The new cabinet member for finance says he is ‘worried’ by dodgy data provided to justify a four-year extension to the multi-million-pound deal with the council’s repairs contractor. By STEVEN DOWNES
The contractor at the centre of the national scandal over the “worst flats in Britain” had their multi-million-pound contract extended by Croydon Council just weeks before ITV News exposed the terrible squalor endured by tenants in the neglected and badly maintained blocks on Regina Road.
Under the terms of the deal, fewer than 1-in-10 of repair jobs get independently checked by council officials, Inside Croydon can reveal.
Housing repairs contractor Axis (Europe) were handed a four-year extension earlier this year – after council papers showed that they met or exceeded every performance benchmark.
Yet council tenants in Shirley and Waddon, as well as those featured in the TV news broadcast in South Norwood, have told Inside Croydon that they have had to wait weeks, sometimes months, for even basic repairs on their homes to be carried out. And even then, the works may fail to last, maybe of questionable quality or require repeat visits.
An investigation into the repair and maintenance failures encountered at the blocks in Regina Road is expected to report tomorrow, with council sources suggesting it will be highly critical of the management of the housing department at Fisher’s Folly.
Certainly, official council reports on the repairs and maintenance service failed to reflect the widespread dissatisfaction of tenants, but instead only gave glowing references to the standard of works being delivered.
Croydon first awarded the borough-wide maintenance contract for all council properties to Axis in April 2014, under the then Conservative-controlled council. The contract was supposed to be worth almost £150million over its initial seven-year term.
According to a council report from 2020 written by Labour’s then cabinet member for housing, Alison Butler, “The cost of the service is £12.281million annually (inclusive of repairs support costs) with £9.221m currently allocated to the repairs contract with Axis.”
Because of the way the contract is structured, Axis has therefore been guaranteed £21.4million-worth of business from Croydon each year, almost regardless of the number of repairs they have to perform, or the quality of their delivery.
As recently as February 2020, when council officials were beginning work on whether to renew or extend Axis’s contract, Butler and Lorraine Smout, the council’s head of repairs and maintenance, told councillors on the scrutiny committee that, “As part of the contract review process, performance, costs, resident feedback, service delivery and risks were all being evaluated.”
The scrutiny committee was also told that, “Contractor reviews took place on a monthly basis with performance reported on a quarterly basis to the cabinet member for homes and gateway services.”
That “cabinet member for homes and gateway services” was Butler, the council deputy leader whose Town Hall positions paid her annual allowances of £48,660. Butler held those jobs from 2014 until late last year, when she was quietly dropped from the cabinet.
Last year, Butler told scrutiny councillors that Axis’s key performance indicators were “benchmarked against other providers and reviewed on an annual basis”.
Butler’s report said that, “Customer satisfaction with the repairs service had improved…,” and, perhaps most extraordinarily of all, “There had been some increase in complaints over the last two years of the contract, but performance on complaints throughout the contract period had been below the challenging targets.” Those are our italics.
That scrutiny committee was told that Axis were conducting 65,000 repairs on council properties per year. When a committee member suggested that this seemed very high, they were told that the figure was down from a previous year’s 72,000 repairs.
But other papers submitted to the committee contradicted those figures. They showed that 63,000 jobs were done in 2014-2015, but this had reduced to 38,914 by 2019-2020.
The committee was also told that customer satisfaction had improved, that the repairs completion time for emergencies was “very good” and in the “upper quartile”.
Again, figures in the accompanying report tended to contradict the evidence offered by council officials, with complaints increasing from 0.34 per cent to 0.41 per cent. Presumably, those figures did not include any of the many, many cries for help from residents in Regina Road, who had been enduring persistent water leaks, dangerous electrics and black mould widespread in their homes since 2019.
Only 10 per cent of Axis’s repairs are subjected to follow-up inspections by council officials, the committee was told. “To conduct inspections on more than 10 per cent of the 65,000 repairs carried out each year was not feasible with the available resources,” was the excuse given. In fact, in previous years, fewer than 10 per cent of repairs had been inspected.
Yet despite such obvious question marks over Axis’s performance, especially in light of the Regina Road scandal, the figures presented this year to justify extending the company’s contract showed that on every single indicator that the company performed above the average benchmark.
Only now has this raised alarm bells at the council, with Callton Young, the recently appointed cabinet member for finance, questioning the quality of the data being presented to councillors. “Just looking back and seeing what we have seen I am quite worried,” Young told fellow councillors last month.
Young also said that Axis had overspent on its budget every financial year since 2015. This year the council’s repairs budget is £11.5million and Axis’s budget allocation is £10.9million.
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