‘Good neighbour’ taken to court for two phone calls
Reporter: Jess Reeves
Date published: 02 April 2019
Retired newsagent, Gary Leese says he just wanted to help his neighbours but found himself in court threatened with prison by his housing association – for ringing a helpline twice.
Neighbours at his social housing block on Rock Street complained about damp walls and windows that couldn’t close and a front door that wasn’t secure.
Feeling that problems weren’t being addressed, he started contacting his housing association First Choice Homes Oldham to raise issues.
Gary says that after some success he started helping his neighbours’ get their problems addressed too.
He took on the role of a ‘community representative’, even printing business cards with a special telephone number and email address so fellow residents knew they could ask him directly for support.
But after helping a neighbour in her 90s, whose heating had packed up on Christmas Eve, Gary found himself summoned to court.
In court documents First Choice branded his behaviour had been ‘anti-social’.
In an email seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service, their legal services manager told him he had been acting towards staff in a ‘manner that is both a nuisance and an annoyance'.
In January 2018, at Manchester County Court, Gary signed an undertaking – a legally binding promise – not to call a specific out of hours number, and not to tell anyone he was employed as a caretaker.
But in February this year he was hauled back before a judge again by First Choice.
Gary had twice called ABCA Systems – the company responsible for the electrical door lock at the building – putting him in breach of his undertaking.
Gary said both calls were legitimate; once when he was locked out of his building, and on another occasion when visiting a friends at building not run by First Choice – he found a broken lock.
But documents submitted to the court by the housing association show they thought this warranted a prison sentence.
Describing what order they wanted the judge to make, the form states; “that the respondent be committed to prison for breach of an undertaking”.
They were asking for him to be jailed for up to two years for the phone calls.
However the judge adjourned sentencing until the end of the year, when the undertaking expires, on the promise that he would not breach it again.
A First Choice Homes Oldham spokesperson said it was one of a number of ‘serious legal issues’ with Gary that was affecting the housing association, ‘and our tenants’. And they say tenants have not reported any issues with the building where he lives.
Gary, 55, said he feels he has been ‘persecuted’ by the housing association, when he is trying to simply be a good neighbour. “I am worrying every day because of this,” he said. “I was lucky, I got legal aid. But it’s just fret and frustration, and worry about the threats of being put in prison. I feel they are trying to intimidate me into stopping helping people. They are doing nothing in relation to these properties, they are just basically making people’s lives hell. And I’m made to feel that I am doing something wrong by trying to help people when they ask me to. I’m not a criminal. It has been really upsetting and stressful.”
Gary has lived in the building for five years, and started helping his neighbours three years ago, even pitching in himself to clear drains and keep the block tidy. “The place is damp, there is mould in the building,” he said.
“I’m helping around six people. I got talking to people about issues and said we need to start something up.
“I am just helping residents and running a residents group. “What they were saying was to try and have me done for antisocial behaviour for ringing the out of hours number. “I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I couldn’t get into my block of flats. “Because I am helping people I am being classed as antisocial."
Gary’s neighbours detail a ream of problems in the building – and say he has only ever tried to support them get things fixed.
Photos from inside the building show damp walls, leaks near electrical equipment, broken plug sockets, and grills for a disused ventilation system being covered with gaffer tape rather than removed.
Paul Boswell, who has lived in the building since 2010, said he has been staying at his mum’s house because of problems in his flat.
“The first time I asked him to help because I was working nights and he was sorting things out for me during the day,” he said. “I’ve had problems with the water and the damp. “First Choice have said to me they have got a grievance against him. I said he’s been trying to help me while you have done nothing. He’s a good guy. All he’s done is try and help.” Another Rock Street resident, who asked not to be named, said issues seemed to be fixed quicker when they enlisted Gary’s help.
“He’s a good neighbour and if you have any issues or problems around the building or the communal area or anything he does help us out a lot. If we try to report repairs ourselves they don’t really seem to get done.
“It works out better when he helps, they come out straight away to fix stuff. He’s not harming anyone, he’s looking out for his neighbours and his friends if we have problems and issues like that. Quite a few of us do have problems with mould around the windows. We have had problems with the main doors quite a lot recently. They don’t shut properly, and people have been leaving them wedged open – strangers coming in and sleeping upstairs. We have had problems with rubbish around the building, in the bin chutes drug users are going in there to take their drugs."
“Gary’s not causing any issues with anybody, he’s basically helping us to solve the problems.”
Another resident agreed. “He’s helping people. It’s getting work done,” they said.
But a spokesperson for First Choice Homes Oldham spokesperson said they had ‘no issues’ reported to them by tenants in the block.
“Following ongoing dialogue, Mr Leese voluntarily offered to sign up an undertaking with the court last year where he promised he would not call the out of hours number and ensure that he reported any issues directly to First Choice Homes Oldham,” they said.
“This was a decision he made following his own independent legal advice.
“Unfortunately Mr Leese has not adhered to the promises he made to the court. He was found to be in breach of his undertaking, his sentence was adjourned and he did not challenge this decision.
“As long as he maintains his undertaking during its term then no further action will be taken and we will continue to work with him to resolve any issues he has. Providing quality homes is an absolute priority for us."
“We have not had any issues reported to us by tenants living in this block. However if any tenants do have issues they would like to report to First Choice Homes Oldham, we urge them to report them through our customer contact centre or online customer portal and we will work with them to address them.”
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