Guardianship schemes and the Synergy Centre


The Guardianship Scheme

Since the early 2000s Property Guardian Companies have marketed themselves as anti-squatting services. They offer landlords ‘security’ for their empty properties in exchange for a fee, and they then rent the properties to ‘guardians’ who are given a ‘licence’ (not a tenancy).  This has been marketed as a win-win; landlords can secure their buildings cheaply, guardians benefit from cheaper housing costs than in the local private sector, and empty urban spaces are put to use.

But by 2014 the proliferation of guardianship schemes in the UK had started to attract the criticism of journalists, who questioned whether these schemes were in fact part of a range of housing issues – including the gentrification of urban areas, rising rents, the increasing number of empty properties, and the erosion of tenants’ rights – rather than a solution for these problems.

In 2015 The Guardian newspaper found out that UK property guardians had become
“an underclass of renters with severely curtailed rights, who live in miserable and legally dubious conditions”

The Guardian and Vice News described typical properties run by guardian companies as bleak and overcrowded places, with scarce facilities, “rooms that were like chicken coops”, no natural light or ventilation, and residents complaining that it was “like squatting, but having to pay for it”.  The fact that the legal situation of residents has been weakened has encouraged the establishment of “a pattern of foul and shocking neglect and abuse”’ which is common to see in properties managed by Guardian Companies.

Crucially, guardianship has resulted in the substitution of tenancies with ‘guardian licences’, designed to deprive tenants of their rights. The trick is in the use of new terms: the tenancy agreement is called a ‘licence’, the tenant is now a ‘property guardian’, and rent has become a ‘fee’.

In some cases, guardians are also required to work in exchange for their accommodation, for example, in an ‘intern scheme’ run by Camelot across the UK. The Bristolian commented:
Camelot’s intern scheme… at best resembled the Victorian Workhouse… or at worst… it spells out the re-introduction of serfdom”.

The high price of cheap living: how the property guardianship dream soured
The UK’s ‘Property Guardians’ Live in a World of Constant Anxiety
Who’s guarding property guardians?
Scam-a-lot telling porkies again?
Ye Damned Chronicles of Scamalot #7 – Ye Interns & Hackney Council

Class struggle against Guardianship in Bristol

Things started changing when guardians started organising. In 2016 residents of Property Guardian Company Camelot in Bristol started to withdraw their ‘fees’ (that is, rents), demanding repairs and health and safety measures, and refusing to move out when asked to leave. The rebellion spread to a number of properties run by Camelot and Ad Hoc and has now reached London.

The struggle has led to the explosion of a scandal in Bristol, when the press was alerted about illegal and inhumane conditions in properties run by Camelot and Ad Hoc. It also led to a victory in court; on 24 February 2017 a County Court Judge ruled that rebellious guardian Greg Roynon was not a ‘licensee’ but an Assured Shorthold Tenant, with all the rights that this status implied. Also, as a result of the struggle, Bristol City Council decided to withdraw its properties from Camelot  and Ad Hoc and phase out their agreements with Guardian Companies.

Scandal of Bristol City Council’s empty nursing homes being rented out ‘illegally’
Bristol council to become first in UK to ban property guardian companies after six months of scandal around empty buildings

The role of ‘charities’ in restoring guardianship in Bristol

The rebellion of guardians in Bristol could have triggered the beginning of the end for guardianship and encouraged more councils to withdraw from similar schemes. Instead the guardianship licence has been rescued, and given a charitable facelift! In Bristol St Mungo’s Housing Association has offered to take over the council properties from Camelot and Ad Hoc and will continue to give guardianship licences to its new residents.

Challenged by journalists, a St Mungo’s manager, David Ingerslev, stated that they have created a ‘better version’ of the controversial guardianship scheme and added:

“To be honest, it doesn’t matter if [our residents] have a licence or are tenants, because we will meet all the requirements and more, as if they
were tenants anyway”.

If it doesn’t matter, why not give them proper tenancies?

Is this the answer to the housing crisis? Charity St Mungo’s is housing homeless people in empty council offices across Bristol

 The Guardianship Scheme at the Synergy Centre

The guardianship project at the Synergy Centre is organised by Space Mates and ‘coordinators of the Synergy Centre’ and inspired by St Mungo’s scheme in Bristol.

Details of the guardianship scheme at the Synergy Centre have emerged from a meeting between members of Brighton Benefits Campaign and members of the project board for this scheme. Other details are revealed by Space Mates’ website and Facebook.

To sum up:

  • Space Mates is not a homeless organisation, but a company, run by sole director Adam Palk.
  • Adam Palk and Nick Parker are at the centre of the project, called ‘Homeless Popup Property Guardians’.
  • Adam Palk and Nick Parker were Synergy Centre directors in the past, when homeless people were evicted from it with no notice. Adam Palk says that there will be ‘safeguards’ against abrupt evictions in this new project. Yet their ‘Guardianship Agreement’, sent by Adam Palk to Brighton Benefits Campaign, asks the ‘beneficiaries’ to sign the statement: ‘This is not a tenancy agreement and I will not obtain any tenancy rights’; and allows for immediate evictions.
  • The project is already advertised in town, aiming to attract up to 15 residents.
  • In this special version of guardianship, rooms like chicken coops with no natural light or ventilation (a real trend in guardianship) will shrink into… ‘pods’.
  • Actually, the ‘pods’ don’t exist yet. The first pilot ‘pod’ is currently being built. Meanwhile, residents are sleeping on sofas and mattresses in the club and in one room upstairs.
  • On 15 June 2017 we were told there was only one shower.
  • The place is dark and the ‘beneficiaries’ are told that the Synergy Centre ‘cannot afford to keep the lights on all the time’.
  • Other people, including the company’s director, have access to the place during the day as they please. The place can be hired out for events, including political meetings, during which time the residents cannot use it. When the ‘pods’ are ready, the residents will be required to dismantle them before the events and reassemble them afterwards!
  • The residents will be asked to claim Housing Benefit for this, so they must be liable to pay rent.
  • On the top of paying rent, the residents are required to work ‘in return for’ their accommodation. This work includes stewarding gigs, and cleaning and tidying up after events.
  • Brighton Benefits Campaign members were told that the residents are chosen from homeless people with ‘low or no needs’, but Space Mates’ says in their website that they are happy to accommodate residents with ongoing mental health, alcohol or drug problems. This raises questions of safety as currently there is no night supervision.
  • The Synergy Centre will have to vacate the building in October as the Council has sold it to Silver Coin, a private leisure company.

Note: Adam Palk has said that we have ‘misunderstood’ something in our report on the meeting of June 15th. Brighton Benefits Campaign is still waiting to know what. We will be happy to correct this publication if so.

While St Mungo’s claims that their guardianship scheme is a ‘better version’ of Camelot’s, the scheme at the Synergy Centre, run by Space Mates and ‘Synergy Centre organisers’, seems to be its… nightmare version!

At least Camelot’s guardians could use their building as their home…
At least squatters control who goes in and out of their home and don’t have to pay, or work, for it…
At least night shelters have professional supervision overnight (and sometimes even a canteen for breakfast)…
At least workhouse residents were not expected to assemble and dismantle their own pods!

The scheme at the Synergy Centre is a combination of all those ‘housing solutions for the poor’, with the worse aspects of each! Yet those who run such a scheme plainly feel, like their Victorian counterparts, that ‘the poor’ have no choice, and should be grateful for this.

Also, the scheme appears unpractical. Up to 15 people will be crammed in the place, with no time to build 15 ‘pods’ or additional showers before October, when the Synergy Centre is evicted from the building.

This raises even more delicate questions, such as;  is the scheme really serious, and  what are its real aims?

 The ideology behind Guardianship

It is unacceptable that campaigners for tenants’ right have ended up encouraging the use of the Guardianship scheme, a scheme that is threatening to become the norm, and which has already created an underclass of renters with severely curtailed rights, who live in miserable and legally dubious conditions.

It is dangerous that housing campaigners and charities have accepted uncritically the ideology that the poor should be ‘grateful’ for substandard accommodation because they have no choice but the street. If this ideology is normalised, all landlords will adopt it, and most of us will end up living in slums if not actively homeless.

It is also unacceptable that housing campaigners and charities dismiss the past issue of workfare (unpaid work for one’s benefits) and the ongoing issue of modern day slavery (unpaid work for substandard accommodation) at the Synergy Centre – and refuse to criticise the underlying right wing ideology.

As Brighton Benefits Campaign has discovered, both the Synergy Centre and Space Mates consistently conceptualise the unemployed and homeless people as idle poor, and suggest that these people need to be stimulated into being ‘productive’ and ‘industrious’ and to engage in ‘meaningful’ activity:

“By volunteering and getting involved in the running of the Centre, guardians will benefit by adding value to their lives and providing themselves with meaningful occupation of their time and being members of a supportive and industrious team”

“In particular, Synergy will seek to develop ways of tackling the unemployment trap and poverty trap… particularly how to develop or maintain
the necessary motivation and work ethic required to remain an active and productive member of society, even when access to paid employment may
be limited by the economic circumstances.”

Homeless Popup Property Guardians
The Synergy Centre mission statement
Synergy Centre ‘Big Clear Out’

 Productive… for whom?

We can understand why councils might embrace any scheme which gets homeless people off the streets and out of sight.  Brighton and Hove City Council have made it clear where it stands with its pledge to clear the streets, police harrassing rough sleepers and the introduction of PSPOs to criminalise the homeless.

But  real campaigners for rights should be asking the crucial question:  Who gains from guardianship and who loses?

Space Mates’ guardianship licence application form makes it quite clear.  Guardians will be expected to pay rent (license fee) for a ‘pod’ in a shared space, without enjoying tenants’ rights. They will be expected to work without pay for the privilege.

Far from being a charitable exercise, such guardianship schemes provide cheap security for owners of empty properties, and often considerable profit for those operating them. These schemes attack housing and employment rights, and represent a further assault on squatting.  We have to oppose them.

Guardianship and the Synergy Centre – download full report

About Brighton Benefits Campaign

Fighting the assault on welfare since 2010
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