A report from the improvement committee appointed in the aftermath of the council homes scandal has found that Croydon’s tenants continue to be treated with ‘shocking rudeness and inhumanity’, while many in Regina Road blocks ‘are still living in very poor conditions’.
By STEVEN DOWNES
One year since Croydon’s “appalling” council housing caused a national scandal, a report from the committee established to help fix the systemic neglect of tenants has accused the authority of failing to do enough to remedy the situation.
The Housing Improvement Board’s report says that there was an “inexplicable and inexcusable failure to follow due process” over the recent decision by the Labour-run authority to hike council rents by 4.1per cent.
And they state that council tenants still “do not feel respected or taken seriously, and we have heard about some examples of shocking rudeness and inhumanity”.
The board’s covering letter states, “Far more could and should have been done in the year since the ITV News pieces to address the unacceptable conditions in which some tenants have been living in Regina Road and elsewhere, both to take the first steps to improve the service, and to produce a strong plan to bring the service up to a good standard over the next few years.”
The Housing Improvement Board is chaired by Martin Wheatley, whose covering letter and board report have been published ahead of next Monday’s council cabinet meeting.
That meeting at the Town Hall is to be held on the anniversary of the broadcast of the first ITV News report in a series of exposés, as the broadcasters discovered similar, long-term issues existing in social housing across the country.
The conditions in the flats on Regina Road in South Norwood, with the damp, mould, poor standards of repairs and maintenance, and with health hazards everywhere you looked in what are supposed to be the homes of families with young children became a byword for poor housing provision throughout England and Wales.
The Housing Improvement Board’s 11-page report describes “the shocking and unacceptable state of properties in Regina Road, and the appalling treatment tenants had experienced over a long period”.
The slow progress at correcting those conditions – described as “dangerous squalor” in the TV news report – and improving the state of the rest of the borough’s housing stock, comes despite there being £27million in reserves in the council’s ring-fenced Housing Revenue Account.
While Wheatley and the committee make generally positive noises about the efforts of councillors and council staff to do something about the dire and appalling conditions filmed in March 2021 – described at the time by the chief executive of Shelter as “the worst housing conditions I have ever seen” – their report is full of criticism over the authority’s failure to deliver any meaningful improvements in the past year.
That this is the Housing Improvement Board’s first report to the council cabinet is, of itself, a demonstration of the council’s slow progress. The committee was formed following recommendations in a highly critical consultants’ report published in early May 2021. Yet the Improvement Board met only for the first time in December last year.
“My colleagues and I would need to see clearer, visible, evidence of change in the experience of tenants,” Wheatley writes, “and a much-strengthened plan, to have greater confidence that the council’s correct analysis and intentions will lead to the very substantial improvements needed.”
Sources within the council are clear that one of the causes for the stop-start nature of change in the council’s housing department was the ill-considered appointment by CEO Katherine Kerswell of Alison Knight as interim director, on £800 per day (one occasion when the Housing Revenue Account was able to provide “emergency funds”…).
Knight left as her six-month contract ended, without once ever bothering to meet with the worst-affected residents of Regina Road.
Nor did Knight manage to fill multiple vacancies in senior positions within the council’s housing team. As the Housing Improvement Board report points out, only four of 13
senior leadership posts in the housing department are filled on a permanent basis.
Nor did Knight manage to reform the working practices with repairs contractors, Axis, or take the decision to sack them. It was only after Knight was replaced and stronger management of the council repairs “workstreams” were introduced that Axis themselves announced that they would be exiting their long-term contract with Croydon.
And while Knight’s immediate replacement, Dave Padfield, has begun to address some of the long-established shortcomings of the council housing department, he, too, is another interim appointee who will soon be leaving his job.
In the report from the Housing Improvement Board, they say, “Sometimes organisations with serious problems are in denial or shift the blame towards others. Commendably, that is not the case with Croydon Council.
“Its political leadership, the leadership of the opposition, councillors generally and staff at all levels accept that the service has been letting tenants down. There has also been no attempt to deflect from the need for very radical change and improvement.
“Acceptance of the need to change and intent to improve are important and welcome. The improvement needed is massive and will take years to bring about and entrench fully.
“However, to be more confident of the council’s ability to bring it about, the Board would need more assurance that two ingredients are in place: solid evidence that good intentions are being translated into real change in the experience of tenants and residents; and a strong, solid, medium-term plan, driven by a clear vision of what needs to change for the council’s housing customers…
“No one could expect a complete fix of such serious and embedded problems in as little as a year. However, in that time, it should have been possible to make some tangible improvements and lay the foundations for longer-term recovery.
“Not enough has been accomplished,” they say, bluntly.
The report provides bullet points of the major issues which they say shows the disconnect between the good intentions expressed at the council and the actions that continue to plague the lives of many council tenants.
- Not one of the “immediate actions” identified in the independent consultants report published in May 2021 has been completed, the report says.
- Many tenants in the 1-87 Regina Road block and its two neighbours “are still living in very poor conditions”, the report says. “The council is only at the very early stages of planning the substantial works which will be needed to address underlying structural issues.”
- The council was right to restructure the housing department, the report says, but adds, “only last month it made a permanent appointment to the vital role of corporate director, housing, and the appointee will not take up post until May”.
- “The commitment to providing a good service to tenants, to treating them with respect, and involving them in a way which has impact, has not been translated fully enough into action.”
- “Although repairs performance across the sector over the last couple of years has been affected by covid and labour shortages, Croydon’s performance has not improved significantly in recent months, in contrast to recovery in many other social landlord organisations.”
- “We have heard from many tenants that they struggle to make the council and Axis take issues seriously, they do not feel respected or taken seriously, and we have heard about some examples of shocking rudeness and inhumanity”.
- “There was an inexplicable and inexcusable failure to follow due process in consulting tenant representative bodies about the 2022 rent increase, a decision very obviously of great sensitivity and concern for tenants.”
- “The Improvement Plan, despite this Board’s feedback on earlier versions, still does not clearly enough put front and centre a clear vision of the change in the experience of tenants which it needs to bring about.”
The report finds multiple examples of how, when it comes to actions on even such basic issues as communicating with tenants, there’s still a very long way to go.
A tenants’ report offering proposals for improvement in the housing service was submitted to the cabinet member for homes, Patricia Hay-Justice, and Knight in July 2021. The tenants have never had a response.
The Board even felt the need to issue a set of guidelines about how to communicate with tenants, effectively advising the council to behave towards its clients with simple common decency. “All emails to be answered within 48 hours”, they say, suggesting the bleedin’ obvious. “All letters to be answered within five working days”; “The officer to be named and contact details given to the tenant/resident”; “Matters raised to be resolved within 14 days or sooner”.
But as one council source said today, “The reality is that the council doesn’t meet those kind of standards of common courtesy in any of its departments.”
And the Housing Improvement Board, like many others, appears perplexed by the recent decision to hike council rents by 4.1per cent, at a time when the Housing Revenue Account is fully funded and has plentiful reserves.
“Proper consultation about the annual rent increase is a basic, bread-and-butter process in any social landlord organisation,” the report says. “Its sensitivity and importance this year, in Croydon’s particular context, should have been all the more apparent.
“Yet the council did not plan out the process for considering and agreeing it so that it could be considered at a meeting of the tenant and leasehold panel.”
The report clearly suggests that the Board is unimpressed by the council officials’ efforts, after 10 months, to come up with a suitable improvement plan, and they recommend that it be “strengthened” in order to be ready for the incoming new Mayor in May.
“It needs considerable further work if it is to command our confidence,” they say.
Read more: Investigation finds systemic failure and incompetence in council
Read more: ‘None of the tenants in Croydon trust anybody in the council’
Read more: Residents’ group pledges to keep up the fight for decent homes
Read more: Croydon shamed over ‘dangerous squalor’ in council flats
- If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, or want to publicise your residents’ association or business, or if you have a local event to promote, please email us with full details at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Inside Croydon is a member of the Independent Community News Network
- Inside Croydon works together with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as well as BBC London News and ITV London
- Inside Croydon: 3.3million page views in 2021. Seen by 1.6million unique visitors in that 12-month period