Croydon in crisis: Investigation into housing scandal finds systemic failure and incompetence in council

Independent consultants confirm that housing officials treated tenants with ‘a lack of respect’, and even lied to the local MP over repairs to damp and mouldy flats in South Norwood. By STEVEN DOWNES

A “relatively routine” building failure, a water leak, was allowed to go unrepaired for four years, according to a damning investigation into the appalling housing conditions endured by council tenants in South Norwood.

Kept under wraps: the council withheld the damning report for a month

Independent consultants found that Croydon Council and repair contractors, Axis, had failed “to deliver even basic ‘core’ housing services effectively… potentially symptomatic of poor performance across the council’s housing service”.

Among their key findings, Ark Consultancy said that there was “a poor operating culture with a lack of care and respect for tenants”, that there are senior managers at the council “who do not appear to know what is going on”, and “a lack of capacity and competence” in the council’s housing department.

They also highlighted how, when the tenants’ elected representatives intervened on their behalf, council officials even lied to an MP over whether the leak had been repaired.

Croydon’s Labour-run council commissioned the urgent report following the ITV News broadcast in March of the conditions in the residential block on Regina Road. One housing specialist described the condition of the South Norwood flats as the worst they had ever seen.

The council kept the draft report’s damning findings under wraps for a month, for fear it would affect the outcome of yesterday’s elections, which included council by-elections in South Norwood and neighbouring Woodside wards.

Hamida Ali: still to meet Regina Road tenants in person

The report was finally released at lunchtime today, with council leader Hamida Ali emailing it first to members of the Croydon Labour Party. Inside Croydon understands that council tenants affected by the neglect and disrepair of their homes had not been given the courtesy of first sight of the report.

Councillor Ali – who, after six weeks, has yet to fulfil her promise to meet in person the council tenants worst affected by her council’s incompetence – described the report as “not easy reading”.

The report is available to read in full here.

In the report the consultants state, “Ark’s investigation identified no single reason as to why the problems at Regina Road occurred. Rather there are a range of issues primarily across the council’s operational teams (repairs, asset management and tenancy management) and to some extent with its contractor.

“In Ark’s view these issues led to a failure to deliver even basic ‘core’ housing services effectively. They are potentially symptomatic of poor performance across the council’s housing service and impact on its ability to drive self-improvement.”

The consultants identified a series of issues:

  • a lack of capacity and competence;
  • a poor operating culture with a lack of care and respect for tenants;
  • systemic problems in how the council communicates and deals with tenants’ concerns and complaints;
  • weak performance management meaning senior managers do not appear to know what is going on;
  • poor use of data and ‘intelligence’ by the council and its contractors.

The consultants looked into conditions at 1- 87 Regina Road, one of three 11-storey blocks which have 44 one-bedroom flats that date from 1965. There are another 15 similar residential tower blocks around the borough. Community activists confirm that similar issues of leaks, damp, mould and disrepair have affected residents in the two other blocks on Regina Road.

The report states, “A relatively routine building component failure (a water leak) went undiagnosed and unrepaired in 1-87 Regina Road, South Norwood, for a combined period of around fur years. In this time, left unchecked it was allowed to grow from a minor defect into a major problem that presented a risk to the health and safety and significantly impacted the quality of life of residents.

All three blocks of flats in Regina Road are affected by leaks, damp and mould

“Residents’ concerns were left unresolved and opportunities to resolve the problem were missed from 2017 onwards.”

They say that the cause of the leaks was a corroded copper rising main in the slab between two of the flats. “This detail exists throughout the building,” they state. “The block is also known to experience other water leaks caused by corrosion in the pipework, as well as a leaking roof.”

The 14-page report makes a series of recommendations, some requiring immediate action.

At the heart of the council’s short-comings is a clear understaffing of the housing department, after a decade of government austerity policies which have seen repeated redundancies and cuts.

“The council’s housing service is experiencing significant issues with staffing resources,” the report says.

“Resources are stretched with problems with recruitment and low morale. High vacancy rates exist across the service but are highest in the repairs teams – some are operating with only half their staffing complement. Consequently, the service is focused on ‘firefighting’ and reacting to circumstances and events, rather than getting ahead of things and being proactive.”

The number of council staff looking after the council’s compliance function, including fire safety and gas servicing checks, is “inadequate” according to the report.

“Each tenancy officer is responsible for a patch of more than 1,000 properties, which is double what Ark might typically see from a high-performing housing provider.”

Croydon Council only took action once Fransoy Hewitt’s ruined home was featured on ITV News

And, “Recruitment and retention issues means that an increasing proportion of staff lack the experience and skills needed.”

The report provides a litany of errors and mismanagement in relation to the damp flats in the Regina Road blocks. “After more than two years of failed attempts to remedy the problems, the council agreed to decant the tenant of Flat C in early December 2019. However, the council did not agree to decant the tenant of the flat above (Flat D), or to arrange access to their flat for investigatory work to identify and fix the leak.

“This was the first of several missed opportunities by the council’s operational staff to resolve the problems at Regina Road.

“It took the council seven months to arrange to move the tenant from Flat C despite the unsatisfactory housing conditions experienced. Almost 10 months later, Flat C is still vacant.

“It is unclear why the tenant of Flat D was not decanted at the same time as Flat C, even if this was only for a short period. This would have allowed the council to diagnose and remedy the problem much more easily.

The report into housing conditions in the blocks on Regina Road, and the council’s housing departmentfailings, is ‘not an easy read’ according to the council leader

“Efforts to gain access to Flat D from December 2019 onwards were unfocused and uncoordinated. ARK found no evidence that the council had a clear operational procedure or an awareness of best practice in its approach.

“After a delay of nine months (following repeated contractor requests and the decant of Flat C at the end of June 2020) the council moved to use its Draconian powers of entry to gain access to Flat D in March 2021. A co-ordinated series of actions applied on an escalating scale in line with operational procedures or best practice to encourage the tenant of Flat D to allow access or leave (if only for a few days) does not appear to have been attempted…

“Successful action in stopping the leak was not taken until the tenants of Flats A, B and D had all been moved into emergency accommodation in late March 2021 – almost four years after the tenant of Flat C had started reporting problems of water leaking into their flat.”

The consultants say they found “an outmoded culture and attitude among a number of council staff towards tenants”.

They say, “Tenants were often seen as demanding, difficult to deal with and less worthy of respect. Some council staff lack empathy with tenants, failing to put themselves ‘in their shoes’ when dealing with problems. These attitudes appear to be going unchallenged.”

The report also states, “No one took ownership of the problem and sought to ensure everyone pulled together to get the problems resolved effectively”, and “Council staff failed in their duty of care to manage risks and keep tenants safe.”

The consultants say that they did not find evidence of discrimination on racial grounds among council housing staff towards residents. “Instead, there appears to be a wider issue, with all tenants being stigmatised and seen as less worthy of respect.”

MP Steve Reed: was told by the council that the leaks were fixed, when they weren’t

The report also confirms a breakdown in the relationship between councillors and MPs and the council, with some officials and managers appearing to regard residents’ elected representatives with the same disdain shown towards tenants. Even, the report says, though in more guarded language, by lying to MP Steve Reed.

“In September/October 2020 and again in the early part of 2021, the problems were escalated to councillors and the MP by tenants,” the report says. “Tenants were understandably frustrated that the Council’s own complaints processes were not working effectively or in a timely manner.

“The MP raised a number of matters on behalf of the tenant of Flat A and received a reply in February 2021 from the council advising him that all repairs had been completed. This was clearly incorrect.” Those are our italics.

Inside Croydon understands that there is to be a follow-up television news report on ITV’s News At  Ten this evening.

Read more: Only 10% of council housing repair jobs ever get checked
Read more: Ali accused of cover-up over findings on council flats scandal
Read more: Croydon shamed over ‘dangerous squalor’ in council flats
Read more: ‘Your staff make us feel less than human’

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17 Responses to Croydon in crisis: Investigation into housing scandal finds systemic failure and incompetence in council

  1. Maverick says:

    I don’t want to tell you so…but come on ! We don’t need a report to tell us of the incompetence of the council. Surely if Ark Consultancy took time to look at former reports from Inside Croydon who have been reporting for some time of the incompetence of Croydon Council. The buck needs to rest on the shoulders of senior managers and NOT on those at the coal face who take all the stick and no doubt will be blamed. It’s time now for a complete review of all these so called manager and directors and that does not just mean housing!

  2. kendeespana says:

    Report damning the council published just a few hours after the polls closed – so blatantly cynical!

    • It’s called a cover up. It was decided by the people complicit in the Brick by Brick scandal and every other clusterfuck that’s rocked the council in recent years. They want to hide and manipulate the truth to keep themselves in power.

  3. Ian Kierans says:

    We may not like that manner in which the report was delayed and definitely the report is horrendous – but I have not read it in full yet and I do like to check some things before commenting. However It is true that there are restrictions and embargoes on communications prior to election and this applies to all parties. It perhaps was convenient that the election came at that time and the embargo was in place and advice was received that this was a document that would infringe that regulation. However it is out now. There are many reports that are not and should be. As Maverick says it is not just Housing that has issues. However Ms Ali says ”Our councillors and MPs will continue to work hard for all our residents, and from now on the systems will be in place to support them.

    The report is published in full to make sure that residents’ voices are heard, and in the coming months we will carry on the conversation that we have begun to make sure that we repair not only the fabric of their homes, but our relationship.” Let us hold her to that. Firstly by acknowledging the actual group that the residents have set up themselves. Then prioritising the health and safety issues no matter how unpleasant and remedying those within weeks. Then getting on with the fundamental repairs so residents can live in safety without health issues. in the background perhaps it is time for Croydons executive to indulge in some reflective naval gazing for a few seconds then very quickly accept the feedback of it’s failures and get on with actively changing it’s culture and way of operating not just as a administration but also as Councillors and representatives. I am not just speaking about Labour but all the Councillors. if not then Croydon Council and Councillors will have to live with the soubriquet’s applied as we electors have to think do we want a Democratic Council – or a blend of aggrandising autocratic dictatorship going forward? Perhaps Ms Ali should begin with an in person apology to those residents then less words and more actual work so feel see and feel the change instead of hearing about what might be. Croydonions deserve better – Time to deliver that.

    • Geoffrey says:

      But it’s an anonymous report from a limited company – who commissioned them? – and why?

      • Read our reports, including this one you’d commented on. It is no great secret. Indeed, the council leader told the world about the investigation when she was being interviewed on national television. And in case you hadn’t worked it out, the report was commissioned from independent housing consultants because of the scandal caused by the disgusting disrepair of council homes in Regina Road.

  4. Councillors, senior management council staff and contractors all have to carry some blame. But….”At the heart of the council’s short-comings is a clear understaffing of the housing department, after a decade of government austerity policies which have seen repeated redundancies and cuts.
    “Resources are stretched with problems with recruitment and low morale. High vacancy rates exist across the service but are highest in the repairs teams – some are operating with only half their staffing complement. Consequently, the service is focused on ‘firefighting’ and reacting to circumstances and events, rather than getting ahead of things and being proactive.” Having experienced exactly the same scenario while working in the NHS, with property and maintenance, and all the ancillary services suffering cuts for years and years, ultimately rendering them unfit for service and hence ripe for privatisation, the entire point of those cuts, that is where the real cause of these failures lies. With the systematic and purposeful underfunding of local authorities to weaken them and reduce their power and influence, and especially public housing, always seen as a stronghold of labour supporters. At the front end it is utterly demoralising to be faced with a completely overwhelming workload that only increases with more cuts, more redundancies and leavers, no replacements, budgets running out in October so that stop orders are put on all accounts for parts and materials. As a specific example, imagine the embarrassment, the shame, the frustration, the demotivation, as an employee of a public authority, in your logo’d jacket, of queuing at the checkout for your bags of cement, or bunch of pipe work, or in my case, repair orders and parts for mowers and machinery only to be told that the account had been stopped due to non-payment… Such as this, applied to all and every situation in public employment does not excuse the ”us and them” but such overload creates a siege mentality, a retreat into the silo that is a hugely negative way to work. To be a public employee used to be a matter of pride, of aspiration, someone to be looked up to. Thatcher, and monetarism, anti-unionism and ”there is no such thing as society” destroyed all that. Public service is no longer valued, and no longer properly resourced,. So blame your tory voters inability to link their vociferous demands for low taxes with this kind of depauperate local authorities incapacity to deal in a human way with their responsibilities. Put the responsibility where it truly lies, with the voters, and their vicious, selfish government.

  5. Failure after failure at Croydon Council – an horrendous lack of scrutiny across all departments.

    And the Council actually has a Scrutiny Committee chaired by an old friend of Tony Newman, Cllr Fitzsimons.

    How can there be a Scrutiny Committee when the council has f**is up everything it touches?

    Why is Fitzsimons even still allowed to chair this committee??

    If he was a airline fight cabin crew member, he would have been grounded a year ago.

    What is going on at Croydon Council ??? Leader Ali PLEASE sort this out and sort the Scrutiny committee out. They are not fit for purpose, clearly.

  6. Isn’t it fortunate for the Council that they ended their landlord licensing scheme (fee £750) on 30 Sept 2020? Otherwise they could have been accused of hypocrisy in demanding higher standards from the private sector than they had achieved themselves. However given how long this shambles has been going on then “hypocrisy” is probably quite appropriate and they should consider refunding the charges made.

  7. miapawz says:

    As a landlord, Croydon Council should be taking care of its assets on behalf of the taxpayers, namely our buildings. Also for the welfare of the humas living in them, the tenants. Why has it not been noticing copper pipes leaking for FOUR YEARS? Croydon council is run by idiots. Poorly staffed idiots? but idiots. Axis? Did I not just read that the Butler woman renewed its contract despite it not being able to notice the leaks/despair/ large crops of black mould and mushrooms in these buildings? For the love of God why are people still voting for these people.

  8. Geoffrey says:

    Why did no professional put his or her name to the report?

    • They did. It’s there in big letters on the cover page of the report: Ark Consultancy.

      • Geoffrey says:

        With respect, Ark Consultancy Limited is a company, not a professional. The writers could be Architects, surveyors or local government critics, InsideCroydon should know about the relevance of anonymous sources.

        • Indeed we do. But Ark Consultancy use experts in their field, and the names of the two £800 per day consultants have been known for some time, and we have reported them.

          But it is Ark who were commissioned, and they take responsibility for the report. There is nothing unusual about that.

  9. Stephen Tyler says:

    When researching the history of Croydon FC today (Croydon’s team who couldn’t play at home the last season), I found a headline in the Croydon Advertiser dated 4/11/1994 concerning leaking tower blocks in Gordon Crescent and, believe it or not, Regina Road.

  10. moyagordon says:

    I think blaming under funding by central government a convenient get out. If people choose to take a job where they are taking responsibility for delivering certain standards in the provision of public services then they need to raise alarm bells as soon as they see standards cannot be maintained because of lack of funding. If they fail to do this then they are not doing their job properly and blaming lack of funding in retrospect is too late, children are living in horrendous conditions and it is not acceptable.

  11. Ex-lbc says:

    As someone who worked closely with that team years ago, back when the tories were in power in Croydon, the same management team run repairs now. I can report that the culture in that team was toxic. Bullying, senior managers shouting and swearing at junior colleagues daring to raise issues, petty, nasty comments about suppliers (such as what female members of the team were wearing). Awful people I was glad to escape from. The whole time I was spoken to like dirt, while they claimed to have the best housing service in the country and could never be questioned by a mere upstart. Not surprised.

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