Imperial Apartments: converted office block is at the centre of a housing controversy

Back in August 2020, Bristol City Council revealed it was planning on housing people in a converted office block in South Bristol.

Initially, the council agreed to take on 216 properties at Imperial Apartments, as the former Parkview office complex in Hengrove was now known. At the time, housing chiefs at Bristol City Council admitted they had concerns about teaming up with a developer accused of creating “human warehousing” – but said they were “determined to make this development a success and thriving community in which to live”.

The complex was being redeveloped by Caridon, a company which was the subject of a Newsnight investigation as residents in one of their developments in London complained to the journalists about overcrowding and the mix of people, speaking about violence and substance misuse.

READ MORE: More than 100 children living at converted south Bristol office block

Caridon turned it into homes without the need for planning consent under permitted development rights, which meant the usual regulations stipulating minimum sizes did not apply. According to the floor plans submitted to Bristol City Council, studios at the development start at 18m2 – which is smaller than the average 29m2 shipping container – while the two bedroom flats at the site start at 38m2 and go up to 76m2.

The law was then changed and it now requires new homes built under permitted development rights to be over 37m2, with two-bedrooms units being a minimum of 61m2. In March 2021, the council then agreed to make more units at the site and, out of 465 units of private rented accommodation at Imperial Apartments, Bristol City Council now rents out 316 of them – more than two-thirds of the total.

Fourteen months after the housing development opened, I visited the site and a young mum living there claimed ‘they are the worst’. Since mid-November, BristolLive has reported on many concerns from residents at the site, who BristolLive understands are private tenants in most cases but that were supported into private housing by the council.

Among the concerns raised about Imperial Apartments, a first-time dad said he feels so unsafe living there that he sleeps with a hammer and a screwdriver next to his bed, with other residents comparing the development to storage facilities and even a prison.

Do you live at Imperial Apartments? What do you think about living there? Our reporter Estel would love to hear from you. You can contact her directly on estel.farellroig@reachplc.com

One of the apartments at Imperial Apartments in Hartcliffe
One of the studio flats at Imperial Apartments in Hartcliffe
(Image: BristolLive)

Another young mum claimed that her daughter ended up in hospital because of mould at her flat, while another claimed she is being sexually harassed “all the time”. A dad said he feels trapped in his tenancy while a second mum living at the site said she was worried after finding ‘lots of mould’ in her baby’s room.

Police revealed in November that they had been called more than 200 times in just over a year to the site, with crimes recorded linked to Imperial Apartments including one rape, two incidents of possessions of weapons and one offence of trafficking drugs. The latest figures from February showed the number of police call-outs had almost doubled in the past couple of months.

And then, in January this year, Bristol South MP Karin Smyth asked the council to stop housing families with children at Imperial Apartments, adding that all the families it has already housed at the complex should be moved out as soon as possible. She is so worried about living conditions at the site that she then raised this issue in Parliament, describing the site as an example of deeply worrying “substandard” accommodation.

At the time, the MP said that a “significant number of constituents” who live at Imperial Apartments had been in contact with her to raise their concerns about a range of issues, including concerns about security, lack of maintenance, ambulance staff being unable to gain entry to flats and inadequately sized flats.

She added: “I was very concerned to hear reports from a number of constituents about a range of issues at Imperial Apartments in Hengrove. Poor living conditions and anti-social behaviour are making a significant number of residents feel unsafe living there.

“Whilst Imperial Apartments may be a suitable temporary place to live for some, it’s become clear that it is certainly not a long term housing solution for families with children. For those families who feel Imperial Apartments is unsuitable for them, an alternative should be provided by Homechoice Bristol.

”I have been in contact with Bristol City Council to raise these concerns and to request they consider ceasing all future Homechoice allocations to Imperial apartments for applicants with children. I hope to work with the Council further to resolve the issues raised by constituents.”

Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees announced the following month that the council was to pause housing families with children there, admitting there are “some challenges” at the site. The mayor wouldn’t say whether the existing families at the site would be moved out, but that the review will look into this.

The mayor said the council is aware there have been “some challenges” at Imperial Apartments, adding their ultimate aim is to make sure people are housed as good as possible. The mayor’s words at the time were: “Essentially what we do need to do is review it, because we are aware that it is is an imperfect approach, but it was an approach that was available to us. And there have been some difficulties up there, and we need to review how it is working before any more families go there.”

The living room/kitchen area at one of the two-bedroom apartments
(Image: Handout)

Bristol City Council had previously admitted that the use of the site for housing is “not an ideal option” and city mayor Marvin Rees had previously described it as ‘the least worst option’.

This review is still ongoing now and Bristol City Council was asked for a date of when the review will be concluded. The housing of families at Imperial Apartments has been one of the key issues around the development and last month BristolLive was able to reveal that more than a hundred children are living at the converted office block.

A total of 87 children under the age of five are currently living at the controversial Imperial Apartments in Hengrove, with a total of 21 children over the age of five living there, according to data released by Bristol City Council. Despite an officers’ warning back in April 2021 that no child over five should live at the two-bed units created in the first phase, this was the first time the council released the data for older children.

Cllr Sarah Classick outside the Imperial Apartments on Whitchurch Lane

At the time, Sarah Classick, councillor for Hengrove and Whitchurch Park, said she was surprised there are that many children aged more than five living at Imperial Apartments. She said: “We were aware there were children on site because facilities have been built for them.

“I think the council need to hurry up with this review. It is really important they are reviewing the current living standards there and providing support for the families there, especially those that have raised concerns.

“Appropriate support for those families needs to be put in place or, if families are feeling that is not the right place for their children to be living, there needs to be support from the council to help them move and find somewhere suitable.

“There is still a long way to go, but they are starting to show they are taking the concerns seriously – if that translates into action that is another thing. It feels they are acknowledging at least now.”

Back in December, developer Caridon said that the council was “happy” with them. Caridon has previously said it offers a large community development where residents live together and interact and recognised this isn’t for everyone, but stressed there is a very positive atmosphere in the building.

The developer has previously said it has had a very small number of tenants who have raised concerns about living there and that, in those cases, they have helped in any way they can and sought “amicable solutions for issues raised”.

The developer has also defended the size of the apartments – describing them as adequate – and that the site has several facilities including a Zen garden or a “very well used” soft play area which tenants can use free of charge. There are also two free gyms at the site – with a third one due to open – and three IT suites.

Bristol City Council and Caridon were approached for comment.

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