Household Waste: The Squalor blighting Netherthorpe Tower Blocks
Peter MacLoughlin, a tower block resident from Sheffield writes about his experiences challenging the council over waste disposal and refuse chutes.
Household Waste The squalor blighting Netherthorpe Tower Blocks
‘Bulk rubbish and furniture is often left on landings and in public spaces and is not removed for some time. Perhaps skips could be provided? The area looks shabby. In some areas there is a problem with people setting light to the rubbish that is left around. There are not enough caretakers to keep on top of the problems. The refuge collectors often leave a mess. Some felt that the bins should be emptied and cleaned more regularly. The estate streets are really swept. Some tenants throw rubbish from the windows they should be identified and acted against. The Council should supply clear information to residents (in appropriate languages) stating how to use chutes and how to get rid of bulk rubbish‘.
These were the opinions of residence of Netherthorpe tower blocks within: interim Report on consultation exercise for NWICAP carried out by Priority Estates Project PEP North July 1994.
Netherthorpe Tenants and Residents Association (TARA) representatives sitting on Hillside Area 5 housing committee. “Requested that the housing department provide a system for the removal of bulky rubbish/furniture from within and around the tower blocks”. (ref: Sheffield Housing Department Report 25th August 1994: Discussion group for Tenants Association representatives Tenant‘s Association on Area Housing Committee’s.)
“The most alarming thing of all that I have increasingly met is the perception, by local people of Netherthorpe of how remote, inaccessible and secretive has the Council become.
We have, in effect, told our residents that they will be obliged to live in squalor; that their pathways and open spaces will remain filthy and strewn with months of discarded garbage.” (ref: Viv Lockwood executive member of Netherthorpe Labour Party Branch (NLPB) in a confidential letter to all NLPB ward executive members in 1995.
Neighborhood and Community Standard
Registered providers should keep the neighborhood and communal areas associated with the homes that they own clean and safe. They shall work in partnership with the tenants and other providers and public bodies where it is affective to do so.
Specific Expectations on Neighborhood Management
Registered providers shall consult with tenants in developing a public policy for maintaining and improving the neighborhoods associated with their homes. This applies where the registered provider has a responsibility (either exclusively or in part) for the condition of that neighborhood. This policy shall include any communal areas associated with the registered provider’s homes.
Registered providers shall work in partnership with other agencies to prevent and tackle anti-social behavior in the neighborhood where they own homes. (Published by: HM Government Homes England and Regulator of Social Housing.)
Residents need to maintain building and fire safety protection measures in their flats. Residents will need to cooperate with the landlord.
Ref: Building a Safer Future Independent Review of Building regulations and Fire Safety: Final Report May 2018. Chapter 4 Resident voice. Part 3 — Residence ‘responsibilities’ 4.32.
Residents voice and raising concerns
“Residents need to be reassured that an affective system is in place to maintain safety in their homes.
There must be a clear, quick and effective route for residents’ concerns to be addressed”.
(From: Building a Safer Future Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety: Interim Report December 2017.)
My Estates Walkabouts and Observations
Over the last few weekends of late March and early April 2020 I have been doing walkabout observations of the eleven Hillside tower blocks of Netherthorpe and Upperthorpe estates and have taken documentary photographs of the problems of household waste and litter strewn around the tower blocks.
Observations of the four Netherthorpe tower blocks:
• Regular daily dumping of household waste outside of the tower blocks, particularly at Crawshaw block on Mitchell Street, This is in spite of the council recently providing a communal skip for residents to use. Notices requesting residents not to dump their household waste outside the block were deliberately taken down almost immediately, presumably by someone who can’t be bothered to use the skip provided.
• The local environment around Crawshaw block is frequently littered with household waste which gets blown around by the wind. Environmental services do a great job of cleaning up around the estate but there is a particular problem over the weekends and holiday periods. The area where all this household waste is stacked up near the front entrance of Crawshaw block smells of rotten kitchen waste that could do with some strong disinfectant both for the smell and potential health hazards associated with such waste.
• Household waste dumped outside Robertshaw block - again this is mainly a problem from Friday to Monday mornings but nowhere near as bad as Crawshaw block.
• Leasehold landlords have converted some flats into student accommodation and the new layout of these flats prevents residents from accessing the refuse chutes. Consequently they have no options other than to take their rubbish outside.
• Both the road and grass environment is littered with household waste, which has to be cleaned up by environmental services. Since the outbreak of Coronavirus, small plastic bags containing disposable nappies are appearing around the block which suggests they are being thrown out of the windows by residents. Disposable latex gloves and face masks are also being dropped on the grass.
Observations of the seven Oxford and Martin Street tower blocks:
• Prolonged household waste and filth scattered around the tower blocks and their immediate environment. It looks like there is a complete breakdown of anyone taking any genuine control of this appalling situation.
• Recycling bins are being completely misused by some irresponsible residents and overflowing.
• An acute infestation of rats scurrying between the recycling bins and the build up of environmental rubbish. This surely poses safety and public health concerns as well as being a nuisance.
• There is clear evidence of objects like bottles and disposable nappies around the tower blocks that look like they have been thrown out of windows.
• Around most of the tower blocks with a very noticeable scattering of supermarket metal trolleys and vehicles inappropriately parked in particular restricted areas.
• Some of the tower block bin chute doors were left open. And even with recycling bins and with a general purpose communal skips being provided for each block there were bags of household waste just dumped around the blocks.
Impact of temporary waste disposal measures
The council’s Estate and Environmental Services team introduced a new temporary household waste disposal procedure from 1st April 2020, informing residents by letter the day before (see Appendix A).
The letter informed residents that the refuse chute unblocking service would end and that households should stop using the chutes to dispose of rubbish. Instead, staff would be collecting bagged rubbish from outside individual flats on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with specific instructions for those self-isolating due to Coronavirus.
A few days later, open skips were sited outside Robertshaw and Crawshaw tower blocks and a covered skip sited beside Adamfield block. So-called ‘polite notices’ also appeared inside the blocks, which read, ‘All household waste should be placed in the skip at the side of the tower block. Please do not leave rubbish bags in the communal areas or outside the block’.
The new temporary procedure has undoubtedly had a marked improvement on the amount of household waste being dumped outside the tower blocks by residents. However, on the weekend of 17th to 20th April 2020 it was still persisting, albeit on a very reduced level, mainly outside Crawshaw block at Netherthorpe and Oxford block at Upperthorpe. At Robertshaw block at Netherthorpe, large amounts of household waste, cardboard, polystyrene and an old fridge were dumped inside the block.
There has also undoubtedly been a concerted effort of cleaning up the Oxford and Martin Street environment around all seven tower blocks.
Some residents have been confused by the notices, which appear to contradict the information in the letter about where to leave rubbish bags. Some seem to be expecting bulky items to be collected from right outside their flat door. Others are continuing to use the rubbish chutes and a minority are willfully continuing to dump waste and unwanted items both inside and around their block without apparent consequences.
What causes the problem?
Having lived in the Robertshaw tower block for over thirty years, I’ve seen how the problems of household rubbish and its disposal have worsened, causing a severe litter problem throughout our local environment.
Some of the contributing factors are:
• A massive increase in both volume and size of packaging in household goods, along with food packaging, in an increasingly throwaway society.
• An increase in the numbers of Right to Buy (RTB), where some of these properties are then turned into student accommodation. Individual flats are then modified into three or four separate bedrooms, increasing the numbers of residents and contributing to the household waste problems. Illegal subletting and spare room letting also increase the number of occupants, which again increases the burden on the block’s household waste system.
• A marked increase over the last decade in the number of younger families with more than one child - increasing the number of children being housed within the blocks and the size of the average household.
• DIY work carried out by residents or private contractors, which produces discarded materials being simply dumped inside or outside the tower blocks.
• Residents who have chosen, for a variety of personal reasons, not to use their bin chutes to get rid of household waste. Some store it in their flats, sometimes for several days, in large plastic bin bags before eventually dragging it along the floor, leaving a contaminated liquid trail behind them from their flats into the lifts then through the main entrance before dumping it in the entrance lobby or outside the tower blocks. There it stays until it is taken away by estate services.
• Robertshaw tower block has a room on the ground floor that was the original front entrance hall. When the current front entrance was created, this room became an unofficial ‘dropping-off point’ for unwanted items and bulky rubbish, which were then removed by the caretakers. About three years ago we were then told we could no longer use this space on the grounds of fire safety.
• Council policy is to allow its tenants one free household bulky rubbish removal a year. This is not enough for some tenants (or they may not know about the service) and consequently they find other ways of dumping unwanted items and bulky rubbish.
• Evidence of fly-tipping by people who don’t live in the tower blocks, pulling up in vehicles and dumping their rubbish alongside the piles of local residents’ household waste. Some residents have attempted to intervene by challenging them and warning them about the presence of external CCTV cameras but this isn’t always successful and it is frankly an empty threat if the CCTV is not monitored.
• Finally, there is an apparent lack of consequences for tenants and residents (and others) who do not dispose of their household waste responsibly. There appears to be no enforcement of health and safety legislation, environmental protection or tenancy conditions for culprits. Officers say that they don’t have time to gather evidence (via CCTV or other methods) and consequently unacceptable behavior goes unchecked and becomes the norm.
Lack of recycling facilities
Several years ago, the council sited a small blue communal recycling bin on the estate. for waste cardboard and paper. It was introduced without consultation or any educational publicity and either ignorance or disobedience led to its misuse. Kitchen waste and other household were put into the recycling bin and the refuse collectors stopped emptying it because of the potential contamination. It became a very unpleasant and embarrassing feature at the entrance of Robertshaw tower block.
On an estate walkabout in December 2018, I pointed out this particular problem to the area manager Mark Cowley. His response was, “we'll have to do something about that as it is a health hazard - I will have it removed”. Some of the rubbish was removed from the top of the bin to allow the lid to close and it was then fastened down with tape to stop people using it. This lasted a week before someone deliberately cut the tape to open it then filled it with new plastic bags of household waste. These new rubbish bags remained like that for over a week before the bags were removed. The blue bin was taken away on 29th January 2019 so we no longer have any recycling facilities at all on the Netherthorpe estate.
However, letters from the area housing office and generic council information about rubbish disposal still refer to ‘recycling bins’ that simply don’t exist. If the council is serious about promoting recycling, then a comprehensive system of recycling needs to be established.
Rubbish disposal and fire safety
The Grenfell tower disaster of 2017 focused attention on fire safety in tower blocks. On the 15th June 2017, the day after the Grenfell fire, I rang Mark Cowley our local area housing manager to alert him that I had been contacted by several local media outlets because of my previous concerns about Robertshaw tower block safety issues. Two of these concerns being about household waste being piled in heaps against the external block walls, and the lack of securing the emergency vehicles only bay alongside Robertshaw block, as there were reports of a similar problem at Grenfell where fire engines not been able to get access.
In terms of rubbish removal, he admitted he regularly observed the problem and told me that he was in the process of finding volunteers from his staff, along with the financial resources to pay for it. Their specific task would be to remove rubbish during the weekends from all four Netherthorpe tower blocks. However, he was unable to guarantee this being an ongoing arrangement due to the impact this would have on his area budget.
I also raised the problem with housing director, Janet Sharpe after a meeting at Adamfield meeting rooms on 27th June 2017 to discuss action in the wake of the Grenfell fire. I explained my concerns about the fire risk from rubbish being stacked up against the external walls of the tower blocks and I told her that I had been raising it for many years with the current and previous local area housing managers. Janet admitted that she too could see the rubbish from Netherthorpe Road when traveling into work.
Sadly as Mark Cowley had anticipated, action to tackle the problem was short lived. As the media attention moved on from Grenfell, rubbish continued to pile up at weekends and housing staff continued to leave the emergency parking security barrier unsecured.
In December 2017, I spoke to Mark about the potential for huge amounts of rubbish to accumulate over the Christmas period. He thought that he had provided communal skips for us in the past but it turned out that these had only been sited at Oxford Street and Martin Street. Mark did provide a skip (and sited it in the emergency vehicles only parking bay) - a huge, enclosed skip that could only be accessed using a ladder on the side. It was almost impossible for anyone but the fittest people to be able to use it.
Mark later admitted that the skip had been ridiculously impractical but an almost identical skip reappeared for Christmas 2018 and 2019.
Questions and recommendations
1. SCC Housing Tenancy Conditions say “you must dispose of household rubbish including large items in a safe and appropriate way. We will charge you the cost of removing any rubbish which you dispose of incorrectly”. Is there evidence of this actually happening?
2. What action has been taken against individual tenants or residents in breach of their tenancy conditions or leaseholder agreement and how many over the years?
3. Publicity continues to refer to local recycling facilities that are non-existent. How can we develop a comprehensive system of recycling for local tower blocks?
4. How can you ensure that CCTV is used more effectively?
5. How can you ensure that staff are empowered to take action on problems they observe, e.g. spotting when rubbish is piling up dangerously?
6. What is the cost of temporary arrangements, such as the Christmas skips?
There is an excellent report that goes into great detail into the reasons why council estate attract public stigma by: (Professor Ann Powers LSE ‘ Overcoming the Stigma of Social Housing‘ case report 115 February 2018)
Refuse chutes in tower blocks
The tower blocks at Netherthorpe and Upperthorpe have similar refuse chute systems that date back to when the flats were built in the early 1960s. There are four chutes per block running down through the building and emptying into four internal bin stores on the ground floor. Every flat has its own access hopper to one of the four chutes, sited within what is basically a large cupboard. Before the tower blocks were refurbished in the early 1990s, the chute access doors were essentially ‘outside’ and open to the elements on the flats’ balconies. At the point of refurbishment, the balconies were enclosed to produce another small room so the cupboards (and ventilation panels) were constructed to create a barrier between the rubbish chutes and habitable space.
Right from the outset there was a problem of chutes getting blocked. They were originally unblocked by workers gaining access to the chutes from the tower block roofs, from where they dropped metal weights attached to ropes down into the refuse chutes. This method mostly avoided staff needing to gain access to individual flats to unblock the chutes. The practice changed during the period when Sheffield Homes became responsible for housing management. This new method involved staff having to visit individual flats, work out where the blockage might be, try to gain access to a flat below the blockage, then prod at it with long poles. Though less efficient and effective, the reasons given for changing the method were cost and the health and safety of those working at height.
Over the years, the chutes’ inner linings will have degraded as a result of everyday use and the more intense wear and tear associated with the unblocking process. Without regular maintenance, rough and broken surfaces inside the chutes make it more likely that rubbish will get caught on the way down, causing further blockages. Whilst some councils like Renfrewshire have implemented a complete relining programme to chutes in their tower blocks, others have not, opting instead to effectively mothball the original internal infrastructure and to create a new process for waste disposal.
Recent history of significant chute blockages in Robertshaw tower block
It should be noted that the following examples refer to only one chute out of four in the Robertshaw tower block. It does not include incidents where the chute has only been partially blocked or has unblocked itself without intervention, nor does it include blockages in the building’s three other chutes.
The chute blockage featured in the Sheffield Star on 22nd August 2005, where it was reported ‘Council tenants are suffering a smelly summer after a rubbish chute at their high rise flats was left blocked’.
At the time, Sheffield Homes had a customer service charter to clear the chutes within half a day and but the area manager at the time, Surjan Tiwana said there were problems in gaining access to tenants’ flats. He went on to say “This is a longstanding problem but we are doing everything we can”.
On speaking to Surjan Tiwana a few days later, I asked him why couldn't the Council and Sheffield Homes consider in consultation with all tenants and residents in tower blocks with similar bin chutes about acquiring spare keys to each individual flat. These keys would be held securely by area housing offices in cases where emergency access was necessary.
The chute was blocked for over six weeks at the height of one of the hottest summers recorded. The supervising manager explained that the delay was due to to workers being unable to gain access to a particular flat where the blockage was.
I offered to try to call at the flat in case the resident was only at home after working hours but was told this would prove difficult as the residents were in India on family compassionate grounds, with no knowledge when they would be returning.
I asked if he had considered using the landlord’s powers to gain emergency access but he said it was more complicated because the flat in question was an RTB, which, for legal reasons makes it more difficult to gain forced access.
It is unacceptable that this issue of gaining emergency access still has not been resolved. The supervising manager told me of one example where a bin chute was not unblocked for over three months.
The chute was reported as blocked in late February and was unblocked on 11th March 2019.
The chute was reported as blocked in mid July. It was eventually unblocked on 2nd October 2019.
Christmas and New Year 2019/20
The chute was reported as blocked about two weeks before the Christmas break. This blockage occurred at the same time as the lift replacement programme, which left residents without any lifts working over Christmas, meaning that all household waste had to be carried downstairs to a communal skip. The chute was eventually unblocked in late February.
Consequences in delays in unblocking refuse chutes
Blocked chutes are not only an inconvenience for residents, they also create unpleasant odours that permeate through the building, swarms of flies, unsanitary conditions and a dangerous cocktail of airborne contaminants that are a risk to health.
Studies have shown that there can be at least thirty different types of bacteria and biological growth inside rubbish chutes and these biological agents can enter the air space of collection rooms. Any time the chute doors are left open, the bacteria becomes airborne and people breathe it in. This is frequently referred to as ‘sick building syndrome’ and is why it is essential to keep chutes clean and good condition.
Attempts to mask the odour of blocked chutes and tackle bacteria leave residents using increasing amounts of bleach, air freshener, cleaning products and fly spray. Smells and infestations linger long after the chute is finally unblocked.
Fires can also be caused by blocked chutes, with a risk of smoke entering flats because of the failure of individual chute seals and the chute containment areas.
Risks from lack of maintenance of bin stores
The doors to the refuse chute bin stores are frequently left unlocked, which causes them to bang about in the wind. Foul smells emanate from the bins and there are risks to health and safety as well as fire risks.
In early February 2019, maintenance work was carried out on the door to store number 1 of Robertshaw block, leaving the store exposed to the elements. Some time in March, doors 2 and 3 were removed completely. I later heard that these had been stolen. Wooden doors were fitted as a temporary fix, which raises concerns about fire safety given the flammability of wood.
The Robertshaw tower block fire risk assessment of the 26th April 2019 says:
‘At the time of the assessment the bin store door was missing as it had been removed. The block operates a bin chute waste management system whereby waste goes directly into metal bins in this refuse room and this leaves the block at risk of arsonists setting fire to the waste in the bins’.
It goes on to identify the following action:
‘Renew the bin store door as soon as possible and it is recommended that in the interim period a temporary door is installed which can be kept securely locked to prevent arsonist access with fuel loading being kept as low as possible by ensuring waste bins are emptied on a daily basis’.
As of April 2020 the two temporary wooden refuse chute doors are still in operation.
Arguments for maintaining a refuse chute system
If well-maintained, refuse chutes in tower blocks provide a convenient and easy way for residents to dispose of their rubbish without having to store it in their flats or leave it in communal areas. It is particularly helpful for residents who are less mobile or who have difficulty lifting. It makes best use of an integral feature of the building that would quite literally be wasted if not used.
Contractors offer services for regular waste chute cleaning, which will prolong the life of the chute and provide better living conditions for residents. Where chutes have become damaged it is also possible to reline them to improve the flow of material through them and reduce blockages.
An existing refuse chute system can also be complemented by an effective separate process for increasing recycling.
Arguments for replacing the refuse chute system
At a meeting of the Culture, Economy and Sustainability Scrutiny Board on 19th October 2006, in answer to a member’s question about the noise nuisance of bin chutes, Mark Cowley (then assistant manager of the Safer Estates Unit) replied that ‘investigations were being made into the provision of recycling facilities for blocks of flats for example, the Leverton Gardens blocks had recently been the subject of an experiment where a recycling bin was placed alongside the ordinary refuse bin at the foot of the flats and this system could be explored elsewhere in the city.’
Soon after, the refuse chute system at Leverton tower blocks was completely replaced with external waste and recycling bins. Since then, we have been regularly told that the council is planning to introduce a similar arrangement for all the city’s tower blocks.
Clearly a decision like this should not be taken lightly. It needs to be part of a thorough review that includes an analysis of costs and benefits and takes on board the views of residents through effective consultation.
Over the years, I have asked for a copy of the review that led to the change in refuse arrangements at Leverton but to date have not received anything.