey MP for Erdington, visit www.jackdromey.org

For a list of local support services operating during the coronavirus crisis, visit the COVID-19 Local Support database and address book, www.erdingtonlocal.com/covid-19-local-support

FEATURE: A spooky spirit walk though Erdington’s ghostly past… and present

Words by Adam Smith

It’s Halloween, and as trick or treating is another COVID victim why not explore why ghost hunters still flock to Erdington.

If you believe in the paranormal, or if your things-that-go-bump-in-the-night are more down to carelessness, there can be no doubt that Erdington has more than its fair share of ghost stories.

Whether it is the ‘melting woman in the phone box’, the old fella in the Lad in the Lane or the vanishing woman of Pype Hayes Park, these stories have been passed down the generations of Erdington locals.

Even if these stories have been embellished, altered, or given a splash of colour when told across pub tables or playgrounds, they have become part of who we are – a good ghost story is part of our oral history tradition.

Erdington Local can reveal there are new ghost stories happening now, as the unexplained is explored in a new book from local authors – They Walk Among Us – released this Halloween.

But first let’s walk through the spooky shadows Erdington’s of macabre memory lane…

The ‘melting phone box woman of Station Road’ is one of the most talked about ghost stories in Erdington. Two men were waiting to use the phone in the 1970s, a woman was in the box, and after a long wait they asked her how long she would be… only to find she had ‘melted away’.

The story gained traction, now local folklore says it was a young mother who ran to the phone box to phone the fire brigade as her house was on fire, her children died, and she committed suicide not long after. The phone box, however, could not survive the onward march of progress and was removed due to the popularity of mobile phones.

The Lad in the Lane is the oldest pub in Erdington, once called Ye Olde Green Man, so it stands to reason there would be a ghost story attached to the premises which dates, back to 1400. Ghost hunters claim the Bromford Lane pub has “considerable poltergeist activity” and a grey shadowy figure is said to roam the site.

If anywhere in Erdington would have a reputation for ghostly goings-on it would be Pype Hayes Park. The historic park, which has connections to both the famous Bagot and Arden families, also has a macabre side.

Society belle Mary Ashford was found dead in the park on May 27th 1817, she had been sexually assaulted and been thrown into a pit where she finally drowned. The gruesome murder took place after she had been to a dance at the Tyburn House, when she was just 20-years-old. Castle Bromwich man Abraham Thornton was eventually tried and acquitted of the crimes, not once but twice.

But Mary’s ghost is still said to roam both the park and the Tyburn House, angry at her attacker who was never brought to justice.

Bizarrely enough, 160 years later on the same day – 27th May, Whit Bank Holiday Monday, 1974 – Barbara Forrest, also 20 and also returning home from a dance, went missing only to be found dead on the edge of Pype Hayes Park.

Incredibly, a man named Thornton was also arrested, charged, and eventually acquitted of her murder – her co-worker at a children’s home, Michael Thornton.

However, the most cited ghost sighting in Pype Hayes Park is that of a young woman in an old fashioned, yellow dress who has been seen floating through the park. She is said to walk towards a tree but vanishes and never come out the other side. The West Midlands Ghost Club took the story so seriously they investigated it in 2008.

A Roman Centurian is also has been seen wandering across the Chester Road near Pype Hayes Park too, alongside a white misty figure who takes a seat on the stone bench in Tyburn.

It is surprising locals can get a seat at The Tyburn House with all the ghosts believed to haunt the place. Yet a friendly monk called Fred is believed to be a regular there, with several licensees having reported a “dark human shape” jump past them on the stairs to the cellar.

On Erdington High Street, there have also been sightings of ghosts at the Roebuck Inn. Poltergeist activity has been reported at the old watering hole – as glasses were found smashed all over the function room and a pool ball has been thrown through a window, from inside, during the night. A barmaid was also covered in shards from exploding sherry glasses and a figure in a white shirt has been seen sitting in a locked, darkened restaurant.

There have been other ghost stories attached to the railway arch on Station Road (a monk with a lantern), Orphanage Road on the site of the old orphanage (crying children heard and the caretaker wandering around), and a 16-year-old girl with an expressionless face in Woodend Road.

However, there are new ghost stories also popping up in Erdington, Kingstanding, and Perry Common.

Two friends who met at school used their time in lockdown to write a book about new ghost stories in the West Midlands called They Walk Among Us, and Eridington was not without it’s spooky spectres.

Kingstanding journalist Charlotte Hart and Perry Common writer Louise Blackburn are releasing their book on this Halloween and have told Erdington Local about ghostly-goings on in Erdington.

Charlotte, 42, said: “One the best tales in the book is in Erdington. Someone reported thinking they’d run someone over by the cemetery but when they got out of the car to investigate, there was no-one there.

Our contributor said he’d be left very shaken by it, it left him feeling chilled.”

She added: “Another story involves a toddler from Kingstanding regularly talking to someone at the if her bed in the middle of the night and an Erdington couple who told us about her TV jumping from a chest of drawers to the floor on the other side of the road without getting damaged and waking the cat up.

There’s other stories about people being visited at Good Hope Hospital and spooky events at Highbury Theatre in Boldmere.”

Louise, from Perry Common, was amazed with the response when she asked for contributions from people with modern ghost stories.

She said: “It’s impossible to check the integrity of people’s stories because they’re all first-hand accounts and if people tell us something has happened, then that is good enough for us.

It’s up to the reader whether they believe something or not, and different people accept varying levels of paranormal activity.

If the stories we have shared make people question what they are willing to believe, then we will have achieved what we set out to.”

They Walk Among Us – Unexplained Tales of Ghosts and Spirits of the Midlands is available from 31st October. For more information and links to online purchases, visit www.amzn.to/34yvlm9

To find out more about ghost hunts in the Midlands visit  www.hauntedhappenings.co.uk/ghost-hunting-events/West-Midlands

EXPLOITED: Part 3 – The unchallenged rampage of HMOs and shared houses, wreaking havoc for a profit across our community

Words by Adam Smith

In the third instalment of EXPLOITED, Adam Smith looks at the oversaturation problem in the HMO and supported living sector – hearing from the top of two housing associations and going right down to the root cause of the misery.

It’s a license to print money,” one former employee of a housing association tellingly revealed.

And it stands to reasons where there is easy money on offer there will be a queue of people ready to take it.

On the Birmingham City Council website there is a list of HMOs where landlords can charge the benefits system £900 for a room, which often can be more than £500 over the private rented market value. And the list runs into the thousands.

Across Birmingham there are 2345 HMOs with six or more people living in them, with applications pending for another 758 properties – including houses in Mere Road, Queens Road, Chester Road, Hillaries Road, Norfolk Road, Kings Road, Slade Road and George Road in Erdington.

As well as the licensed HMOs there are thousands more smaller HMOs and shared houses which fall into the category of ‘exempt’ or ‘supported’ accommodation. There are hundreds of companies which can apply for an HMO license in Erdington, many of which have been arguably set up just to take advantage of the system.

Spring Housing Association (SHA) is a Birmingham based Housing Association which operates HMOs, hostels and social housing – an organisation that has been referenced in previous Exploited articles. SHA has close links to Birmingham City Council and is one of the biggest housing associations in the Midlands, managing or owning more than 700 properties.

SHA, which has Edgbaston MP Preet Gill on its board of directors, has lobbied the Government to tighten up regulations and is now even turning shared houses into family homes.

SHA group chief executive and founder, Dominic Bradley, told Erdington Local there should be tighter regulations on the mushrooming number of companies which can run HMOs and shared accommodation.

He said: “We believe that there is over saturation of exempt shared housing provision in Birmingham. This is not to say that this type of housing doesn’t have an important part to play in the prevention of homelessness in all of its forms. In fact it’s essential.

However, we have long recognised that in parts of the city we are over saturated with this style of housing – which is disruptive to local communities. Stockland Green is an obvious example of this.”

Dominic added: “It’s one of the reasons we are about to purchase a shared house in Erdington and convert it back to a family home. We are aiming to do something similar in Edgbaston, which has had similar community issues to Stockland Green.

Whilst this is a start and one we are keen to develop further there are wider more systematic issues that need to be tackled around strengthening existing regulations about what we mean about care, support and supervision and work with providers to curb the current unmitigated growth and target provision linked to local strategy which we know Birmingham City Council are very keen to achieve.”

In the last article, Exploited – Humans Must Obey,  we outlined the rules tenants have to follow whilst living in supported housing and HMOs.

In the housing sector the term used is ‘Exempt Accommodation’ because in 1996 Housing Benefit regulations were changed to include ‘non-commissioned EA’ which were defined as ‘accommodation which is…provided by a non-metropolitan country council, a housing association, a registered charity or a voluntary organisation where that body or a person acting on its behalf also provides the claimant with care, support or supervision.

‘If a provider or landlord meets these criteria, they are exempt from rent restrictions within the private rented sector and are able to yield rent levels, paid for from housing benefit, far in excess of ‘general needs’ social sector rents and, often, market rents.’

These two paragraphs provided the starter of the sector gun, as landlords and housing associations realised they could charge more rent without the hassle of tenancy agreements – and the introduction of Universal Credit in 2012 massively increased the sector. The Conservative government’s change of rules, that the tenant received the housing benefit and not the landlord, meant it made sense for landlords to claim their houses were ‘exempt’ so they could get the cash directly as had been the case for decades.

The last Parliamentary research into HMOs, published in 2019, revealed there were more than 497,000 HMOs in England in Wales in 2018. And that number is growing.

Spring Housing Association, the University of Birmingham, and Commonweal Housing combined to produce a 60 page report – Exempt from Responsibility? Ending Social Injustice in Exempt Accommodation – which detailed the shocking state of housing provision and detailed how thousands of people were stuck in negative housing situations across the city. 

Ashley Horsey, chief executive of Commonweal Housing, a charity formed to ‘implement housing solutions to social injustice’, described the damage exempt housing is doing to tenants and communities.

He said: “The findings of this report are stark. That over 11,000 people in Birmingham – and many thousands more across the country – are living in potentially unsafe and unsuitable ‘exempt’ accommodation should concern us all.

Residents interviewed for this report described feelings of ‘entrapment’ in financial instability; exclusion from decision-making processes; lack of control over where, and with whom, they are housed.

At the same time, the nature of too many of the business models involved in this space are causing some concern, not least inflation linked leases from property owners requiring ever rising rents.

In addition, the deficit-based tenant modelling – talking up your tenant’s weaknesses to justify your income stream – is all too common, and a tricky place to be morally. Especially where there remains little oversight.”

Ashley added: “The ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ nature of some of the governance and regulation of this sector is alarming. Of course, everyone accommodated in the exempt accommodation sector is in need of a home. But asking no questions simply because this sector is putting a roof over a head is not good enough.

In particular, the exempt accommodation sector is too often the only housing available for the marginalised, the overlooked, the undervalued and the de-valued in society. They are the women who find themselves here after fleeing domestic violence, as their only housing option.”

The next instalment of EXPLOITED will reveal the shocking stories of women who have either lived in, live in, or have been affected by HMOs, exempt, or shared housing.

To read Exempt from Responsibility? Ending Social Injustice in Exempt Accommodation, visit www.springhousing.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Spring-Housing-Final-Report-A4.pdf

To read the 2019 Parliamentary briefing paper on HMOs, visit www.commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/sn00708 

For more on Spring Housing Association, visit www.springhousing.org.uk

For more on Commonweal Housing, visit www.commonwealhousing.org.uk

If you have been affected by HMOs or any of the issues mentioned in this article, we want to hear your side of the story – email Erdington Local on exploited@erdingtonlocal.com

EXPLOITED: HMOs – the cruel rules that Humans Must Obey

Words by Adam Smith / Pics by Ed King

Erdington Local continues its investigation into the frightening world of HMOs (homes of multiple occupancy) shining a light on the cruel rules and regulations thousands of tenants are forced to live under.

Chief reporter Adam Smith talks directly to the tenants living in uncertainty and fear across Erdington and the UK, wading through the inhumane bureaucracy behind HMOs – in his next article for EXPLOITED.

It took centuries for tenants to get legal rights so ruthless landlords could not evict them on a whim.

After a string of slum landlord scandals in the 1960s and 1970s several acts of parliament safeguarded renters rights – preventing enforced evictions, rent hikes, intrusion and intimidation.

However, right now thousands of Erdington HMO tenants are living as if the 20th Century never happened, in fear of being made homeless at any time.

HMO companies force tenants to sign license agreements, which leave them at the mercy of a raft of rules – many of which are vague and subjective, but which if broken can lead to eviction.

Three HMO tenants have shown Erdington Local their license agreements – relating to properties from Three Conditions Housing Association (3CHA), Green Park Housing (GPH), and Spring Housing (SH).

All three agreements are remarkably similar in their authoritative tone and demands on the tenant; the multiplicity of rules needed to be adhered to might as well see Houses of Multiple Occupancy redefined to Humans Must Obey*.

Green Park Housing and 3CHA warn tenants they could be evicted in a ‘REASONABLE’ amount of time. Although ‘REASONABLE’ is spelled put in capital letters on the official documents, an actual unit of time is not mentioned.

In the first EXPLOITED, Erdington Local revealed how social housing giant Spring Housing could evict tenants within seven days.

However, a whistle blower from another housing association, which has homes in Kingstanding, contacted Erdington Local to say: “Our housing association could evict within three hours if they wanted, the rules  people sign up to are vague so the housing associations can use them to evict immediately – if they say the person is in danger or other tenants they can remove them in three hours. That is what reasonable means.”

A consistent feature with all the HMO licence agreements is the stress on the importance of tenants paying a weekly service charge. Despite housing benefit covering the rent, often in the region of £800 to £900 a month for one room, housing providers demand a further weekly fee – Spring Housing £12, 3CHA £15, and Green Park £13.

Which the tenant has to pay, meaning tenants on benefits have to stump up 20% of their monthly money.

Unscrupulous landlords have realised the money spinning benefits of turning their house into an HMO, so now rooms are advertised for ‘£15’ per week and can only be rented to benefit claimants. Tenants sign up for ‘supported living’ in their licence and then Birmingham City Council will pay in the region of £900 a month for a room.

All the licence agreements are explicitly clear, if the weekly service charge is not paid then the tenant will be evicted.

What’s more, HMO tenants are forced to live under rules which means their house can never feel a home. Rules include: ‘no pictures can be hung on the walls.’ They cannot drink alcohol, smoke, or even swear in their own home.

3CHA‘s licence agreement says in bold black letters: ‘You cannot have anyone stay with You at the House overnight’ which bans adults from having the comfort of sleeping with another human being.

Spring Housing‘s agreement states: ‘You will not allow any visitors on site’ – meaning tenants in their properties cannot invite friends, family members, partners, or anyone in for a cup of tea or chat.

Even prisoners are allowed visitors, a right that is seemingly not extended to you if you live in an HMO.

A female HMO tenant, who did not want to be named for safety reasons, said: “I’ve lived in several HMOs and it always feels like they are trying to isolate me. I can’t even have my friends round for a laugh; I can’t decorate my room. The only time I hear from the support worker is when they demand the service charge.

And the rules are vague and open to interpretation, if they come up with a scenario which they say I am in danger or a danger to others then I have three hours to vacate. I’m old enough to remember when tenants had rights, but HMOS are different, they are evil. HMO for me stands for Humans Must Obey.”

Shamir Hussain, who was evicted by Spring Housing during the COVID-19 lockdown, said: “I just signed what they wanted me to when I got the room, but Spring used the small print rules to evict me during the pandemic. 

They used the fact that the kitchen was messy to evict me because of some rule they said I was breaking.”

The lack of privacy is another feature of living in a HMO, staff can enter a room whenever they want. Erdington Local has obtained a recording of a ‘landlord’ and ‘support worker’ entering a house at 11.30pm – demanding residents names, despite having no identification and refusing to give their own names.

GPH‘s licence agreement explicitly says on the first page: ‘This licence does not confer exclusive possession. GPH and its staff have the absolute right to enter Your Room at any time without notice.’

And even more disorientating is the fact that tenants can return their rooms and find them altered, as Spring Housing states: ‘Spring may change Your Room from time to time without notice or Your agreement. This can be done for any reason.’

Housing charity Shelter gives advice to tenants and tells them what they should legally expect.

Shelter states: ‘Landlords must let you live in your home without unnecessary interference. Your landlord should not let themselves into your home without your permission. Your landlord should not harass you or make it difficult for you to live in your home.’

However, thanks to the introduction of the HMO into the housing market these basic rights that tenants should expect have been removed.

3CHA boasts on its website: ‘It is a 21st century social landlord for 21st century customers.’

Which, sadly, is true – in the 20th Century tenants had more rights than the 21st Century. Because of HMOs.

*Humans Must Obey is copyrighted by Napier Productions – pertaining to the name of a forthcoming documentary about HMOs.

If you have been affected by HMOs or any of the issues mentioned int his article, we want to hear your side of the story – email Erdington Local on exploited@erdingtonlocal.com

FEATURE: Promised land – a community unites to save Short Heath Playing Fields and fights to be heard

Words & pics by Ed King

All we’re asking for is the Council to be honest with people, we’re not asking for the Earth. We’re asking for them to be honest with the community and tell them what’s happening.”

Three weeks ago, Steve Hughes and Estelle Murphy had never met – despite living round the corner from each other, one on Short Heath Road and one on Court Farm Road. A familiar tale of neighbours yet strangers.

Now it Is difficult not to see them together, clearing up the green space between their houses – championing the cause that brought them and the wider community together.

Save Short Heath Playing Fields began as a campaign to do just that.

But the signs, slogans, banners, and banter that now surround this urban oasis have already achieved something else, something powerful – galvanising a community into action. Real action. The kind of action that changes things.

And what started with a simple question – namely, did you know about the proposed development on Short Heath Playing Fields? – is now a clarion call for an increasingly empowered and united neighbourhood.

Community is what this is all about,” tells Steve. “It’s a community thing, and it’s massive now. And it’s not just here – I’ve just been talking to a lady who lives over there (Streetly Road, Edgware Road, Marsh Lane) and people are talking about it over that side of the park as well.”

People are stopping us in the street and asking how it’s going, what we’re doing, where we’ve been, who we’re speaking to. Throwing ideas at us,” adds Estelle – after a long weekend with a community cleaning up the park on their own time.

We’d got kids over here litter picking, old age pensioners litter picking… it didn’t matter if you were 7, 17, 27, or 77, everybody was out – all pulling together.”

It’s spotless if you walk around it now,” continues Steve, “it’s amazing. We’ve had the Erdington Litter Busters here, and the Short Heath Wombles. Then we’ve joined in and done our bit… people are talking to each other again.”

Since Steve and Estelle joined forces, after both spending several months independently challenging the proposed development of 84 houses on Short Heath Playing Fields, hundreds more local residents have banded together – bringing a unified fight to Birmingham City Council’s plans to ‘dispose’ of the public land, previously earmarked for local schools.

Over recent weekends, and following the correct COVID-19 safety precautions, scores of residents have routinely descended upon the open green parkland – initially to hear about the campaign, and the proposed development, but then turning their hands to maintaining the ground themselves.

From litter picking to landscaping, people power has been filling the void left by over a decade of Council neglect.

We’ve done everything by the book,” explains Steve, “everyone had safely equipment, everyone had masks. We socially distanced. We’ve done everything to COVID rules. All the people down here were spread across the park – they worked in their family bubbles. We’re being responsible.”

I’m going to keep coming down to stay in the mix,” add Jamie Stanley – who saw Steve and Estelle back on the parkland earlier in the day and jumped in to help the with more litter picking.

It’s nice to be able to bring my son down, and he can look around and there’s no litter anywhere. He loves coming here. I told him about it last weekend, that they wanted to build on here, and he was upset. We was like, ‘aw, but I like playing football with you here dad.’ But it benefits all the kids, you know.”

Steve Hughes began with a petition, hosted on the popular Change.org website. At the time of writing, this has amassed 1422 signatures – with a private Facebook group attracting further support.

Estelle Murphy was one of the handful of local residents who heard about, and attended, the public consultation – which took place last year. Although what unfurled at the meeting left her so disillusioned, she began fighting for the clarity and transparency that any local community deserves.

But awareness of the proposed plans has been the sticking point for both, as the due diligence and legally required public consultation that is needed for such a drastic change to a community has been arguably clandestine. And whilst the fight may not be a new one, it is still a fight.

We’re not political in this,” tells Steve, “we’re doing it from a community perspective, but we’re being forced into a political arena.

And when you speak to the community, the residents, the people who live right by the park, the problem we all have is that the Council keep calling it ‘consultation’ and they DO NOT consult the people who live by the park – or use the park.”

The meeting was shocking,” adds Estelle, “they shut (Erdington Councillor) Robert Alden down at every option and just said ‘no, planning will sort that out.’ No… you sort planning out, not the other way around. And when it went to a scrutiny committee, who said no, it’s not up to the Council to tell scrutiny to basically shut up – which is pretty much what they did. It’s shocking, absolutely shocking.”

Whenever Erdington Local goes to meet Steve and Estelle, as they continue tidying up the field the Council states has been ‘unused for 10 years’, a constant stream of dog walkers snake round into the playing fields – taking four legged friends for a healthy ramble across the open green space.

Children come and play in the areas where the grass has been cut back, chasing footballs not dragons – on what has been referred to as ‘a drug den’ for heroin users. (It is worth noting that on a recent litter picking sweep, not a single needle or spoon were found – despite trained healthcare staff rifling through the undergrowth with metal gloves and a spike box.)

Countless local residents also come out and ask about the campaign, commenting on the signs or the work then have seen volunteers undertake – all are curious and supportive, not just of the campaign but of the sense of community it has ignited.

On Erdington Local’s last visit to the site, a man from the neighbouring HMO came out to thank the campaigners and volunteers for their work – asking Steve and Estelle to sign small wooden hearts so he could put them into his new-born babies birth book. You rarely see something that beautiful between strangers.

The notion that this Short Heath Playing Fields are ‘unused’, as declared on official Council documentation, is laughable.

But the backbone of the issue is ultimately political, regardless of how bipartisan the approach of the Save Short Heath Playing Fields campaigners has been.

Erdington Councillor Robert Alden, who has been on site meeting residents and helping with the litter picking, alongside Councillor Gareth Moore, told Erdintgon Local: “Short Heath Playing Fields are vital to the local area.They are a green lung in the middle of our community and it is disgraceful that the Labour Council wishes to rip out that green lung that helps clean our air, helps provide residents with an area to go to help exercise and improve their physical and mental health and wellbeing. 

In the post Covid-19 world even the Council admits that it is vital to provide green space yet despite us making it clear to them at numerous Council meetings and in petitions presented to Council that Erdington and Perry Common have a shortage the Council refuse to scrap their crazy plans to build on this valuable green space.

It has been great to see residents come together to fight the Labour administrations plans to build on the fields and I have of course been happy to work and support them and will continue to do so in our fight to save Short Heath Playing Fields.”

And moving down the field with this political football, Erdington MP Jack Dromey told Erdington Local: “I have been in dialogue for some time with local residents who have expressed profound concerns about the proposed housing development on Short Heath Playing Fields. I have made it clear to Birmingham City Council that local voices must first be heard.

It is essential that the views of local people are always considered before any development takes place.

It is clear the Council have not done a good enough job of consulting with concerned residents, and local people understandably feel that they have been ignored and the sense of anger is palpable. 

I want residents to know their concerns are being listened to and taken seriously. I will be meeting once again with key campaigners and local residents this Saturday (5th September) to hear their views on the proposals for the playing fields. 

Going forward, I will continue to argue that it would be wrong to go ahead with these proposals without proper consultation that involves local voices at every stage.” 

But for Steve Hughes, Estelle Murphy, and the many hundreds of local residents that have now put their hands clearly in the air to be counted – this is still firmly about community. The strength in their increasing number is only the beginning too. Doors that were once shut are creaking open and conversations that may be nearly a year overdue are finally starting to happen.

There is hope in Short Heath.

There is conversation, houses that were alien to each other are now borrowing cups of sugar and exchanging titbits about boundaries and planning regulations. There is a sense of community and connection, one that many of the people who live in this pocket of Erdington haven’t felt in decades.

The whole thing is crazy,” admits Steve – as he and Estelle pack up after a long day cutting back the thorn bushes and overgrown grass at the top end of the playing fields. “All they (Birmingham City Council) do is try and undermine the community and not actually give us the chance to have a say in it. And you know what, that’s all the people really want. What we don’t want is for them not to listen – and that’s the problem.

Why is it that a politician will promise you the Earth when they’re after you’re vote – but when we’re asking them for something, they don’t want to know unless it suits their agenda. Why should that be the case?

Why are they not even prepared to do the right thing and talk to the community – to give the community the chance to have their say and say what they would like to happen. But also, to listen and act and what people say.

Why can Birmingham City Council just run roughshod over people?”

It’s difficult to know.

But what’s certain, is that the residents around Short Heath Playing Fields are not going to be silenced without an answer – and with an ignited sense of community and pride, they’ll want to hear it together.

To sign the petition to Save Short Heath Playing Fields, visit: www.change.org/p/birmingham-city-council-birmingham-education-department-bob-beauchamp-jack-dormey-save-short-heath-playing-fields

To further support the Save Short Heath Playing Fields campaign, you can donate through the official GoFundMe fundraising platform: www.gofundme.com/f/save-short-heath-playing-fields

EXPLOITED: HMOs – when greed meets vulnerability, carving up communities for a profit

Words by Adam Smith / Pics by Ed King

Erdington Local launches a series of articles investigating the devastation caused by the mushrooming number of HMOs (homes of multiple occupancy) in Erdington and Kingstanding.

Chief reporter Adam Smith spent the last year living in HMOs and has seen first-hand how housing associations and rogue landlords are ripping off taxpayers – whilst exploiting the most vulnerable people in society.

Do you pay tax?

If so, then your hard-earned money is lining the pockets of ruthless housing associations and rogue landlords – whose greed is wrecking the lives of Erdington residents, tenants, and the most vulnerable people in society.

Nationally the taxpayer shells out billions of pounds for eye-wateringly inflated rents for benefits claimants’ rooms in HMOs – which get planning permission, despite Erdington residents and politicians bitterly complaining they are destroying the very fabric of the local community.

Hundreds of Erdington houses, including historic and beautiful Victorian properties, have been turned into HMOs – creating a living hell for both tenants and local residents who watch helplessly as the area they love becomes blighted.

Stockland Green is one of the worst examples in the country for the negative effect of HMOs and supported accommodation.

Those classed as ‘vulnerable’ and living in HMOs and/or supported accommodation are locked in a vicious circle; landlords charge the taxpayer £900 a month for a single room, leaving the tenant no motivation to get a job as the rent will be too high on a low wage. This investigation will explore examples of housing association staff actively discouraging tenants to work.

Tenants in ‘supported accommodation’ should get an hour of professional support a week, which qualifies their extortionate rent from benefits – but instead of proper psychiatric help, staff often only see tenants to demand a weekly ‘maintenance charge’, usually between £12 and £20, out of their benefits.

Instead of tenancy agreements which offer some protection to renters, those living in HMOs are forced to sign ‘licenses’ containing pages of draconian rules and potential infringements – which if broken can see the tenants made homeless with just a week’s notice.

Staff can enter rooms when they like and there have even been examples of male staff bursting unannounced into women’s rooms after 11pm.

HMOs radically changed the rental market in Erdington, with landlords now preferring benefits claimants and even advertising rooms for the price of the maintenance charge. Meanwhile, working people are trying to find somewhere to live from a dwindling amount of properties – which are increasing in price due to their scarcity.

This scandal crosses political lines too.

Legislation from the Conservative government has allowed ruthless companies, landlords, and housing associations to exploit the benefit system – whilst Birmingham’s Labour administration has allowed thousands of HMOs to be created in the city, without the ability to scrutinise the conduct of those organisations running them.

This investigation will unveil the close links between Birmingham City Council  and to the companies profiting from the system.

During the Government’s ban on evictions during the coronavirus crisis, housing associations in Birmingham have been quietly evicting people during the deadly pandemic.

Recently, Edgbaston MP Preet Gill called on the Government to extend the evictions ban. However, Gill is on the board of Spring Housing Association, which works extremely closely with Birmingham City Council – but which also evicted vulnerable tenants during COVID-19 lockdown.

One evicted Spring Housing tenant, Shamir Hussain, told Erdington Local: “I was evicted during lockdown by Spring Housing, just when I thought I was as low as I could they made it worse. They made me homeless during a pandemic where people were dying all around us, I will never forget that.

They (Spring Housing) were getting £900 a month for me to live in a room; I could have paid a mortgage on a nice house for that obscene amount of money for one room. And when I did put a claim in for a much cheaper rent amount, for a whole flat, I was refused. It seemed like they were happy to pay £900 to Spring Housing but not a fraction of that to sort my life out.”

The area’s two most powerful politicians, Labour’s Erdington MP Jack Dromey and Erdington Councillor and leader of Birmingham’s Conservatives Robert Alden, both recognise the damage being done to the area by the scourge of bad landlords.

Dromey said: “I know how angry residents are about this issue, I went to a meeting on Frances Road two years ago expecting six people to be there and 70 residents turned up. And the problem has worsened in that time not got better.

Stockland Green is where the problem is at its most acute, where the most prosecutions of landlords in Birmingham have been due to work with the police, and with the disproportionate dumping of vulnerable tenants into the area by landlords who do not give a damn about them and not give them any help.

Some of these landlords let their tenants live in squalor in Erdington whilst they live in the lap of luxury in Sutton Coldfield. However, there are some very good landlords out there, which is all the more the shame when the bad ones undercut them to cram an extra person in.”

In the 1980’s Dromey helped residents in London fight a bitter dispute with slum landlords and even created a ‘Hit Parade of Bad Landlords’ with help from Radio 1 DJ Alan Freeman – who would regularly do a run down on television of the worst offenders.

The MP said: “We have use imaginative ways to fight these type of people but in Erdington we also need proper joined up action with the police, council, probation and mental health services working together to solve the problems created in the last five years in the housing sector which coincides with the Tories being in power.”

Councillor Robert Alden laments the changing face of the area’s housing stock, which used to be the envy of the rest of the city in years gone by.

He said: “Erdington has been blighted by HMO’s run by bad landlords.

Erdington’s large stock of larger Victorian family homes have sadly often been taken over and turned into swathes of HMO’s – in many places seeing whole rows of housing turned from the purpose they were built for, to provide housing for families, into a collection of substandard and often below even minimum standard room size bedsits.”

He added: “Often quiet residential streets have suddenly found themselves besieged by bedsits acting under exempt housing placing drug addicts, alcoholics, and ex-offenders into our local community.

Sadly, those rogue landlords have used loopholes in the system to convert houses far and beyond the scope they were designed for, often seeing three bedroom homes turned into six or seven room bedsits.

Sometimes they also claim for alleged support provided to people while failing to provide anything like that – in the process taking huge amounts of tax payers money for services barely provided, failing their tenants, while also leaving communities like Erdington to suffer from the fallout.”

As well as the co-operation of all relevant agencies in Erdington, there also needs to be strong political leadership to stop the situation getting worse – but to also undo the systemic problems caused by five years of loopholes being exploited by those who had the most money to gain from flooding Erdington with high profit dangerous housing.

Throughout this series of stories, a light will be shone on some very murky corners and shocking practices – and this investigation will follow the money.

This investigation will explore how neighbouring HMOs crammed full of men have created ‘no-go roads’ for women and teenagers fed up of cat calling, sexual harassment, and threatening acts of misogyny.

There will also be stories from the female perspective, from suddenly having men moved into your safe space, as well as the unique HMO experiences of trans refugees.

This investigation will challenge those responsible on their behaviour – reporting them to the appropriate authorities if any laws were broken. Expect explosive revelations and, as readers, you have the right to demand resignations.

If you have been affected by HMOs or any of the issues mentioned in this article, we want to hear your side of the story – email Erdington Local on exploited@erdingtonlocal.com

FEATURE: Castle Pool – first to open, last to close. The national success story of Castle Vale’s local swimming centre

Words & pics by Ed King

From 6am on Monday 27th July, Castle Pool will be back in business – making it the first of Birmingham’s swimming centres to reopen since the coronavirus crisis and national lockdown. But the four lane, 25m long pool has a bigger story to tell – a fantasy to an increasing number of local sports facilities across the country. Staying open.

Inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II in November 1981, Castle Pool has been a health and leisure haven for people across the Castle Vale estate for nearly 40 years – used regularly by residents, schools, and swimming clubs.

Now adorned with social distancing signage, public sanitation points, and staff specially trained to manage the pool in accordance with guidelines from Public Heath England, the Farnborough Road facility is hoping for a quick and safe return to the “50,000 swims a year” they hosted before lockdown.

But life in the lanes at Castle Pool has not always been as confident or as certain. Back in 2012, Birmingham City Council had earmarked the pool for permanent closure – following a citywide evaluation of council run services that would see a swarm of facilities shut down for good.

However, the people of Castle Vale fought fearlessly to save Castle Pool – in a campaign started by local resident Amanda Cutler, that became the Castle Vale Pool Users Group.

My son swam here for years, he swam here since he was four years of age,” tells Amanda, who now works at Castle Pool as the Pool Support Officer.

He was doing lessons at the time, then all of a sudden someone said the pool may be closing. So, I started a petition – I went all round Castle Vale and got over 20,000 signatures. I didn’t know where to go with it but the Labour councillor at the time, Lynda Clinton, helped from there on.

There were a lot of pools closing down and this is the only facility on the Castle Vale estate for children. We were teaching children how to swim, for free. And we didn’t want that to stop.

My son has now become a swimming teacher and a lifeguard here. So, it’s created jobs too. But swimming is a life skill; everybody needs to know how to swim.”

Enlisting the further support of the Castle Vale based support agency Spitfire Services, the Castle Pool Community Partnership charity was formed in 2014 – allowing campaigners to get the checks, balances, and bank account in place for Birmingham City Council to agree an asset transfer. On 16th January that year, the responsibility of running Castle Pool was put directly into the hands of people who live and work on the Castle Vale estate.

When previously run by Birmingham City Council, Castle Pool was operating at a phenomenal loss of £250,000. But following the asset transfer in January 2014, Castle Pool has turned a profit every year since – managed by a team of local residents and community workers.

If you were to ask me, why did they (Birmingham City Council) sustain a £250,000 loss and you didn’t,” explains Judy Tullett – Community Services Coordinator at Castle Pool – part of the
Spitfire Services charity family of services.

“The reason is… the model is, making use of the pool from 6am to 10pm seven days a week. Or as much of it as you can. Having a mixture of (paid) staff and volunteers, and actually using your staff in the best way you can.

Most of the time, it wipes its face,” continues Judy, “it makes a small surplus. Partly because it’s a charity and we can attract funding. So, that helps. But it’s more about the way you manage and deliver your swimming service.

if you take a typical day, because that’s the best way to look at it, early morning you’ve got club swimmers who swim at 6am – the swimming clubs are all accredited and they look after themselves. There’s an agreement in place but there’s sufficient trust for them to open up, look after themselves, lifeguard it themselves, leave it as they find it.

Then the staff will come in at 8am and prepare the building for the schools – in our case we have local schools start at 8:30am. We also have between 20-30 lane swimmers several lunch times a week, then by 3:30pn the schools have finished. This gives us a chance to clean up.

Then at 4pm we start the swimming lessons – there’s a baby learn to swim group, we’ve just water aerobics – and at 6pm the clubs come back in. Every evening, except for Saturdays, the pool is then occupied by clubs. We shut at 9pm or 10pm.”

With ergonomics and community at its heart, Castle Pool began to flourish – encouraging constant use from not only the residents of Castle Vale, but from clubs and schools across the city. And with regular swimming instructors and lifeguards, as well as offering exclusive use to schools and swimming clubs, the safeguarding of young and vulnerable users at Castle Pool was much firmer.

We now have 26 schools using Castle Pool,” explains Judy. “Many of them drive past other swimming pools to come to us. Firstly, because we’re affordable. Secondly, because we’ve had the same lifeguards and swimming instructors since we opened – and they’re all local people.

Thirdly, they have the pool to themselves – so they’re not sharing the pool with the general public. They have the changing room to themselves, so in terms of safeguarding it’s amazing. They know that when they walk though those doors they’re the only ones there apart from staff and volunteers.”

Castle Pool is reversal of fortune that could make parts of Birmingham City Council blush – not to mention other administrations across the UK that are selling land, bricks, and mortar to in an effort to raise funds. And whether you blame apathy or strategy, when the questions of heritage and health get raised the public conversation can be increasingly drowned out.

But the success of Castle Pool is also a welcomed inspiration – with the team from Spitfire Services travelling across the city to assist the asset transfer of Moseley Road Swimming Baths in Balsall Heath, that had been under serious treat of closure for over a decade.

I worked with them (Moseley Road Swimming Baths) for about 15 months in the end,” explains Judy. “They invited me over because I have a passion for swimming and water – and because I’d previously done an asset transfer so I understood the language and I knew the people from the council who would be passing the asset over.

They had a group called Friends of Moseley Road Baths and had campaigned tirelessly for about 10 years. But they (Birmingham City Council) brought me over and employed me as Development Manger to help with the asset transfer.

What we negotiated was a licence, initially, that would allow Moseley Road Baths trustees to build up more expertise and get to know the building more. So, that never shut either.”

Back on the Castle Vale estate, the staff at Castle Pool are busy getting ready for the early morning reopening – running through their standard checks, alongside the new COVID-19 criteria that are now essential.

And whilst there is still a lot to do, people are buzzing with enthusiasm – excited to reopen the swimming centre they fought so had to save six years ago. The mix of dedication and love is as palpable as the hot air rising off the water.

Everybody works hard here, everyone does more than what they are supposed to,” adds Debs Henry, or ‘the amazing Deb’ as she is known by her colleagues – as she cleans, opens, and closes the entire site on her own.

It’s because we love it. It’s not like a job really, it’s something you look forward to. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. I just keep everywhere clean and make sure everything is secure – but they’re all hard workers here.”

Although Castle Pool still has a few dark clouds looming on its horizon, requiring some much needed maintenance to the existing plant room – which encompasses the pool’s boiler and filter systems. Even with a firm pair of hands on the budget the work will take another £100,000, and that’s a lot of swimmers buying a lot of snacks from the vending machine.

But the locally run swimming centre, which has already fought its way back from the brink to become a national success story of community endeavour, is not backing down – with a fundraising strategy and programme of supportive events already in place.

If you were to ask me what is our No1 challenge is going forward,” tells Judy, “it’s not about recruiting volunteers or staff – it’s not about the use of the pool. It’s about making sure that our plant is fit for purpose.

“Our next big campaign, and we were part way through it before COVID-19, is developing a robust financial model to replace our boilers and filters

We’d got a plan in place; we’d had a boiler company come up and give us a very fair assessment of what we needed and what we needed to do… but it feels a bit like the Olympics, we’ve got to put that plan in place next year now – not this year.

And we want to do it all without closing, that’s important…. the actual fabric of the pool is good, but our main priority now is the plant room.”

Castle Pool is situated on Farnborough Road, Castle, Vale, Birmingham – and will be open from 6am on Monday 27th July. To find out more about Castle Pool, visit www.facebook.com/CastlePoolCommunityPartnership

To learn more about Spitfire Services, visit www.spitfireservices.org.uk

FEATURE: James Brindley Academy’s Dovedale Centre – school life during lockdown

Words & pics by Ed King

There have been a lot of words used to describe the coronavirus crisis. But when it comes to education, one stands out. Uncertainty.

Out of all the public sectors, withstanding healthcare professionals fighting on the pandemic’s frontline, education has been one of the most affected by lockdown restrictions – with staff and students alike having to embrace dramatic changes.

But whilst ‘uncertainty’ is ever present across all year groups, thanks to COVID-19, those in transition are amongst both the most talked about – with Year 11 students preparing for further education under the biggest question mark of their young lives.

The thought of going to college is still ‘a big one’, for me personally,” explains Archie Walters – who has left his leavers BBQ to sit and talk to Erdington Local in a now physically distanced classroom. “But at the same time it isn’t massive, because I’ve got an older brother who is eighteen and in his second year of college – and seeing him do it has made me realise that I can do it as well.” 

I’ve had quite regular communication and emails from, and to, teachers,” tells Callum Kimberley – who is also leaving Dovedale this year to go into further education, “checking up on me and seeing if I’m alright.

Regarding how they prepare me for collage, one teacher did all that before lockdown… Miss Connor. She helped me a lot. When we went to Sutton (Collage) and we went into one of the classrooms for a lesson, she was more worried about that than me. She was like, ‘ah, you’ve really made me proud…”

Part of the James Brindley Academy, the Dovedale Centre is ‘a 81 placement provision for pupils with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC)’ – teaching Key Stages 2, 3 and 4, preparing the older children for the next stage in their educational journey.

With a cohort that require a more tailored approach to teaching than those in mainstream schools, Dovedale’s students could be suffering the most during lockdown. But for Archie and Callum, at least, the experience has been surprisingly straightforward.

One of the reasons for that, is because in this school…” begins Archie, “it makes you feel like you’re important because they (teaching staff) will take their time, to give you emotional support wherever you need. And that’s partly, in my opinion, what makes the relationships between pupils and teachers here as good as they are. Because they’re willing to make the time.”

Quick to mirror the feelings, Callum continues: “Yeah, we have very good relationships… we have different ‘go to’ teachers. It’s basically ones with similar interests and there’s just loads to talk about – to be honest, quite a lot of pupils and teachers get along really well here…” 

As robust as any 15-16 year old you might want to meet, Archie and Callum head back out into the schoolyard – soaking up the last few hours with the people who have been so important to them over the past few years. But the students are only one side of a school, and life under lockdown has also been a shift for the staff at Dovedale.

At the start is was quite challenging,” tells Mr Ellery, a Teaching Assistant and Pastoral Worker with the Year 11 cohort, “it was difficult imagining being away from them in such an important year… and ending it almost halfway though. 

Usually they come to us for the answers – you’ve been through this before sir, how did you cope with it? But no one’s been through this (COVID-19) in their lifetimes and we can’t predict how long this is going to go on.” Concerns that are peppering society, but more acutely when it comes to education.

But like the world of work now entrenched in Zoom meetings, digital technology has helped Dovedale function during lockdown – using interactive online platforms, staff have been able to maintain a semblance of the status quo with their students.

We were able to get a group of kids together in a weekly Skype call,” continues Mr Ellery, “getting them talking to each other – encouraging them that, in a time like this, the best support comes from your friends and family, as well as your teachers.”

But Year 11 has its own challenges, not least of which is the transition from secondary to further education – a difficult time for any student, let alone a young person living with autism.

A lot of what we would have done in physical face to face meetings, has just taken place over the phone or virtually – via Microsoft Teams,” explains Ms Lowe, a Special Educational Needs Coordinator and English Teacher who works with Year 11 at Dovedale.

A lot of colleges have been great in providing virtual support as well,” continues Ms Lowe. “We’ve got one young person whose college has given them six weeks – half a day every week, for the last six weeks – where they’ve had a virtual tour of the college. They’ve met their tutors already; they’ve already been introduced to the people in their class. So, that’s really great.”

But necessity is often the other of invention, and the digital platforms that began as an interim measure are now being looked at as an unexpected silver lining – especially when dealing with students who can find social situations more of a challenge.

In my role as SENCO, it’s given me food for thought for some of our young people who’ve got real anxiety about coming to school in the first place,” adds Ms Lowe. “We’ve now got the tools and the knowledge and the skills to be able to still give them the education they’ve got the right to.”

A lot of them present themselves quite confidently, but they’ve got these deep rooted anxieties,” explains Mr Ellery. “But today, when I asked about their thought process about college, each one of them have said ‘I’m actually looking forward to it. I’m anxious about it starting, but I’m looking forward to it.”

This experience,” continues Miss Lowe, “it’s forced them to transfer the skills they’ve learned in school into their own personal life. Coming back after the lockdown, they are so much more mature. Their resilience has been overwhelming. They’ve been amazing.”

The strength of the relationships between students and teaching staff at Dovedale is palpable, mirrored in the words and actions of both. It’s the first thing everyone mentions when asked about school life.

But at the top of the hill you get the broadest view, and Dovedale is a community of students, staff, but also the parents and carers of the children that attend.

We started looking at what do parents want? What’s the need?” explains Charmaine Parry, Centre Leader at Dovedale.

Surveys were then put out to all our parents,” continues Ms Parry, “to find out what do they want? And not only do they want us to be open, but with what sort of provisions. What can we do to support them as parents? And to get our young people transitioning slowly back into the school system.

So, we went through that process, gathered the data, and then as a team – with the attendance officer, Pastoral managers, SENCO – we spoke to every parent. We said, look, tell me what you want. We’ve done the survey. We’ve got an idea. But now as an individual, you tell me, what do you need?”

One of the widespread concerns, in the media at least, has been physical distancing – clouded by doubt over whether young people would stick to the guidelines in school. At Dovedale, however, this hasn’t seemed to be a problem.

To start off with, we looked at the size of the classrooms – so we could work out how many pupils we could have realistically in school,” tells Ms Parry. “Then we did all the markings. The one way flow system, that was all put in place as well – having to come in through reception, go down the corridor, up the back end ,up the stairs, to come down the front, we put all that in place.

Surrounded by black and yellow can create a sense of safety, but also of urgency – how did the children at Dovedale respond? “There’s been a huge change,” admits Ms Parry, “but the minute they came in, they saw that they could understand it. It was very clear. The signs are really clear.”

But how about the parents and carers? “I think the parents are probably being a little bit more anxious,” continues Ms Parry. “But I’ve had emails from parents saying that they are now happy to send their child to school after hearing from other parents – telling how well it’s planned, the structure that’s in place for them, the one way system, and the social distancing. And that means a lot. 

We’re doing our best to make sure that staff and children are kept safe in school. And everyone’s adhering to that. Everyone understands the guidelines.”

So, despite understandable concerns, it seems life under lockdown at Dovedale has not made a drama out of a crisis.

And whilst many questions remain, there is another word that would be appropriately applied to Dovedale. One that may not have been spoken in March, but as September approaches is growing in both suitability and strength.

Confidence.

To find out more about James Brindley’s Dovedale Centre, visit www.jamesbrindley.org.uk/dovedale