By STEVEN DOWNES
The council took the unusual step last night of inviting one of the people it is supposed to serve, a resident, a council tenant, to speak at its Town Hall cabinet meeting.
What Fransoy Hewitt said, her voice cracking with emotion, could change Croydon Council for ever. It needs to.
She told councillors and senior council officials gathered in the Town Hall chamber that she and her neighbours had been “forced to live like animals”.
“Even animals don’t have to live like that,” she said. “It’s the 21st century.”
In an emotional few minutes, Hewitt told the council, “It’s disgusting!
“For god’s sake, everybody go home, and look in the mirror. Don’t look down on us.”
And for a final flourish, Hewitt said, “Talk is cheap. You don’t give a shit.”
Hewitt is the young mum who featured in the ITV News report from council flats in South Norwood which caused a national scandal because of the appalling conditions of damp and mould that she and other council tenants in residential blocks on Regina Road were forced to endure.
An urgent investigation into the Regina Road flats condemned the council and their repair contractors’ poor management and the contemptuous attitudes shown towards tenants, including Hewitt. The report found that complaints from the tenants about the squalid conditions had been ignored for four years.
As if to show that nothing has really changed, Hewitt revealed last night that, although promptly moved into another home once the Labour-controlled council’s corporate neglect had been exposed by the television investigation, the property still requires some repairs.
The council has told Hewitt she will have to wait until at least June before those repairs will be carried out.
Hewitt spoke truth to power last night.
She effectively challenged all the councillors to step up. She pretty much accused council leader Hamida Ali of lying over whether or not she has met with the affected residents.
After the heartfelt half-hour assault on the credibility of the council’s leadership, and of the housing department’s sometimes callous and sneering approach to their tenants, all recalled in front of the Town Hall’s own cameras, it is hard to see how Councillor Ali can continue in her position.
Last week, after having spent two months denying she had ever been contacted, Ali admitted that she had indeed received an email last November from tenants in Regina Road about their living conditions. Ali failed to take any action until the TV cameras arrived.
Of course, there were apologies issued, all too little and too late now. Cabinet members were in turn given an opportunity to say how dreadful the whole thing was.
One of Hewitt’s ward councillors, “Thirsty” Clive Fraser, tried to justify his part in the shambles by saying he had “knocked on doors”. According to residents of the tower blocks in Regina Road, Fraser had not come knocking before the television news report went out.
Fraser told of how he had been close to tears when he saw the conditions that some residents who he is supposed to represent were forced to live. To demonstrate how much he really cares, in his little, arse-covering speech, Fraser managed to get Fransoy Hewitt’s name wrong.
Earlier, Hewitt had been out on the Town Hall steps in pouring rain with other tenants, as the Regina Road Residents’ Support Group staged a demonstration – sure to be the first of many.
A handful of protestors were allowed into the public gallery for the cabinet meeting, from where they could barely contain their disdain for some of the pious nonsense being spouted by their representatives in the chamber below.
“They were genuinely shocked as they listened to all the fibs spewing forth from the councillors and council chiefs about consultations and the council’s intention to improve,” said one. After the first half-hour, some left “disgusted, and feeling angry and deflated”.
It was 45 minutes into the meeting before Hewitt was introduced. Given a rare chance as a resident to speak at a council meeting, she did not waste the opportunity.
The mother of two young sons said, “How could this even happen? I wrote to the council, I wrote to my MP. No one was able to catch on for months.”
Addressing the council leader with a question directly, she said, “You said you met with the residents. But no one is actually speaking to the tenants.”
She called it “frustrating” and “depressing”. More than once, Hewitt referred to the mental health issues that she and her neighbours had struggled with because of the poor conditions of their homes.
“There are many residents still waiting to speak to you. It’s all very nice having these meetings but no one is going to see the tenants.
“I am still having outstanding repairs, why am I moving to a brand new property and having outstanding repairs?
“I am constantly trying to reach out to people who don’t give a monkey’s about what’s going on in your life.
“None of the tenants in Croydon trust anybody in the council, you are all for yourselves, none of you want to step up and see what’s going on in their communities.
“It’s like you put them in homes and say ‘you might as well go take your own life. Because we don’t really give a shit, because we’ve done our job already, we’ve housed you, we’ve put a roof over your head.
“’We’ve put the files in the archives and that’s that’, and you move on to the next person and you do the same thing to the next person, and the next person, and the next person. It’s just ongoing and when does it stop?”
Patricia Hay-Justice was appointed as the cabinet member for homes in the same week that the ITV News report first went out. She told the meeting that since taking up the role, she has been a regular visitor to the flats on Regina Road, and she invited other councillors to join with her on site visits to that and other council-owned homes.
“I think there was a lack of love for another human being. it is unacceptable,” Hay-Justice said.
“If anybody had come to your flat they would not have been able to sleep at night knowing what happened.”
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