Welcome to the other side of Salford – the leafy outskirts of Eccles where the media, looking for sensationalist tower block stories, never treads.
Almost across the road from Hope Hospital, and a few streets away from Hazel Blears' Salford home is Bindloss Avenue, named after William Bindloss, a Victorian silk merchant whose mill was in Silk Street in Eccles. Here, in its own grounds, is the imposing 14 bedroom mansion that Bindloss built around 1840 for use when visiting the city on business. From the outside it's an incredible site. But step inside and your mouth soon drops open… Oh My God!!!
`Trashed' doesn't begin to describe this once habited family home. Holes in the ceilings, floorboards ripped up, skylights smashed, wallpaper peeling off every wall, fireplaces destroyed….the damp…the dead pigeons…The smell of decay and destruction almost knocks you out…
…It's hard to believe that £50,000 was spent renovating this place. But then Salford Council got involved. And after three years, this is the result…
It began, says the house's owner Robert Gray, when he received a phone call out of the blue from Salford Council telling him that he had 24 hours to repair his chimneys.
Robert, his wife Caroline and their children were living in the countryside at the time due to lots of really serious health issues. But Robert went back to Salford to check out the damage.
"There were around six or eight bricks that had come away but they'd only landed on the roof and the chimney pots hadn't moved at all as they were so heavy" he recalls "It was very bad weather at the time and I couldn't get anyone out to fix them for three weeks. But the Council said they couldn't wait that long and just got in these contractors, Paddy McGuiness, to take the chimneys down."
Paddy McGuiness is known mainly as a demolition company…
"They made a horrendous mess" understates Robert "There were bricks all over the roof, through the skylights and everywhere. The fireplaces were all choked up by the bricks and had to be removed."
The place was wrecked. But it got worse. The scaffolding was left up by the contractors and lead was later stripped from the roof, while antique crown chimney pots were robbed.
"We got it temporarily waterproofed but they couldn't stop the skylights leaking" says Robert "There was soot, dirt and damp everywhere and it just went right the way through the house."
The Grays' solicitors wrote to Salford Council numerous times pointing out the destruction but got nowhere. So, out of frustration, Robert wrote direct to the Queen, whose people passed the case over to the Minister responsible – their neighbour, the Right Hon Hazel Blears MP, who promptly did…nothing.
"Hazel Blears wrote back saying it was nothing to do with her, it was between us and the Council, and if we weren't satisfied to go to the Ombudsman" says Robert "The Ombudsman said we'd run out of time as it was over 12 months ago and, besides, we had a legal alternative through the solicitors and courts."
Last November Robert wrote back to the Queen about the Ombudsman…
"They said I had a legal alternative which would have cost me a huge amount of money that I could not afford…This could be used in almost all disputes with local government. So why is there an Ombudsman?
"We were told nothing about the time limit" he added "I always thought the Ombudsman Service was totally independent to pursue injustice? I am sure your Majesty knows that twelve months is not enough time, particularly when council departments ignore letters of liability even from our solicitor. When they eventually did reply, they said it is not their department and do not know whose it was (etc). I believe it was to delay time…"
The Queen, like Hazel Blears and the Ombudsman, unfortunately, didn't take up the case. The Grays were left, living away from the wrecked house, with little more money for solicitors and the claim against Salford Council at stalemate. And then it got worse…
Last December, Salford Council went on the attack against the Grays. Urban Vision, the Council's joint venture property company, sent a letter threatening legal action "as the appearance of the property is a cause of great concern to the Local Planning Authority".
The letter laid down eleven points of "concern" including the state of the roof – which was caused, it would seem, by Salford Council's own contractors.
Then Salford Council sent bailiffs round to the Grays' house in the country claiming unpaid council tax for the Bindloss property. Understandably, Robert and Caroline feel victimised.
"When the bailiffs came round it was terrifying; they shouldn't be threatening us and making us feel scared when they've done the damage" says Caroline "We wanted to move back into the house and were getting it renovated but due to all that happened with our health, we couldn't. Every six months we cut the grass, checked the building and it was all okay. It was beautiful – and now it's devastated. It's ridiculous."
And it's got worse and worse. Thieves have broken in, stripping metal piping and breaking windows allowing access to a flock of pigeons. The damp is now endemic and the décor of the former mansion is decimated.
"My mum bought this house in 1947 and I lived here for about twenty years" says Robert "My father was a builder and every room was warm, every wall was solid. They've trashed the roof and the guttering, and now it's damp. To put it right would cost ten of thousands of pounds which we just haven't got.
"We kept some of the old mangles and copper kettles, and were going to make one part of the house into a little museum, and our kids were going to have their own flats" he adds "I loved this house, and my wife loved it. Now look at it…"
Meanwhile, Salford Council is refusing to admit responsibility for the mansion trashing. According to Caroline, when the couple met the Council at magistrates court over an access dispute, the Council was told to put the house back in order.
"We showed the magistrate the photographs and he was quite shocked" she recalls "He asked the Council official why the damage hadn't been put right and she said `It's not my department'. When asked whose department it was, he said that he'd get his manager to contact the relevant department. This never happened."
When the Grays asked for the minutes of that magistrates meeting they were told the Council had them, but then, apparently the Council didn't have them… "Conveniently lost" is how Caroline describes it.
Having experienced Salford Council's dealings with its residents, Caroline is now convinced that this was never about a broken chimney. Even if the chimneys had fallen down, the house is in its own grounds and the debris would be no risk to anyone, she points out.
No. Caroline and Robert believe there are darker forces at work…
…Location. Location. Location. The Bindloss Avenue mansion is huge and sits in its own grounds in the rather desirable leafy suburbs of Eccles…
Robert Gray's second letter to the Queen included the following allegation about a conversation a Salford Council official had with their agents on a visit to the property…
"On the visit they told our agent WT Gunnison they would not restore the damage they had caused, but threatened they would compulsory purchase it (at a cheap price), demolish it, and they would sell it onto developers (at a higher price)…"
This is alluded to in the letter from Urban Vision…
"It is appreciated that a large amount of work is required to bring these properties back into a suitable condition. Therefore you may wish to consider the demolition of the properties followed by a redevelopment of the whole site…"
Caroline repeats the allegation… "The Council wants the site cheap" she says "We're not blaming the demolition people, who might have been told the house was coming down anyway, we're blaming Salford Council. Because of our health problems we feel bullied and taken advantage of by the Council - all we want is for them to put right the damage they've done to our house.
"In August Hazel Blears went to the emergency meeting of Parliament clearly asking for funds and support for people's property and businesses that were vandalised by the thugs and bullies in the recent riots" she adds "Now we say `What about us in her constituency. What about the Council's contractors vandalising and damaging our home?'"
The Salford Star wrote to Salford Council in April asking for its side of the mansion trashing story and Councillor Peter Connor, Salford City Council's Lead Member for Housing responded…
"This is a large property with many bedrooms and we're keen to see people living in it again. In 2008, we carried out work to the chimneys because they were in a poor and unsafe condition and the owners had ignored warnings telling them they needed looking at. We're still concerned the building is not being looked after properly and have issued an improvement notice giving the owners 28 days to start work."
We then asked some follow up questions…
* Can the Council confirm that it sent in Paddy McGuiness, a demolition company to `carry out work to the chimneys'?
* Is it normal practice for `carrying out work on chimneys' for those chimneys to be knocked inwards so all the bricks go down the fireplaces?
* Can the Council give us details of any other occasions where this kind of notice for improvement has been handed out in recent years?
* Does the Council acknowledge it has absolutely wrecked this property?
Councillor Peter Connor responded…
"This is a private property and the owners are responsible for making sure it's well maintained. This hasn't happened so the council had to carry out work to the chimneys which were in such disrepair that bricks had come loose.
"The owners were told several times work needed to be done and we were left with no choice but to go in ourselves and remove the chimneys" he added "Improvement notices are a last resort but where properties are a blight to the community and the owners are not looking after them properly we will take action."
The Salford Star wrote back to the Council asking them to answer the actual questions and John Merry, Leader of Salford Council responded…
"This is a private property and the owners are responsible for making sure it's well maintained. Because they failed to do this, and it posed a risk to the public, we were forced to employ contractors to carry out the essential repair work and make the property safe for the public
"Improvement notices are a last resort but where properties are a blight to the community and the owners are not looking after them properly we are forced to take action. In this case we employed a contractor to remove the chimneys and this work was done. "
Salford Council still hasn't answered the questions to anyone's satisfaction, while a request for a quote from Paddy McGuiness has been ignored.
Meanwhile, the Grays have reluctantly put the mansion at Bindloss Avenue up for sale as they can't afford to restore it, and Salford Council is refusing to accept liability for the damage.
"Please help as we have gone through all the correct channels only to find all our considerable time, effort and expense has been to no avail, which is not fair" the Grays pleaded to the Queen "We feel that in some areas of England victims get no justice for injustice and we are sure your Majesty would not agree with this."
That plea has now been extended to everyone in Salford and beyond, as the Grays have created an i-petition which they are urging everyone to sign – click here for details.