A mother and her newborn daughter were left without heating and hot water in the Aylesbury Estate last week, despite desperately phoning the out-of-hours line while in labour.
Anna* went into labour last Wednesday, and immediately called the out-of-hours service, who told her an engineer would call between 8am and 8pm the following day, when she would be giving birth.
“I couldn’t believe my ears,” she said, “my husband started boiling kettles to try and make a hot bath to help with the contractions.
“It was too early to go to hospital, they would have sent me home and you don’t want to be waiting in hospital that long anyway.
“We were asking our neighbours to call up and report the problem so they would escalate it.”
The couple, who are private tenants in Taplow House, had to rely on fan heaters until she was admitted to Guys and St Thomas’ on Thursday, where she gave birth to a healthy baby girl.
Mum and baby were due to return home on Friday, but after being offered another night on the ward, Anna says she ‘jumped at the chance’ to stay somewhere warm and enjoy another hot shower – especially as she is still recovering from a chest infection.
Shockingly, Anna says she had repeatedly raised her concerns about giving birth in February if the estate’s system broke down with the council’s housing officers.
Now describing the hot water as ‘erratic’ at best, the family are one of many given electric fan heaters as an interim measure, but have no idea whether they will be reimbursed for the cost.
“It has been really stressful, everything takes longer, changing nappies, washing.
“I am trying to learn how to breastfeed, I’ve got stitches, and I’m having to decide where to sleep with her each night and taking the temperature every few hours to make sure it’s warm enough.
“When you wait for an hour to speak to someone to report a problem, and then the person is so cold, I’ve lost faith in them trying to reassure me.”
On top of on-going leaks, an underground pipe burst in January’s freezing weather, with Thurlow Street closed while engineers access the site.
Electric heaters have been given to residents and the Castle Leisure Centre is offering free hot showers.
Cllr Stephanie Cryan, cabinet member for housing management and modernisation at Southwark Council, apologised and said she understood residents’ anger.
“The Aylesbury estate is in a poor condition and has significant design flaws that make finding the source of leaks and other issues difficult, and fixing them can be very challenging,” she said.
“This is one of the main reasons the decision was taken to regenerate the estate and provide our residents with top quality, modern and efficient homes.
“In the meantime the council has invested over £4m in our effort to maintain the district heating system and prevent the continuing break downs that happen each winter as temperatures drop.
“Preventive works began before the start of winter but we were unable to predict every issue and the burst pipe has caused additional problems that we are working to fix.”
Local councillors in Faraday Ward, where the Aylesbury sits, say £500,000 has been invested in preventative maintenance and repairs in the last year alone.
Spare parts have been stockpiled and other options assessed include installing electric showers and schemes to reduce the cost of electric heaters.
Demonstrators held a protest on the estate on Tuesday afternoon. Many believe conditions on the estate are a result of decades of under-investment rather than problems with its design.
In a statement shared with the News Cllr Jack Buck, Paul Fleming and Lorraine Lauder said complaints about the creaking system are ‘by far and away the most frequent’:
“Whether it be leaks from failing pipework or disruption caused by outages of the whole system, the failing heating is causing stress and misery for many residents.
“This is something we feel an acute responsibility to address and being a link between exasperated residents and the council is a key part of our role as representatives.
“We have to be honest with residents in saying that many of these faults are structural and can’t be fixed.
“The most recent estate-wide outage have shown just how deep those issues are.
“That despite the largest preventative maintenance programme we have run for many years, the failing infrastructure is still liable to break outside of our control.
“That’s why the Council are committed to rebuilding Aylesbury with and for the current residents and ensuring our community can live in the high-quality housing people deserve.
“As part of this we recently announced plans to improve the regeneration even further by committing to no loss in the number of homes at social rent on the estate regeneration.”
Many of those affected on the estate are vulnerable people living in temporary accommodation.
Debbie Lane, 34, moved into Wendover from a women’s refuge two years ago.
A universal credit claimant, she is now forced to sleep in one room with her two children, aged nine and two to keep warm, and says she is still waiting for compensation after the heating broke down during last year’s ‘beast from the east’.
At one point electric fans were burning through £20 a day on her electricity card.
The situation is only worsening existing damp and mould: “I’m not opening the windows, why would I let out the tiny bit of heat we have” she asked.
Although she praised cleaners picking up rubbish repeatedly strewn around the estate, she is desperate to move somewhere without empty boarded-up flats and constant leaks.
Stephanie, who asked us not to print her last name, is also living in Wendover in temporary accommodation who became homeless despite being work in 2016, when a private landlord chose not to renew her tenancy.
After a stint in a B&B in Crystal Palace, she and her three children moved into Wendover. Last winter they had sixteen days without heating or hot water.
Her youngest, now fifteen months old, was born while she was living in the mouse-infested and damp flat, with water pouring through the ceilings and windows.
But she describes this month’s problems as her ‘breaking point’: “It is the worst I have felt since the three years since I have been homeless,” she said.
Stephanie is now waiting to hear whether an offer on permanent council housing will go through and they will be able to leave the Aylesbury for good.
“Having a baby here has made it ten times worse,” she says, “I wouldn’t wish living like this on anyone.”
* Anna is not her real name.