Is Croydon A Rogue Landlord?

For years we have had Councillors bleat on about the need for more ‘affordable’ and Council housing and the need to take action against ‘rogue landlords’. Led by former Planning Chair Paul Scott they backed everything Brick by Brick proposed, which has itself been shown to be incompetent ad badly managed and supervised. Now the Ark independent report on the Regina Rd flats scandal has revealed the Council:

  • to be incompetent and negligent at managing and maintaining its relatively small stock of Council homes;
  • to treat its tenants with a lack of care and respect;

Can it therefore be defined as a ‘rogue’ landlord?

Cabinet Cursory Discussion On 17 May

Despite the devastating report by ARK the Cabinet will be expected to consider it and the proposed interim improvement plan in a crowded agenda on 17 May, so it will only have superficial consideration.

It would be reasonable to expect that:

  • the Cabinet would hold a special meeting just on the report
  • the Scrutiny Committee would hold a special meeting in the days before the Cabinet
  • that Ark, residents and the Town Hall trade unions be given time to speak, and the contractor to speak at both meeting.

All Councillors should be ashamed about the devastating critique of Ark. Those with Council housing in their wards should review their past case work with Council tenants to see to what extent they should have realised there were severe failings in the system, and how long this went back. In future they should see casework as an indication of policy and administrative problems which create difficulties for many others. They should drive down into the detail and where they are dissatisfied with the officers’ responses they should put in questions at Council meetings and formal complaints.

Consideration could be also be given to a special Committee that meets monthly at which Councillors and the MPs and advice service workers can report on the cases they are dealing with, how they have been dealt with and officers required to report the action they are taking.

The former Cabinet member for housing should resign by way of apology for failure to ensure the maintenance system was being adequately run and monitored.

Tip Of The Ice-berg

1-87 Regina Road is an 11-storey block consisting of 44 one-bedroom flats. It was built in 1965 and was re-clad in 1999. They are among 14,360 homes owned by the Council. Ark states that ‘The Council’s housing service normally completes about 65,000 repairs a year to its housing stock – comparatively a very high number of repairs.’

It notes that over ‘half of the homes in Regina Road have been surveyed to varying degrees. These surveys identified issues relating to damp, mould and condensation. Indeed, the Council planned to investigate the installation of a mechanical ventilation system into flats before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. ARK understands the Regina Road roof was programmed to be replaced some time ago. However, in 2018/19 as part of the Council’s installation of a sprinkler system the roof was considered ‘fit for purpose’. Leaks into flats on the upper floors of 1-87 are now common, with patch repairs having limited effect.’

‘There are 26 blocks of a similar age and construction type and the problems experienced at Regina Road are likely to be replicated elsewhere.’

The report examines in detail the specific events at Regina Rd. In particular it found:

  • that residents’ ‘concerns were left unresolved and opportunities to resolve the problem were missed’ from 2017;
  • that the cause of the water leaks ‘were caused by a corroded copper rising main in the slab between’ two of the flats.
  • that the ‘block is also known to experience other water leaks caused by corrosion in the pipework, as well as a leaking roof.’
  • that there ‘was a limited stock condition survey of the block completed in 2017.’

Ark’s Key Findings

ARK’s critique is applicable to the way the whole of the stock has been dealt with. It identified ‘a range of issues primarily across the Council’s operational teams (repairs, asset management and tenancy management) and to some extent with its contractor’ leading 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.’

These issues are:

  • 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.

It sets out a list of recommendations – see below.

A Major Transformation Is Promised

Based on the key findings and recommendations of ARK on the need for a major transformation of the way the Housing Department operates, on 17 May the Cabinet will fully accept the findings of the report of the independent investigation into the housing conditions at 1-87 Regina Road. It will also agree:

  • to ‘recognise that the housing conditions in the affected flats at Regina Road are completely unacceptable and reiterate the Leader’s full apology to the tenants concerned’;
  • to note ‘the Council’s response to the conditions at Regina Road: rehousing the tenants affected and responding to other urgent issues identified in the report’;
  • to note ‘the Council’s steps to identify whether there are any issues at other council-owned high-rise blocks of flats, and the steps to resolve any problems identified’
  • to adopt the Council’s initial action plan for the housing service;
  • to note ‘that a wider review of the Council’s housing services, including delivery of the repairs service, will be conducted and will consider how the Council fully involves its tenants and leaseholders, both in terms of responding to issues raised and in the co-design and co-delivery of services;
  • to note the appointment of ‘an Interim Executive Director of Housing for an initial period of six months to bring additional capacity to provide new leadership and direction for the housing service, conduct a review of the wider housing service, and lead the development and implementation of a longer-term Housing Improvement Plan for the service;
  • to establish ‘an independently-chaired Housing Improvement Board, the membership of which will include council tenants and leaseholders, and independent housing experts, to oversee the development and implementation of the Housing Improvement Plan’;
  • to note that consideration be given to the need for any investigation is required to be undertaken in accordance with its agreed staff policies and procedures;
  • to ‘welcome the recommendations of the Social Housing White Paper ‘The Charter for Social Housing Residents’, in particular the focus on the importance of treating residents with respect and ensuring the voices of tenants and leaseholders are heard’.

The ARK report and the initial action plan will be shared with the Tenants and Leaseholders Panel, Housing Scrutiny Panel, Scrutiny and Overview Committee, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Croydon’s Improvement and Assurance Panel, the Regulator of Social Housing and the Local Government Association;

A report will be made to the Scrutiny and Overview Committee to engage its members on the initial action plan, progress in implementation and developing the Housing Improvement Plan.

Staffing Weaknesses

  • ‘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.’
  • The ‘service is focused on ‘firefighting’ and reacting to circumstances and events, rather than getting ahead of things and being proactive.’
  • Resourcing of the Council’s health and safety compliance function within the housing service, is inadequate. Currently only one of three posts is filled.
  • 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.’
  • ‘The Council’s staff do not appear to understand their role in delivering even basic ‘core’ housing services effectively.’

Management System Weaknesses

  • Due to the management system the Council’s managers have insufficient focus on housing issues, ‘making it harder for the Council to address issues with performance, communication and working across teams.
  • The Council’s housing service is inward-looking and failing to keep up to date with good practice.’

Lack Of Care And Respect For Tenants

  • There is ‘an outmoded culture and attitude among a number of Council staff towards tenants. Tenants were often seen as demanding, difficult to deal with and less worthy of respect.’
  • ‘Council and contractor staff do not always treat all tenants with care and respect.’
  • Council staff repeatedly failed to provide advice and support to tenants.’
  • ‘No-one took ownership of the problem and sought to ensure everyone pulled together to get the problems resolved effectively.’
  • Council staff failed in their duty of care to manage risks and keep tenants safe.
  • the Council’s ‘and (to some degree) the contractor’s operational staff repeatedly failed in their duties to act as the ‘eyes & ears’ of the Council by ensuring hazards and risks are removed.’

‘ARK did not find clear evidence of discrimination on race grounds as part of this investigation. Instead, there appears to be a wider issue, with all tenants being stigmatised and seen as less worthy of respect. However, ARK has some concerns about allocations, tenants understanding of their tenancy status and overcrowding within the block that should be explored further.’

Failure To Communicate

  • The Council lacks a simple, effective, clear and accessible route for getting concerns and complaints resolved.
  • ‘ARK is puzzled as to why issues being raised by councillors and the MP would not spur senior managers at the Council to take ownership of the problems.’
  • ‘The Council is moving many of its services online. Currently tenants reported to ARK difficulties in using the website to access services or the information they need.’
  • ‘Tenancy and Repair handbooks are no longer provided to tenants to set out their mutual roles and responsibilities and the standards tenant should expect.’
  • ‘Tenants lack awareness of who they should report failures in the day-to-day repairs service or non-repair issues to. They were often unaware of who their tenancy officer is.’
  • In the absence of a Tenants and Residents Group at Regina Road block ‘tenants are not aware of other engagement opportunities or mechanisms to have their voices heard.’

Weak Management  

  • ‘The Council’s housing service appears to lack a common understanding of the roles that teams collectively play in delivering even basic ‘core’ housing services effectively.’
  • ‘Council staff operate in ‘silos’ resulting in a lack of a ‘joined-up’ service delivery and resources being wasted.’
    • ‘There are ‘blurred lines’ of responsibility and accountability between the Council and its main repairs contractor.’
  • ARK ‘identified a ‘leadership vacuum’ with an absence of active or visible leadership to front-line Council staff.’
  • It ‘cannot understand why this problem was not escalated by front-line staff to their managers. Similarly, why it was not identified by managers as part of their one-to-one discussions with staff.’

‘In ARK’s experience any competent housing provider would have readily identified these problems. The issues could have been identified from a number of different perspectives – the number of call-outs, the number of repairs, long-standing empty properties, complaints from tenants and councillors and MPs enquiries.’

Supervision Of Contractor Shortcomings

  • ‘Relationships appear to operate on a client/contractor basis with a focus on monitoring performance indicators rather than actively managing performance.’
  • ‘ARK would expect discussions to be forward-looking, seeking to identify trends and working together to resolve operational problems and drive continuous improvement.’
  • ‘ARK understand the contractor shapes their service around available budget on a price per property basis. This model can work effectively but without the right relationships can act as a barrier to contractor working proactively and collaboratively to address larger problems.’

Poor Use Of Data Etc

  • ‘The Council is not using its data and intelligence to identify and learn from problems or to underpin its decision-making. Intelligence and data exists in ‘silos’ and independent investigation does not appear to be drawn together to provide a holistic view of asset performance.’
  • ‘ARK is unclear to what extent the Council uses its intelligence to inform strategic decision making or budget-setting.’
  • ‘The Council is over reliant on contractor data to monitor repairs performance. ARK cannot identify the extent to which scrutiny and validation of this key repairs data is undertaken but are concerned about its reliability to drive performance management and good decision-making.’
  • ‘ARK understand the Council holds information on stock condition based on around 60 per cent stock surveys, although much of it is dated. This data appears to direct future investment.’
  • ‘ARK was told that investment decisions failed to reflect repairs information. The Council needs to ensure its investment decisions are based on a robust assessment of stock condition and performance and responds to the ‘real-life’ problems that tenants experience.’
  • ‘It is important that plans around ICT improvements include measures to cleanse data and improve performance reporting and do not disrupt service recovery measures.’

‘ARK repeatedly heard concerns that the Council is not investing sufficiently in planned improvement to ensure its homes are sustainable over the longer-term – in demand, reflecting tenants needs and providing good value for money. The high level of responsive repairs demanded suggests the need to proactively invest in homes.’ The Council should assure itself ‘that all key data covering stock condition (Decent Homes Independent investigation Standard) and landlord health and safety responsibilities is accurate.’

ARK Recommendations

Recommendation 1. ‘Establish clear governance arrangements to provide strategic leadership to the service. This strategic group should direct future strategy around a common vision for the service. Their role should include ensuring robust performance management and decision-making, agreeing policy and practice (including service standards) and ensuring there is a ‘joined-up’ approach across all Council services.’

Recommendation 2. ‘Undertake a forward-looking skills gap analysis. Develop a workforce plan to recruit, train and develop staff (including mentoring and involvement of good practice networks) to fill any gaps.’

Recommendation 3. ‘Implement a development programme to ensure all staff consistently demonstrate the attitudinal and behavioural competences needed to support the Council’s values and help shape its culture. This should include steps to ensure the Council (and contractors) consistently deliver a tenant-focussed service and have a ‘safety first’ culture.’

Recommendation 4. ‘Strengthen the Council’s capacity, competence and commitment to tenant involvement through training and development of staff and councillors and reviewing existing structures to ensure they are ‘fit-for-purpose’ and ensure tenants have their voices heard. Independent investigation.’

Recommendation 5. ‘Develop ‘business intelligence’ systems that allow the Council to collect and share real-time information on asset condition and performance (including from the contractor). This should enable the Council to proactively identify and learn from problems, manage disrepair claims more effectively and drive better investment decisions.’

Recommendation 6. ‘Conduct a fundamental review of existing performance management arrangements. Develop a comprehensive performance management ‘suite’ with bespoke reporting relevant to the ‘audience’ (for example, councillors, senior managers, operational managers and, tenants scrutiny groups). All indicators should be outcome-focussed and underpinned by robust assurance ‘arrangements’ covering data quality and outcomes delivered.’

Recommendation 7. ‘Make improvements to complaints handling in line with the Housing Ombudsman’s Complaint Handling Code and publicise how the Council is using complaints to drive service improvements.

Council Leader Hamida Ali’s personal and Council statements on the ARK report and the interim action plan can be read at:

https://news.croydon.gov.uk/a-message-from-councillor-hamida-ali-the-leader-of-the-council-3

https://news.croydon.gov.uk/residents-lead-role-in-councils-drive-to-improve-its-housing-services

About seancreighton1947

Since moving to Norbury in July 2011 I have been active on local economy, housing and environment issues with Croydon TUC and Croydon Assembly. I am a member of the Love Norbury Residents Associations Planning & Transport Committees, and Chair of Nobury Community Land Trust. I write for Croydon Citizen at http://thecroydoncitizen.com. I co-ordinate the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History Networks and edit the North East Popular Politics database. History Project.. I give history talks and lead history walks. I retired in 2012 having worked in the community/voluntary sector and on heritage projects. My history interests include labour movement, mutuality, Black British, slavery & abolition, Edwardian roller skating and the social and political use of music and song. I have a particular interest in the histories of Battersea and Wandsworth, Croydon and Lambeth. I have a publishing imprint History & Social Action Publications.
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