More than one hundred housing disrepair cases have been settled against Southwark Council in the last two years by one law firm alone.
CEL Solicitors says it has a further 70-plus cases currently in progress after being contacted by residents suffering with problems including vermin, severe damp among other issues.
One protracted legal battle has been waged by a Walworth-based mum, who found her new flat was ‘infested’ with cockroaches when she and her son moved in more than ten years ago.
She said the property was a terrible condition with broken windows, doors, graffiti, and vermin, alongside damp from multiple leaks both inside and outside. After a decade, the 46-year-old and her sixteen-year-old asthmatic son were still living surrounded by damp.
Despite being finally awarded £2,000 compensation in May 2019, with a guarantee of repairs, delays meant Veronica was able to take further legal action and secure another £1,000 this August.
“As soon as we moved in, it was clear that the flat was barely liveable,” she said.
“There was also a major damp issue that was made worse by the broken windows.
“As my son, who was just four-years-old at the time, has asthma, I tried to treat the damp myself by using anti-mould sprays but nothing worked.
“I continued to complain to Southwark Council, but nothing was done and we had to live in these awful conditions for a long time.
“I couldn’t believe the state of the flat when we arrived – wallpaper was coming away from the walls because of the damp, there was a cockroach infestation and there was fire damage that had been previously caused by squatters.”
As the News reported in February, at the annual Southwark Homeowners Conference a 350-strong crowd of leaseholders querying the quality or cost of repairs and refurbishments accused the council of being quick to take legal action to recoup disputed bills.
One key request by leaseholders’ and residents’ groups in the borough is for the council to commit always to mediate before taking formal legal action to recoup service charges and other fees. Although detailed in council proposals, a commitment to mediate first is yet formally to be pledged by the council.
Barristers speaking at previous conferences – as reported by this paper – have claimed the council did ‘not have the most wonderful history with service charge demands always being valid’, and had failed to mediate even when there is evidence it is the authority in the wrong.
CEL says its cases – all involving tenants – are from across the borough, with clusters appearing in estates with well-known issues including Alyesbury and Elmington.
In 2018 the council announced it was bringing its repairs service in house in order to ‘drive up standards and ensure a consistent approach’, saying this will benefit tenants.
In February this year, a housing scrutiny commission report, written by Southwark councillors, described the borough’s history of repairs as ‘chequered’.
In 2011 the same body had highlighted “widespread waste, inefficiencies, and financial gaming as part of a long-term private sector contract.”
Despite moving this work in-house, serious weaknesses have continued to be identified within department.
As the report outlined: “It is clear from the evidence gathered in the report that there is no role for residents in verifying if a repair has been completed or not.
“Indeed, there is some suggestion that repair operatives see ‘completion; of a repair in terms of completing their part of a wider problem, or even simply attending a repair appointment.
“At other local authorities, residents sign off on the completion of a repair. This is also a change which tenants council has been requesting for a considerable period.”
Amy Tagoe, housing disrepair specialist and director at CEL, described Southwark as “by far our worst offending public landlord” when it came to disrepair claims.
“Of course, Southwark Council is not alone and there are housing associations and local authorities right across the country allowing their tenants – many of whom are vulnerable with severe health conditions – to live in unsafe, hazardous conditions,” she said.
“This should not be allowed to happen and more needs to be done to ensure that landlords – both private and public – keep their properties in a habitable condition.”
Responding to the figures, councillor Leo Pollak, Southwark’s cabinet member for housing, said: “Southwark Council manages 55,000 properties, far more than any other council landlord in London, so it’s inevitable that we receive more repairs complaints than smaller authorities do.
“We want all our residents to be living in the best possible living conditions so take any complaint extremely seriously and work hard to maintain our properties to a high standard, but it’s hard to see what useful conclusions can be drawn from these numbers.
“Even where issues do regrettably fall through the net, we will continue to ensure our complaint handling captures those struggling to resolve their repairs, ideally before this kind of ambulance-chasing law firm tries to make money from people’s misfortune.
“I would urge residents with ongoing repairs issues to approach the council rather than lawyers who will only delay the resolution of the repair, and put further pressure on the housing department’s already tight budget.”