Charlie Philburn is one of the last residents of a condemned block of flats at Lanercost Park, near the Northumbria hospital, with Northumberland County Council revealing to occupants last summer that it had to be demolished.
The 46-year-old says the whole saga has had a major impact on his mental health; he is now taking two medications for anxiety and has been receiving counselling.
“I’m absolutely disgusted with how I have been treated,” he said. “The reason I’m digging my heels in and contacting the papers is that they can’t do this to anyone else.
“I’m a strong person and I’ve never been on medication in my life, now I’m on two for anxiety. It all gets on top of you.”
In 2017, the local authority discovered asbestos-containing materials in the converted office block. Initially, the plan was to carry out remedial work on a phased basis, moving residents out and then back in as required.
The problems began for Mr Philburn even at this stage as, while the plan was to move other tenants into the nearby Premier Inn, this wasn’t possible for him as he is a dog owner, and he found it difficult to get any accurate information from the council about what was happening.
“I thought the county council had a duty of care,” he said. “The only reason we knew anything was the neighbours used to talk to each other and build up the picture.”
Then, last July, the occupants were told that the decision had been taken to demolish the block and permanently rehouse everyone elsewhere.
And while the majority were council or private tenants, who have now been found new homes elsewhere, Mr Philburn, who works as a CNC operator for a manufacturing company, is one of the few owner-occupiers, having bought his two-bedroom flat back in 2002.
Having paid off 16 years of a 25-year mortgage, he is reluctant to have to start again, even more so when the initial offer from the council would have left him with £11,000 of equity – ‘which isn’t enough for a deposit and I don’t want to rent for the rest of my life’.
“There are no two-bedroom flats the size of this in Cramlington and I need the spare bedroom for my daughter when she comes back from university,” he added.
The council may now have found a property for him, but he is not holding his breath yet.
“It’s been going on for two-and-a-half years and there’s no sign of an end. I’ve told them I just want it to be over with.
“They say it will take eight to 12 weeks if there’s a swap agreed so I can’t see it getting resolved in the next six months. They say they are trying to put a package together, but they can’t put me in a position that makes me worse off.
“They have to justify the difference in price, but it will take more than that to drag it through the courts.”
Mr Philburn also reported a series of other issues, which all reflect how he feels the council has not had its eye on the ball, such as one of the vacant flats being left open with a key in the lock and it taking three weeks before someone came out to secure the block.
A letterbox was installed on the outside of the building so that the main front door can be locked, but they didn’t give Mr Philburn the key so he could get his post for four days. During this time, a man came out to install a doorbell while he was at work and left a note explaining how to rearrange the appointment – but it was in the letterbox to which he didn’t have access.
“It’s just like Carry On Council – everyone’s blaming each other, it’s affecting my life and it shouldn’t be that way,” he said.
Mr Philburn is full of praise, however, for Wallsend-based charity Anxious Minds, which has given him counselling after he was struggling to get seen elsewhere.
“They have been absolutely brilliant,” he said, vowing to do some fund-raising for them when he is fully recovered.
Philip Soderquest, head of housing and public protection at Northumberland County Council, said: “This has been a difficult process and the council fully appreciates that this will result in the loss of people’s homes and hence we have been trying to resolve any issues on an informal basis. Ultimately though, the council do not believe that they could have proceeded as originally planned without exposing the occupants to risk.
“Having made the decision, we have been working very closely with the occupants and have been actively trying to identify suitable alternative permanent occupation for our own tenants while trying to buy back four of the flats which had previously been sold under the Right to Buy scheme. In all cases, we are offering compensation and a support package to assist people to move.
“The process does, as a matter of course, result in the scenario that the number of residents will decrease over time as residents are provided with new accommodation, but the majority have now moved out and we have been working with the remaining two owners, one of whom is an owner-occupier, to try to agree a way forward so that there is no detriment to them arising from the process.
“We are very mindful that this is a difficult time for the remaining owner-occupier and we have recently made an offer of a property to him in an area he has identified, which he is currently considering.
“Further discussion will be required, but it is hoped that we can reach agreement with him in the near future so that he can move to a new home which he is happy with and meets his needs.”
Describing the process which led to this point, Mr Soderquest added: “Lanercost Park in Cramlington comprises 16 residential flats. Investigations and surveys of the building previously revealed some asbestos-containing materials in the premises.
“It had, following advice from an environmental consultant and consideration of the information available to the council at the time, been the council’s preferred option to undertake removal and remedial works to the building on a phased basis, with all occupants and tenants post completion of the work returning back to their flats.
“Regrettably, upon further investigation it was discovered that the nature and construction of the building, which is a converted office facility, raised additional concerns and the council came to the conclusion that the work could not proceed as planned without potentially exposing the occupants of the flats to a risk arising from the removal and remedial works.
“The council therefore needed to consider what options were available to safeguard the occupants of the building, which included council tenants, owner-occupiers and private tenants, so as to ensure that they were not exposed to a risk arising from the presence or removal of the asbestos-containing material.
“Following consideration of relevant information, it was decided that the preferred option, due to the age of the building, the extent and complexity of the work required and the overall expense of the removal and general remedial works, coupled with the estimated long-term cost of routine repairs and maintenance, that demolition of the flats and building new council housing on the site represented the best solution.”
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service