Anger over ‘disgrace’ of council estate heating issues

Rahere House in Central Street, Clerkenwell, was one of the blocks affected by heating issues
Rahere House in Central Street, Clerkenwell, was one of the blocks affected by heating issues (credit Google)

Residents of council estate homes in Clerkenwell have been hit by repeated heating outages, reports Ed Sherdian, Local Democracy Reporter

Councillors on Islington’s housing scrutiny committee have hit out at both housing officers and contractors over significant communal heating failures on two council estates in Clerkenwell.

Residents at Redbrick Estate and Braithwaite House both suffered “significant and continued failures” at the end of February, according to housing scrutiny chair Michael O’Sullivan, though residents are understood to have been suffering continued problems as far back as 2017.

Committee member Phil Graham said that, while he had been proud of the town hall’s Bunhill energy centres, which capture warmth from London Underground to heat homes, he “won’t even mention them now”. He warned that the council will lose all the benefits of the innovation “if we don’t have residents happy with the service they’re provided with”.

Cllr Graham said: “Starting Thursday night [25th February], we had a disaster at Redbrick. Two blocks in particular, Vickery Court and Bartholomew Court, had continuous failures of their heating and hot water.

“I spent from 8pm until 11pm from Friday to Sunday dealing with phone calls, texts and emails. Long strings of emails, concerning the heating and hot water going down.

“What would happen is Gem, the contractors for repairs, would turn up, they would get it working, leave the site, then 10 minutes later I’m getting another call saying it’s gone down again. Then it would take forever for them to come back.

“I don’t know where they went, maybe they were changing shift or going for their lunch, but it would take up to five hours for them to come back to get it working again.

“This shouldn’t be happening. I’m proud to be a councillor in one of the best councils in the country, but that view is changing. And if we carry on treating our residents the way we are, it’s only going to get worse.

“We’ve got the old blocks falling apart, we’re building lovely new places and the more council properties we build the better, but we cannot treat residents as second class citizens.

“Residents are furious, they’re going to the papers, they’re going everywhere to try to find out what they can do. We need to totally turn around how we look at and treat our residents. They deserve better.”

Cllr Graham called for a backup system for the blocks, while branding the response times of contractors an “absolute disgrace all weekend”, having been informed of delays because of another heating failure caused by a power cut at Rahere House.

He added: “If they can’t cope with two jobs at the same time, are they really the contractors to be dealing with Islington? If they can’t return to a job they’ve been working on for days because they are at another job, then I really fail to see how they are any use to us as a repairs contractor for Islington.

“I understand there is tendering involved and everything else, but I would like to see Redbrick finished and up and running. It’s something we need to look at in the future.”

The councillor suggested “clawing back” money from contractors like Gem in such circumstances, adding: “These residents deserve a decent amount of compensation, as it goes back years. I realise that is going to cost money, but we should be looking at clawing back funds from these contractors who are not doing the job.

“We are paying them a substantial amount, and we should be saying to them, you’re not doing the job, you’re not getting the money. If there’s not something in the contract to pull them up and penalise them for not doing the job, we’re writing the wrong contract.”

Gem was approached for comment, but had not responded by time of going to press.

Not just contractors were criticised by councillors, but council officers themselves, with communications with residents on the issue slated by Graham as “bloody condescending”.

The councillor accused certain officers of “total disrespect” in a meeting held last week in which his representation of residents is said to have provoked eye-rolling among housing officers.

It is understood that one breakdown occurred on the same day that a bill for £15,000 was sent to leaseholders for insulation in the heating system, with Cllr Graham adding: “When they’re sitting there freezing, they’ve got no hot water, and they’re looking at this bill on the table for £15,000 from us, it’s pretty appalling. The timing was all wrong.”

Addressing a meeting with the executive member for housing Diarmaid Ward and corporate director for housing Maxine Holdsworth, the Bunhill ward councillor warned that the problems at Redbrick and Braithwaite were representative of a wider issue with older housing stock in the borough, having reported of issues on his own block in previous years with low water pressure, cockroach infestations, and a hot water system “not fit for purpose”.

He said: “We cannot have two tiers of council property. We cannot have two tiers of council residents.

“We look at the flats on King’s Square or the new ones on Redbrick are beautiful and lovely.

“I don’t want people living in these nice new blocks, which everybody should be living in, to be looking across the road at the second tier of residents who are living in tenements, and I will call them that because they are nothing short of that. Some of the way our residents are being treated is an absolute bloody disgrace.”

Cllr Graham called for an audit of all the older properties to see what needs to be done in an aim to stop waiting for things to go wrong. In response, Maxine said that Redbrick had a new communal heating installation in 2017, predating her time as corporate director, but admitted that it “did not go smoothly”.

A period of relatively smooth operation followed 2017, according to the top housing officer, but a series of “intermittent faults” followed, with the problem now narrowed down to “two possible causes”.

According to Maxine, contractor Gem made changes to its service following the weekend, with the company judged “pretty responsive” in dealing with the borough’s 4,500 communally heated properties.

The corporate director said that, with half of the borough’s spend on property going towards proactive works and half on responsive repairs, the town hall’s ambition is now to be “spending a bit more on the proactive stuff”.

Responding to Cllr Graham, Cllr Ward said: “Don’t ever apologise for ranting. It’s your job as a representative to do that, and as the executive member, I need to hear that. As executive member, the buck stops here. I am truly sorry for what happened over the weekend. It should not have happened.

“We met Monday afternoon to go through an action and communications plan, and are meeting with the residents next week. One of the things that we have to talk about at that meeting is compensation. That is where we’ve got to now. Our residents should not be put through this, and they need to be adequately compensated for what happened.

“I think we are one of the best councils around, but we need to step up on this. This can’t continue. We need to build new homes, but we also need to manage and maintain the homes we have. Over this weekend, we did not get to where we were supposed to get to and I am truly sorry.”