By STEVEN DOWNES, Editor, Inside Croydon
It didn’t take long to decide who the 2021 Inside Croydon Person of the Year should be.
But this is not a nomination made out of pity.
It is not being awarded to recognise the young mum from South Norwood’s stoicism in the face of the appalling conditions in which she and her young sons were expected to live in their council flat in Regina Road.
We had no hesitation in naming Fransoy Hewitt as this website’s Person of the Year for the courage and composure she showed when taking on the council over its lamentable neglect of her and dozens of other tenants, forced to endure what one housing specialist described as the worst they had ever seen in Britain.
“Before you even see the black mould and the damp inside the flats, you can smell it in the corridors,” ITV News reporter Dan Hewitt said.
“Not even the pictures you can see do justice to the dangerous squalor residents, some of them young children, have been forced to endure for months.”
Fransoy Hewitt had already been taking on Croydon Council for months, calling every day, emailing most days, and logging every call or message that was ignored or left unactioned by the Town Hall’s housing team or their repairs contractors, Axis.
Hamida Ali, the council leader, tried to deny it, but evidence was later provided that showed that the Labour councillor, who is supposed to represent the ward next door to Regina Road, had been sent an email six months before the television report was broadcast about the state of the council flats, but had done nothing about it.
Fast-forward a couple of months, and Fransoy Hewitt and her two sons had been moved to new council accommodation – though even that was in need of some proper repairs and maintenance.
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.
Then Fransoy Hewitt was invited to speak in the Town Hall Chamber at a council meeting.
This was unprecedented.
The public are rarely given an opportunity to air their views to those who are supposed to serve them, the highly-paid council executives, and those who are supposed to represent them, the councillors.
She was stepping onto the councillors’ turf, being asked to play their game. Hewitt stepped up and delivered an impassioned speech, oftentimes on the verge of tears, that let loose the frustrations and anger that had been pent up over many, many months.
She’d been ignored by her council, ignored by her councillors – none of whom could residents recall having visited Regina Road in the weeks or months before the TV report – and ignored by her MP.
They weren’t going to be able to ignore this.
There was real power in Hewitt’s words. A cry for justice, not just for her and her young family, but for all the neglected residents in Regina Road and across the borough.
At the time, we reported, “What Fransoy Hewitt said, her voice cracking with emotion, could change Croydon Council forever. It needs to.”
Seven months later, there remains plenty of doubt that the change needed is happening at all, never mind quickly enough.
Hewitt 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.
“For god’s sake, everybody go home, and look in the mirror. Don’t look down on us.
“Talk is cheap. You don’t give a shit.”
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.
“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?”
That Fransoy Hewitt ever got the chance to expose Croydon Council and Axis for their inhuman neglect of her and her fellow tenants is due in great part to the news producer Sarah O’Connell, whose hard work and determination got the ITV housing campaign onto our television screens.
“When I first met Fransoy she was so full of despair at the state of her flat that it was difficult for her to speak without crying,” O’Connell told Inside Croydon.
“She thanked me profusely and repeatedly for replying to her email and coming to see her, explaining how everyone at the council had ignored her for years, and she showed me endless notes and logs of calls and emails she had sent to them. It was such a desperate situation.
“And yet despite Fransoy’s circumstances, she welcomed me into her home with such courtesy and kindness. Anyone who met her then would have felt humbled by her dignity.
“After we first broadcast, she couldn’t believe the pick-up her story got – and it was lovely to see her almost come back to life. She had always been determined to fight for herself but now she wanted to speak up for the other tenants in Regina Road.
“Her appearance at the council – which we all watched open-mouthed – was crackling with her indignation and outrage, despite her feeling totally overwhelmed by her surroundings. She didn’t want to go, but felt she had to, to speak for others.
“To me, Fransoy epitomises the very best of Croydon.
“Her resilience and dignity in the worst of circumstances was inspirational, but most impressive was her refusal to back down. Even after the council had moved her to a warm, safe home, she was still determined to fight on behalf of other Croydon tenants, and for that she has my undying respect and admiration.”
And for that, Fransoy Hewitt is Inside Croydon’s Person of the Year 2021.
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