By Vicky Spratt
After a spate of police raids due to drugs and anti-social behaviour, it seemed one suburb of Grimsby was doomed. A community group turned socially conscious ethical landlord has rejuvenated the area and made it into a community once again.
East Marsh is a suburb of Grimsby in north east Lincolnshire which has often made headlines for the wrong reasons. In 2017, there were police raids due to drugs and anti-social behaviour. Then, in 2019, flashing blue lights of police vans lit up Oxford Street, Rutland Street and Stanley Street as officers tried to contain unrest which resulted in confrontations between locals and police.
It was these problems which prompted local man, 62-year-old Billy Dasein – who grew up in East Marsh and still lives there today – to take action.
“A community meeting was held,” he explains “and I wasn’t going to go but then my neighbour said, ‘our mums would have gone’ so I did, and that’s when I found myself speaking up.” It cemented his decision to continue the work of the community group he co-founded in 2017 – East Marsh United.
The name was deliberately chosen because it sounds like a local football team and is a world away from the “levelling up” jargon often used in political discourse. It began as a weekly meeting of local people who took on social problems such as litter and fly tipping.
Five years on, they have become a socially conscious ethical landlord. The group has begun to raise investment to buy up dilapidated homes in the area, renovate them and rent them out to people at an affordable rate which is tied to the Local Housing Allowance (the mechanism through which housing benefit is calculated). So far, they have three properties and are hoping to expand imminently.
Poor housing is rife in East Marsh and in this part of England overall; there are more than 50,000 households living in energy inefficient homes in north east Lincolnshire which means not only that poor insulation is causing mould and damp but that energy bills are high.
Walking around Rutland Street with Pete Rowley – who runs the ethical building firm, East Marsh Construction, which works closely with East Marsh United aims to employ local people on fair wages to work on homes which need doing up – it is easy to spot the homes which have been renovated.
“We put a new roof on that one,” Mr Rowley points to a terraced house. “When we were brought in, it was owned by a private landlord and there were six children living there. There was damp everywhere, running down the walls.”
“We’ve been deliberately focusing on the very worst homes, some of which have been boarded up for eight or nine years,” Mr Rowley adds as we walk around. “A big problem here is that landlords from out of town have bought up ‘cheap’ properties as investments which, sometimes, they’ve never seen and they don’t care about the condition of them as long as they get their rent.”
The local Reverend Kay Jones, who is also involved with East Marsh United, confirms the scale of the problem. She said: “I’ve been to one house where the floorboards were rotten and you had to jump over a hole to get in. These people have no choice, they take that house or they’re homeless.”
“East Marsh United,” Revd Jones adds, “is a response to a community that has never had a voice for itself.”
It wasn’t always like this. Grimsby itself, including the area of East Marsh, was once a thriving community. Mr Rowley is something of a historian in his spare time and explains that the terraced homes here are built on top of marshland which was drained to build homes for rail workers in the 1800s. After that, they were home to the families of deep sea trawler workers when Grimsby was one of the biggest fishing docks in the world.
“There was work,” Mr Dasein says of his community’s past. “It wasn’t well-paid and I suppose you’d call it ‘zero hours’ today but you could walk out of one job and into another easily. There were opportunities here.”
Today, though, according to the local council’s Director of Public Health’s annual report, East Marsh is in the top 1 per cent of most deprived wards in England. And, earlier this year, there were three people chasing every job vacancy.
The contemporary challenges faced by the people of Grimsby – caused by the decline of the town’s fishing industry following the 70s Cod Wars and a lack of investment for essential infrastructure such as roads – are often highlighted by politicians. In the last year former Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and his shadow Levelling Up secretary Lisa Nandy have all paid flying visits – but the need for decent housing is rarely mentioned.
The group’s focus on homes, then, is no accident. Mr Dasein, Mr Rowley, Revd Jones and their colleague local architect 59-year-old Mark Hodson, are all sceptical about the government’s “Levelling Up” agenda.
“There’s a lot of jargon that gets used after people come to East Marsh,” Mr Hodson, who was born on the East Marsh Estate and grew up locally, says, “but safe housing and finding somewhere decent to live needs to be a key aspect of any “levelling up” agenda.”
“It was almost inevitable that something like the riots in 2017 happened,” Mr Hodson says when we meet at the Shalom Community Centre with Mr Rowley. “We needed an organisation like East Marsh United to take back some form of control. We needed to directly respond to absent landlords who don’t care about their properties or the tenants in them.”
Mr Dasein agrees. “I joke that people talk about the community at East Marsh as though we’re from another planet – East Martians,” he jokes. “But people here need the same basic things as people everywhere.”
“I talk about the ‘broken window theory’ a lot,” adds Mr Dasein. The premise of this idea, which came to prominence in sociology in the 1980s, is simple: if left unattended, seemingly small issues like broken windows, litter or boarded up homes contribute to an overall sense of disorder and disenfranchisement in a community.
“If you don’t look after the smaller infractions on a street then it’s going to escalate to bigger things because it says, ‘nobody cares, there is nobody looking after our place’,” Mr Dasein explains. “It’s all about that little word that means so much – home.”
“We are not buying houses as an investment tool which is how they’ve been treated here and in other places unfortunately,” Mr Dasein continues. “We’re buying them to be homes for our people.”
Before I leave East Marsh, I bump into a young man – Terry – and his partner who are currently renting their home from East Marsh United.
He smiles enthusiastically when I ask him what living in one of their properties is like:
“They’re absolutely brilliant. If something needs to be done, they do it. They’re not one of these landlords who are afraid to spend money. They respect their tenants. They’re not jumping down your throat if you’re going to be a few days late on the rent. They work with you.”
As politicians in Westminster grapple with regional inequality, talk of “levelling up” is the latest in a long line of buzzwords from former Conservative chancellor George Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse” to media commentators’ use of the “Left Behind” to describe people from places such as Grimsby who voted to leave the European Union. But East Marsh United wants to keep things simple.
East Marsh United’s vision is “a hundred houses for a hundred years”. This would create a sustainable revenue stream via rental income to keep the organisation going. As things stand, they have raised half of the £500,000 they need in a community share offer to fund another 10 homes. For every £100,000 invested, the chairman of Grimsby Town FC Jason Stockwood has pledged to invest £10,000.
They could well be onto something. Recent analysis by Pro Bono Economics has shown that the presence of community assets – that is, things which are for and owned by local people – might be a better predictor of life satisfaction in an area than its GDP or average household income.
There is a photograph that Mr Dasein likes to show when he is giving presentations about East Marsh United’s work: it shows him on the doorstep of his family home as a baby.
“There’s no litter in the photo and you can see that people have put plant pots outside their homes on the pavement, but this is something that you just could not do today because they’d be trashed,” Mr Dasein says. “People just want a nice house, nice neighbours and enough money to get by. That’s the point.”
Source: I news