Fighting for Cardboard City

Winner of the Dawn Foster Memorial Essay Prize: From a 1950s estate on the outskirts of Leeds, Jessica Field charts a community under threat and the stresses of activism on the frontlines of the housing crisis

July 2, 2022 · 10 min read
Airey Houses on the estate, now scheduled for demolition

Back in November 2021, I sat in the audience of a political panel put on during a local book festival. Hosted by David Gauke, it featured my local Conservative MP, Gagan Mohindra, Labour’s Jess Phillips, and a local news journalist. In the spirit of all political discussions of late, I was looking forward to feeling a mix of outrage, indignation, and perhaps even a bit of inspiration, as discussions ranged from Boris Johnson’s leadership capabilities (or lack thereof), to raw sewage dumped in our local rivers.

What I didn’t expect to feel was dismay at a rallying cry for political participation and activism. It was Jess Phillips who made the call, emphasising how hamstrung she and MPs of all political stripes are if constituents don’t come to them with problems, don’t mobilise themselves for change, don’t raise their voices to highlight an issue and demand action. Gagan Mohindra nodded firmly in agreement.

It was a fair point, and not so long ago I would have been beating that same drum. Not all activisms are born equal, though, and for those forced into it through their own deprivation, the stakes and personal costs are extremely high.

Over the last four years, I’ve seen up close the burden and exhaustion of housing activism experienced by loved ones who have been forced into it by the prospect of losing their rented home. I’ve seen how politically ineffectual housing activism can be in the face of entrenched interests and I begrudge the call for ‘more’ or ‘louder’ campaigning from people like my parents, who are clinging on to their homes by their fingernails.

The housing system is broken and current channels for housing activism are not only incapable of fixing it, they are dragging people down along the way. What follows is the story of my parents’ and their neighbours’ battles to save their tenanted housing estate, and the emotional turmoil that has accompanied the fight.

Demolishing a community


In winter 2017, my parents and 69 other tenant families in Leeds received an impersonal pamphlet shoved through their letterbox. It stated that their investment company landlord, Pemberstone, was seeking planning permission to demolish their entire estate and rebuild executive houses for sale. After decades of maintenance neglect, the current houses are in desperate need of refurbishment. Instead, Pemberstone prefers to demolish and rebuild – a decision undoubtedly incentivised by the booming sales market in the north of England and the 20 per cent VAT exemption enjoyed by newbuilds and not refurbishments.

My parents’ two-street neighbourhood is the last surviving part of a large ex-Coal Board estate in Oulton, on the outskirts of Leeds. Fondly known by past residents as ‘Cardboard City’ – because of its draughty pre-fabricated Airey homes – the estate was built in the 1950s to address a housing shortage for miners and their families.

In a sleight of hand under Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy scheme in the 1980s, it passed from the National Coal Board to a private investment company and turned into a private rental estate. While half of Cardboard City was demolished, redeveloped, and sold a few decades ago, 70 Airey homes survived. The Twentieth Century Society have called the estate ‘rare’ in size and a ‘widely valued’ example of post-war architectural heritage.

Many miners and their families stayed the course and, over the decades, have been joined by other renters who have moved in from nearby areas. My family moved in over 15 years ago after several years of housing instability. The estate is a much-loved home to families, couples, and retirees, the majority of whom are low income or reliant on modest pensions or social security. Cardboard City is, or was, the last bastion of affordable rental properties in the LS26 postcode. And it’s a close-knit community; a neighbourhood of friends and families who support each other.

Mobilising to fight

After receiving the pamphlet, my parents and their neighbours mobilised to fight Pemberstone’s application. They formed the SaveOurHomesLS26 Residents Action Group and rallied support from the National Union of Mineworkers, heritage organisations, campaign groups, and ordinary people. My mum, Hazell, who had never used Twitter before, became the campaign group’s social media mogul, supporting the Chair of SaveOurHomesLS26 (and long-time neighbour and friend) Cindy Readman in all elements of the campaign.

Together with their families and neighbours, Cindy and mum have petitioned Leeds City Council, protested in the streets, advocated fiercely via online social platforms, raised funds, and harnessed the support of a range of different political, social, and heritage organisations. They have told their story in national newspapers, on ITV News and on BBC Newsnight. In 2020, they even had an award-winning short documentary film made about them called ‘Hanging On’.

This community of tenanted housing campaigners are not activists by choice but by necessity

Reminiscent of the Focus E15 Campaign in London, SaveOurHomesLS26 became a focal point for local and national discussion around the plight of renters in the national housing crisis, as well as Cardboard City’s looming demolition. Mum’s Twitter following has grown to thousands, and Cindy spends most evenings on the phone or email to journalists and supporters.

The original planning application was heard by Leeds City Council in 2019 and, in a moment of triumph, the Council rejected Pemberstone’s plans, stating concerns about the breakup of the community and the dearth of alternative social housing in Leeds, among other things. In many ways SaveOurHomesLS26 is an activism ‘success’ story; residents shouted, and they were heard.

For a time, at least.

Airey house under construction in the 1950s; a ‘Save Our Homes LS26’ march in Leeds city centre

A landlord’s right

Pemberstone appealed the verdict and, in January 2021, a government inspector overturned Leeds City Council’s decision. While acknowledging the social harm this redevelopment would do to my parents’ community, the government inspector ultimately affirmed a landlord’s right to redevelop “their” housing stock. My parents and their neighbours have since been served eviction notices.

Neighbours in what’s left of Cardboard City are continuing to raise their voices in the media, continuing to demand action from their MP and the Council to prevent homelessness, and continuing to call out the madness of a system that can throw families and pensioners out of their homes-of-decades with just two-months’ notice.

But the fight is now a depleted one, as urgent needs have diminished collective campaigning capacity. Exhaustion and cynicism have become the watchwords of the day.

Some neighbours have managed to find rentals elsewhere, downsizing and dispersing further away. But many have been forced to overstay their eviction notices, as they are repeatedly unsuccessful in ‘bids’ for scant and oversubscribed social housing. Private rental availability in the area is also extremely limited and prohibitively expensive, as landlords cash in on the Yorkshire rental market boom.

Despite having nowhere to go, Pemberstone has now issued repossession orders against overstaying residents, triggering punitive fees and action through the courts. Each day, a new battle – to stay put, and to stay sane.

The price of the fight

Fighting to save your home doesn’t just entail legal and financial costs. My parents and their neighbours have endured huge physical and emotional stresses over the four years, too. In any social justice campaign, there is always ‘more’ to be done: emailing, calling, interviews, Tweets, fundraising. For SaveOurHomesLS26, all of this has been learnt on the hoof while juggling low-income jobs and family care responsibilities. Mum and dad work for the NHS, Cindy in a local school. Some of mum’s closest friends on the estate are retired single women and couples. It has been a job on top of a job for four long years – against the backdrop of a global pandemic.

Each battle in this bigger fight has been loaded with feelings of anxiety, excitement, guilt, and frustration. On repeat. Political support has been inconsistent and, at times, disorientating, as the issue became a flashpoint for local Labour/Lib Dem political grievances, while Conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke has been conspicuously silent at key moments. On several occasions, Mum and Cindy have been dragged into political spats and experienced online trolling.

People are tired. Some are sick. Others have got sicker since the start of this campaign. The mental health of my family and their neighbours has suffered immensely. Some of Cardboard City’s oldest and longest residents have sadly not made it through.

This community of tenanted housing campaigners are not activists by choice, but by necessity – a reality mirrored up and down the country. And yet they have no chance of ‘winning’, no chance of staying in their homes. Class and business interests are programmed into the management of housing in Britain. The ‘value’ of houses is determined by market prices rather than by the uses and attachments of people who live in them. Housing activism in these conditions can only be drudgery.

SaveOurHomesLS26 has been a ‘success’ of sorts, as the campaign has retained media and Council attention for four years. Yet, residents are still on the cliff edge of homelessness. My parents are exhausted from the fight to stay in their beloved rented home. So are their neighbours. Calls for ‘more’ or ‘louder’ activism neglects consideration of who is often forced into campaigning, and the deep toll it can take on their lives on top of the crisis at hand – especially when the chances of winning are so slim.

Jessica Field blogs at saveourhomesls26.org


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