CROYDON IN CRISIS: If 2020 was Croydon Council’s year of Negreedy and bankruptcy, 2021 has been the year of leaks, mould and a local authority exposed as incompetent and uncaring about those living in its properties. And there are worrying signs that little has yet changed.
By STEVEN DOWNES
“The only ‘leaks’ that Steve Reed, Hamida Ali and their chums at the Town Hall should be worrying about are the ones in the council flats in South Norwood,” one Katharine Street source told Inside Croydon this week, as the local Labour Party continued in its course of vendettas, internal wrangling and self-destruction.
Councillor Ali will go down in history as leader of Croydon Council for less than two years, her political “career” forever stained with the scandal of the council homes on Regina Road – “the worst homes in Britain”, as they were described on national television.
And according to the reporter who broke the story which shocked the nation on ITV’s News At Ten on March 22, there’s still a lot more to come.
“During our investigation, we could have run a piece every single night on this,” Daniel Hewitt, ITV News’s political correspondent, says in an interview in the latest edition of Inside Housing magazine.
Hewitt has spent most of the past year researching and following up countless other instances of appalling conditions in council and housing association homes.
“Rightly,” Inside Housing states, “this is the story that everyone who lives and works in social housing has been talking about this year.”
In the lengthy interview, Hewitt says that the moment he stepped into the council home of Fransoy Hewitt in South Norwood, “It was the most angry I’ve ever been as a journalist, as a human being.”
The magazine reports, “Footage of her flat revealed the appalling conditions that she and her two sons were living in: walls covered in thick black mould and damp so bad the carpet squelched under her feet. Water leaked from lights and into sockets, leading her to unplug her fridge to avoid electrocution.”
And reporter Hewitt said, “Walking into that flat and seeing not just appalling, squalid conditions, but the fact that it was quite obviously dangerous and Fransoy was living there with her two little boys.”
He says that the smell and the cold he encountered in that Croydon council flat have stuck with him – as well as knowing that repairs teams had been round and she had called the council over and over again.
“I remember thinking that I couldn’t live in this for a day, never mind for months and months and months.”
After being exposed, Croydon Council apologised and in May, a damning report from independent consultants found systemic failures and incompetence at the council and its repairs contractor, Axis, saying there was a “poor operating culture with a lack of care and respect for tenants”.
Which, for most reasonable people, might have been a starting point for a radical improvement in the council’s care and attention to its tenants.
But Inside Croydon is aware of formal complaints being filed within the past month about the supercilious and condescending approach of senior council officials to Regina Road residents at recent meetings.
And while some of the ill-served residents have been moved out or been promised new accommodation away from Regina Road’s badly maintained flats, the notion that repairs are being conducted any more urgently or efficiently are belied by photographs of the blocks.
None of this has the excuse of the council’s bankruptcy, which occurred under Councillor Ali’s predecessor and mentor, Tony Newman and his influential deputy and head of housing, Alison Butler.
The council’s Housing Revenue Account is a ring-fenced fund used to run the borough’s council homes.
The HRA was the source of the money used to pay “Dr” Alison Knight her £800 per day fees when she swanned into Croydon as an emergency interim head of housing, only to leave after less than six months without any obvious sign of actually achieving anything.
Millions of HRA money had been earmarked to buy up Brick by Brick flats when the council’s failing housing company needed a cashflow boost.
Yet when it comes to using HRA money to improve the living conditions of existing council tenants, officials at Fisher’s Folly seem remarkably reluctant.
There is a borough-wide issue in council blocks with damaged and vandalised security doors. Labour councillors in several wards have lodged formal complaints on behalf of their residents for months on end, as the homes’ security is being placed at risk, and break-ins at the blocks have become more frequent, vandalism and drug-dealing has been an issue.
According to senior council sources, the HRA has more than £900,000 earmarked to pay for a borough-wide door replacement project… but the work has been delayed because a council official has not approved the work to start.
“It’s as if the Regina Road scandal never happened,” said the source.
Fransoy Hewitt had collated a diary of shame – a list of all her phone calls and emails to the council and its contractors over the previous 18 months. Some of her neighbours had been lodging similar complaints to the council’s housing department and Axis for four years.
As Inside Housing puts it, “Many residents in the block and in another across the road had repeatedly complained to the council about the state of their homes…”. Dan Hewitt’s first report on the News At Ten “was the start of an odyssey that would go on to highlight cases of poor social housing conditions across England”.
Hewitt rightly highlights the work of three ITV News producers on the South Norwood report and others subsequently: Sophie Alexander, Imogen Barrer, Sarah O’Connell.
It had been O’Connell, a decade earlier, who had produced Newsnight’s devastatingly critical report into the equally squalid conditions endured by families living in temporary accommodation in Croydon.
The work of O’Connell and Hewitt had done in 2021 what Cathy Come Home had exposed in the 1960s.
“If you could bottle the dignity and resilience of the people we’ve spoken to and sell it, you’d make a lot of money, because they have to put up with so much more than most people,” Hewitt told Inside Housing.
“Everything about their lives starts to crumble and fall apart. How can a child go to school and do well educationally when their home is riddled with damp and is wet and leaking?”
“Families have had their lives completely destroyed by this.
“And because people often don’t have anywhere else to go, when they complain there’s a sense of ‘what’s the urgency, they’re not going to leave’.
“Whether it’s unconsciously, there is potentially this culture that’s seeped in of ‘we don’t need to rush this’ – and that’s a really dangerous conclusion to come to.
“If people in the social housing sector are treating tenants like that… they just lose all hope that anyone is ever going to treat them well.
“It’s quite clear that there’s a pattern of treating tenants like the problems that they’re living with are their own fault.
“And there’s a culture of not actually listening to what they’re saying. There is a culture of not taking their complaints seriously.”
And Hewitt has a worrying message for Croydon Council and other social housing providers who fail their tenants. “We’re not stopping. We plan to continue to shine a light on the treatment of tenants and the conditions they are living in, and keep questioning what is being done about it.”
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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