The final year of Karen Bell’s life
A women in Speke blamed one of Liverpool’s biggest social housing providers for not intervening when a neighbour made her life hell. We tried to work out what happened.
By Jack Walton
By the time Karen Bell passed away in May this year, she was effectively homeless. The causes of her death, as stated on her death certificate, are as follows: acute heart failure, systemic heart disease, coronary artery thrombosis. The real cause of her death, according to those who knew her, was altogether more distressing.
Two weeks ago, Karen’s best friend Jeanette Jennings got in touch with me by email. “I would like to speak to a local journalist about the appalling way my friend was treated,” she wrote. “There is a long story over 15 months about her neighbour who was slowly killing her because of his habits.” Karen’s doctor, the email went on, “provided letters about her worsening condition” to Torus, her social housing provider, but they had failed to act.
Torus is one of Liverpool’s largest social housing providers — the company owns almost 40,000 homes, with plans to build 9,500 new ones by 2030. Its sheltered housing service is available to people over the age of 55, offering a peaceful community for older, disabled or vulnerable people.
Karen fell in love with Liverpool after a trip in 1996, deciding instantly that she never wanted to leave. But 12 years ago, after suffering a heart attack, she moved into sheltered accommodation in Speke on the orders of her heart consultant. It seemed perfect: low stress living. She had a little garden, ideal for a long-time lover of flowers who was accredited as an approved judge of the British Gladiolus Society. Despite once being told by a doctor she’d struggle to do much at all after the heart attack, she continued to work in an allotment shop with her friend Phil.
In the early months of 2022, Karen got a new neighbour. Her home was a semi-detached property with thin walls, but she’d had no notable neighbour trouble in the past decade or so. Now she did. Karen told friends that the new neighbour started to undertake significant construction work, with loud banging and drilling for long hours every day, often into the early hours. He set up a fire pit in the garden and started regularly burning items, including — according to Karen — plastics, which would cause acrid fumes to waft into her home. “It went on for months and months,” Jeanette tells me.
The Post has read Karen’s emails throughout the last year of her life, which document how the situation worsened over a number of months, in conjunction with her declining health. There are hundreds of emails in total, most sent to various employees at Torus, appealing for help with regard to the situation iwth her neighbour. The emails are equal parts heartbreaking and maddeningly repetitive, as Karen appeals over and over for a solution.
They seem to tell a tragic story of extreme antisocial behaviour, a woman in the twilight of her life enduring misery alone, and the alleged corporate negligence that allowed it all to happen. Torus, however, have told us they take all claims of anti-social behaviour seriously, and advised Karen throughout her dispute, but ultimately could not find evidence to support many of the claims.
The most pressing issue with her new neighbour was to do with his alleged cannabis smoking. Karen says repeatedly in her emails to Torus that she isn’t bothered about him smoking, but as a sufferer of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (or COPD: a group of lung conditions that cause breathing issues) and someone with heart problems, she was concerned about him smoking inside. There was a vent between the two bungalows, which meant the fumes would enter her loft space and disperse throughout her property. “Either [Torus] go to his property and block the vent up so no fumes can come into my property or I stop living here until something is done about it,” she wrote.
Karen spent a few weeks ringing Torus, but found that her complaints were not being followed up. In May 2022 she then wrote to the CEO and was assigned a caseworker, who visited her neighbour to “voice their concerns”. An interview was set up for Karen later in the month, at which she lodged an official complaint and was told to install a noise monitoring app to provide evidence of the banging to Torus, but this wasn’t possible as she didn’t own a smartphone. Nonetheless, things improved a little after the visit. “It's lovely to have no noise to report,” she wrote in an email on 1 June. Then on 6 June the hammering started again.
She said that the extent of the banging caused cracks to appear on the walls of her bungalow. In various emails she complains about loud banging, once about use of an electric saw at nighttime, several times about hammering throughout the evening and often about cannabis.
She reported to Torus that she had suffered two separate angina attacks in the past four weeks amid the stress. Torus responded later in the month that they would be sending her neighbour a letter. By this point Karen was sleeping in her car, after her doctor told her she had to get away from the smoke.
The letter arrived but nothing changed. In an email dated 26 June 2022 Karen complains that she felt close to having a heart attack after becoming very stressed and having not slept the night before, but thankfully her GTN spray — a type of spray used for fast relief of chest pain caused by angina — helped to quell the pain. She wrote to Torus not long after to say she had overheard her neighbour talking about the letter on the phone in his garden, and vowing to “make her life hell”. Torus asked if she wanted to progress her complaint. She was also offered £50 because the call centre had “let her down”.
Throughout July she continued to complain that nothing had been done since the complaint progressed, and on 12 July her neighbour allegedly cut down her acer tree in the garden. Then on 29 July she wrote: “I am seriously thinking about making myself homeless which is stupid I know but I am at the end of the line and nobody seems to give a damn at Torus.” Her friend Phil, who worked with Karen in an allotment shop, remembers a change in her mood when the tree was destroyed. “She was always upbeat, you could always have a laugh with her,” he says. “But she was absolutely gutted at that, I’d never seen her so annoyed.”
Karen was given an anti-social behaviour diary, in which tenants can log incidents, giving Torus “evidence to resolve the problem”. She wrote several accounts of the ongoing noise and smoking problems, in one log on 7 August 2022, saying in block capitals: “I DO NOT WANT TO LIVE HERE ANYMORE”. Another was titled “LIFE HAS TO GET BETTER”.
She continued to complain, but as little action was being taken and there was a hold-up moving the complaint to stage two, her doctor recommended she get away from the property and get some fresh air, so she went camping. According to Jeanette, she wasn’t really well enough.
She returned from the trip and by September last year things had gotten so bad Karen had taken to sleeping in her car again. Her doctor had put her on increased medication and was again warning her about staying at the house. “He says you cannot live in a home where that is going on it will KILL YOU,” she wrote in an email to a Torus employee. In another, she says she had begun sofa surfing with friends and described it as “a life or death situation” and added that “nothing [has] been done via Torus”. And then: “It has now got to the point where I need to get more clothes but [I am not] allowed to enter due to the fumes”.
After five increasingly desperate emails throughout September complaining about the vent, and Karen obtaining a chest infection, Torus eventually organised a meditation meeting between her and the neighbour for 27 September. It felt like progress after six months. At the meeting, several things were agreed. The neighbour would close up the vent and they both agreed to be mindful of noise in the evenings. Any further issues would be resolved with a polite note.
None of this happened. The following month she went to her doctor to obtain another note — which The Post has seen — advising that Karen had noticed a “clear association between her symptoms and the cannabis use,” and advised Torus “take this into consideration when deciding management of this situation”.
According to Karen’s emails, in October she spoke to Torus on the phone again begging the issue with the vent be resolved. She told them it was affecting her health, and they told her they only had her word for this. She referred them to the doctor’s notes. At this point, in November, yet another Torus worker got assigned, writing to Karen that she had taken on the case.
The new worker promised to investigate the issue surrounding the vent, and sent a surveyor to the house. The conclusion was that the “vent is in situ to allow the old gas fire flue to breathe and that it allows air to circulate,” and as such couldn’t be blocked. Karen replied that the previous tenant — her friend — had never had a gas fire. She was invited to lodge a complaint. It felt like they were going round in circles.
Things started to improve for a while, as the neighbour started smoking outside. But the bad weather in January meant the alleged indoor smoking restarted, again wafting through the vent. Karen’s health was quickly declining. On a night towards the end of January she rang Jeanette, but according to Jeanette she was hardly able to speak down the end of the phone. Through heavy breaths she explained that he’d been smoking and her COPD was flaring up. Jeannete told her to move out straight away and come to live with her. Soon before her moving out, Torus had written to Karen telling her the case was being closed due to a lack of evidence. She wrote back saying she felt “dismayed”.
At this point, Torus got in touch again, saying it had now been agreed to seal (or remove) the vent after all. Karen emailed nine days later, chasing the issue, saying that she had attempted to go home but had to leave because the property was once again full of “toxic fumes”. Torus wrote back saying the neighbour had now refused, and there was again nothing they could do. Torus pointed out to The Post that they are “unable to ‘force’ entry into people’s homes to carry out works, except in the case of an emergency”.
A couple of months later, the new case worker offered to arrange a visit with the police to the neighbour’s property to identify the smell of cannabis, in effect reopening the case, but Karen gave up, having initiated the process of moving out. She added that given the smoking was intermittent it may not coincide with the police visit. “As you have declined to have this visit as you say it would be a waste of time, this case will now be closed,” wrote the Torus worker.
What struck me, in the slightly surreal and disconcerting experience of sorting through the extensive email conversations of a woman who has recently passed away, is the impenetrable bureaucracy of it all. Her emails are marked by desperation, and the revolving cast of case workers and Torus officers, or people sitting behind the other end of a computer in the employment of the housing ombudsman, are all polite in response — often overlooking her spiky comments — accelerating complaints, performing checks, passing her between endless points of protocol, and the grand result is that nothing appeared to change. Kafkaesque is an overused word; it feels appropriate here.
In the end she gave up altogether. Jeanette told her she’d scrape some money together to buy her a caravan to live in, and Karen handed in her notice at Torus. Given her heart condition, the moving process was daunting: she had 13 years’ worth of possessions. “It was such a strain for her,” Jeanette says. She decided she’d go away to Wales for a week, take in the clean air, and return to move out into the caravan and start afresh.
Karen Bell died a few days into her trip. Her friend Phil tells me he’d spoken to Karen the day before. “I spoke to her by text and told her I’d planted some tomatoes at the allotment,” he says. “She was made up about it.” Both he, Jeanette, and her other friend Barbara, believe that the stress of the last year had killed her. “Her life was cut short, within a year,” Barbara says. “Nobody was interested in what was happening to Karen.”
Last week I caught a train, then a bus, then made the long walk to the community in Speke where Karen was living. I wanted to see what Karen’s neighbour had to say about all of this. I knocked, drew breath, and out he came in a blue cardigan. He is in his mid-70s and looked extremely frail. One of his hands was tremulous. He raised a faint smile. “Even from beyond the grave she’s found a way to make my life hell,” he said. When I tell him Karen’s friends have been speaking to me about his actions towards her, he looks utterly bemused.
John Watter laid out his own version of events. Since moving into the property just over a year ago, Karen had lodged a series of spurious complaints against him, he explained. She’d accused him of being a cannabis smoker, despite him also having COPD, and more severely than she did. “It was nonsense,” he says. I ask if anyone else had been smoking on the property? He says no. Torus also told us they had “investigated and discovered no evidence to support the [smoking] claim”.
John adds that, given his frail state and the fact he is suffering from cancer, he couldn’t possibly have made such a constant banging noise, but rather he invested in a pair of £75 headphones to use with his TV to keep noise as low as he could. I ask instead about his vow to “make her life hell”. He laughs, and says Karen had threatened to “knock his block off” one afternoon. “It was really, really awful,” he says. He then explains that a petition had gone round the community in support of Karen, but that he’d done nothing wrong.
Baffled, I left the property. It’s hard to know quite what to make of it all. On the one hand, Karen’s friends have watched her decline at the hands of an agonising situation, and her emails document a case of increasing anguish over more than a year. Torus’s solutions — like offering Karen £50 after failing to respond to a number of complaints — seem beyond paltry.
On the other hand, John seems so frail, not quite the image of a pot-smoking aggressor, and Torus say they have no evidence for the claims Karen made against him. The two things that seemed compelling when I first read Karen’s emails — that her neighbour was making her life hell, and that the housing association had washed their hands of her — seem virtually unproveable.
If I worked for a national newspaper, I would probably just have dropped the story. It’s murky and unclear — proving what happened to Karen Bell one way or the other is almost impossible. How can we know what she heard or saw on the nights that she sent those emails to Torus?
But I don’t work for a national newspaper, and I think that this story illustrates something about the stories we come across as journalists all the time. Stories that seem clear and compelling and then become complicated and hard to adjudicate. You spend hours and days putting the pieces together and then they fall out of place. It doesn’t make for satisfying reading but it tells you something about the anguish and uncertainty that happens in less-documented lives.
On a personal level, I’m left with a feeling of sadness, that a life with hopes and goals and ambitions ended in a series of scared, angry emails about being alone and ignored.
I call Barbara and Jeanette and tell them about John’s frailty, and they both say they knew he wasn’t in the best of health. “We thought: ‘how come he’s smoking this way when he isn’t well,’” Jeanette says. “We couldn’t understand the lifestyle he was taking.” Torus said they take “all reports of anti-social behaviour (ASB) seriously and understand that ASB can cause distress to neighbours and the wider community”, but are ultimately “reliant on robust evidence to support any action”.
It fell on Jeanette, in the end, to clear out Karen’s property in Speke. She describes the process as exhausting, physically and emotionally. She now lives with Karen’s Yorkshire terrier Lily. Jeanette can’t accept John’s version of events. “She really put herself through 15 months of not living at home properly, all that stress?” she says. “No. It was affecting her life, and it killed her.”