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.
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.
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”.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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