I am grateful to have secured this Adjournment debate, as it provides an opportunity to get my serious concerns about the Northampton Travellers site on the public record and also to get some reassurances from the Minister about how the matter will be progressed. Although the debate will refer to sites in general, the refurbishment of one particular site was part of a national programme of the Department for Communities and Local Government, which is why it is appropriate to bring it to the attention of the House and the Minister.
I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), who is also Minister for Women and Equality, for the time she provided to talk through the matter with me, and also to officials of the Government office for the east midlands for their time and subsequent actions.
The matter at hand is the Ecton Lane Travellers site and the use of public funds for refurbishing it. The site has 32 utility blocks, which are small brick units with a kitchenette, shower room and toilet. The infrastructure of the site is poor, and the utility blocks themselves are in desperate condition. They are not the kind of facility that is appropriate in this day and age. Frankly, a total rebuild would have been better, but, failing that, refurbishment was desperately needed.
The application for the refurbishment grant was approved in 2005. The Government provided £366,899, and Northampton borough council was to provide £125,000. A company called Westgate managed the site and was involved in drawing up the funding application and then delivering the contract. The contract specifies internal and external improvements to the utility blocks, and also some site improvements and repairs, which were later specified as fencing around the site and floodlighting.
Concerns about the project were first raised with me last spring by a member of staff at the Northamptonshire county Travellers unit, who contacted me because several Travellers’ relatives have settled in my constituency. I should make it clear right at the start that the concerns that were raised with me, and on which I shall focus, involve the delivery of the refurbishment scheme. Separate concerns about the procurement of the contract have been investigated by PricewaterhouseCoopers. I can understand why people would be concerned about the procurement, but those issues were not raised with me, and they have not been the subject of my letters and representations. I ask my hon. Friend to note that my concerns do not involve procurement, and I shall not deal with it in this debate.
My first visit to the site after the matter was raised with me was last May. I spent a couple of hours going from block to block to see the work that had been completed and to talk to the residents, who were concerned and agitated about what had been happening on the site. I then put in a detailed report to Northampton borough council and left the matter for three months to provide time for remedial work to be undertaken.
Since then, I have made two follow-up visits: one last September and one earlier this month, which was meant to have been in conjunction with the council. On each occasion, I made detailed reports, in one case with pictures. That is not something that I would normally do, but it seemed justified in this case, bearing it in mind that we are dealing with the state of repairs. My reports went to the council and to the Department.
What I found has, frankly, horrified me. In particular, there has been a lack of work. On my first visit, few of the units had been completed, although the contract had been running for several months. Not much progress had been made by September, and work had still not started on several units earlier this year. No start had been made on the general improvements—the fencing and floodlighting—at the time of the last visit I made. I know that they were not to be done until February under the revised schedule produced by the council, but I would have expected to see at least some evidence of preparation for those substantial elements of work.
My three visits involved about four or five hours—perhaps a bit longer—on the site, all of it during what should be working time, but only once did I see any builders doing any work: three men working from an unmarked white Transit van were doing repairs to the roof of one of the units.
My second main concern is that the work undertaken has been of incredibly poor quality. I have been told several times that the quality of the work was not specified in the contract, which is indeed the case—the contract is scanty on specifics. However, it would be reasonable to expect the work to be done to a generally acceptable building standard. For example, one would expect that when a kitchen is refurbished, the inside of the boiler cupboard would be redecorated, given that a new boiler was installed. If a shower tray is put in a shower room and a new shower fitted, it would be reasonable to expect that the area around it would be made good—that the space between the shower tray and the floor would be tiled—that windows and doors would fit, and that paintwork would cover the wall and not leave blank patches.
In addition, it is reasonable to expect that refurbished shower rooms and kitchens would be provided with facilities that are reasonably acceptable in the modern day. For example, some rooms had showers that had no trays. The water simply drained out through a hole in the floor. They were not mobility showers, but simply showers that did not have a proper drainage system—they had a hole in the ground. The refurbished shower rooms had new showers fitted, but the water was left to drain away through a hole in the floor, which seems primitive and not what one would normally regard as an acceptable standard of refurbishment.
Thirdly, some work was done to such a poor standard that it has already had to be redone. In one unit, a newly plastered ceiling collapsed, narrowly missing a child. On my first visit, I saw that a piece of plasterboard had been screwed or nailed over the damaged area. On my last visit, nothing had been done about replastering it—there was still just a board fixed to the ceiling. In another unit, the plasterwork in the kitchen had come away completely—there was a large blank patch—and it appeared that plaster had been applied directly to gloss paint. A person could put their hand in the gap between the wall and the rest of the plasterwork, so presumably that will also come down.
My other complaint is that there seems to have been a lack of monitoring of the work. Northampton borough council insists that all the work was inspected, but I find it difficult to understand how all of it could reasonably have been cleared for payment, given the quality and also the quantity of it. I have looked at some of the clearances: e-mails of only a few lines provide clearance for five-figure amounts of public money.
In a file provided by the council under a freedom of information request, I found only one instance in which there was substantial evidence of an inspection. The inspection showed that the invoice submitted by the contractors was not justified by the amount of work done. The company that did the work said that six plots were 100 per cent. completed, whereas the council inspection found that they were, in fact, 60, 98, 90, 70, 95 and 50 per cent. completed.
When I first went to visit the site, it looked like a badly managed public sector building contract—I choose my words carefully. The second time, things looked a bit more serious. The last time, my view was that fraud was likely involved. I focused on a paid invoice for £9,286 for one unit. It appears that only half the work involving that unit was done as part of the contract; the other half was for a mobility bathroom, and I was told that that work was organised and done separately from the contract by occupational therapy. An invoice for another unit was listed as having been paid last summer, but the residents said that that work had been undertaken the day prior to my visit this January, and that it involved only the removal of two internal doors and one cupboard door. It is of some concern to me that some issues were perhaps not picked up on and dealt with firmly enough when they happened.
I was appalled and made to feel that the matter should be brought to the attention of the House due to the lack of action that followed serious complaints. After the first visit, as I said, I left the matter for three months to allow time for remedial work. On my second visit, I had expected at the very least to find that some unfinished, incomplete or inadequate work—some of the more obvious problems—had been made good. One would normally expect that at the very least, if only to stop a person who was complaining and moaning quite as much as I was, but that had not happened.
On my third visit—it was set up in discussion with the borough council, so warning and time had been given to enable people to ensure at least that there would be builders on site or that something was going on—little effort seemed to have been made to address the performance issues.
The contract is due to end in March, by which time all the units are supposed to be finished, the fencing and floodlighting are supposed to be done and all the money should have been spent. My concern is that once we reach that date all the money will indeed have been spent—more than half already has been—but the work will not have been done, or will have been done to such a poor standard that it needs repair. Some units are quite nice, and it is important to say that. Some are well maintained and managed by the residents. However, in a number of those units, the residents have either done some of the work or provided some of the materials. For example, some did extra tiling work in the kitchens, some provided coloured tiles rather than plain white, and some provided coloured paint to supplement the white. When an assessment is made of work done, it will be important to note what work the contractors have done and what the residents have done.
Apart from those units that have been finished, which are well maintained and are nice, we are left with some units of a third-world standard. For example, there has been no effort in any of the units to do such things as refurbish the floors, or in some units to provide skirting boards, which has meant that damp is already creeping up the plaster. Some internal walls are already badly damaged by mould. Residents of one unit complain that raw sewage still comes up the external drain and that they have to repeatedly clean it out with bleach. Fascia boards and guttering have not routinely been refurbished and there are problems with them.
Although this might seem rather a parochial matter, and it does concern only one contract, it is a contract for £500,000 and is part of a national programme to refurbish Gypsy and Traveller sites. That is a large amount of public money, which is providing an important public service on behalf of the DCLG. Some steps have been taken to try to improve matters. As I said earlier, PwC has investigated the procurement and the district auditors have looked into the contract. Also, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley met with me to discuss it. I was subsequently informed that a stop had been put to the contract, although the council has since denied that.
It is generally recognised that there is a problem, but the challenge is obviously to put it right. The client group in this instance is not one for which there is a great deal of public sympathy—the Travellers, however, are more complained about than complaining—and it has been made clear to me that that has influenced the approach to the contract. Among the reasons cited to me about the method of procurement and the difficulty in delivering the contract are the “difficulty of the site” and the “difficulties we all know about”.
The fact that a particular community does not normally attract great public sympathy or is associated in the public mind with antisocial behaviour and other problems is not an excuse for wasting public money or doing unacceptably shoddy work. Nor is it an excuse for such intolerable standards of housing in modern day Britain. I do not find it acceptable to go to a site and see disabled children—any children, for that matter—living in a utility unit where the parents complain that raw sewage comes up through the external drain, or to hear parents complain that their children have been sick because of the bad drainage. I have seen such housing and heard such complaints in developing countries, but do not expect to do so in the UK.
Will my hon. Friend the Minister respond with absolute assurances that the site will receive £500,000 of improvements and that if those are not provided by the current contract, additional money will be provided as part of a properly managed contract to ensure that the improvements that the Travellers are supposed to see on their site are provided?
Secondly, I seek an assurance that there will be a full investigation of the contract, including the quality of the work that has been undertaken, to ensure that it provides value for money and that appropriate action will be taken to deal with the failures in it so that they are not repeated.
Thirdly, I seek an assurance that urgent action will be taken, even in the last two months of the contract, to stop the waste of public funds on the site and to ensure that at least during those final two months the work will be properly scheduled and managed and completed to a satisfactory standard, and that the people who are supposed to do the work will turn up.
I have spent a lot of time, before and after becoming an MP, walking around public sector housing schemes in this country and abroad. This contract is probably the worst delivered that I have ever come across. The improvements to the site are desperately needed, and I am most concerned that a large amount of public money is at risk and that one section of the community is not getting the reasonable standard of services that it is paying for and is entitled to. Will my hon. Friend ensure that prompt action is taken, even at this late stage, to protect the public interest?
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) on securing the debate. This is clearly a matter on which she feels passionately and knows a lot about, and the way that she raised it does her credit.
The Government firmly believe that everybody has the right to a decent home, and it is quite clear that my hon. Friend shares that commitment for all her constituents. Refurbishment works at the Ecton Lane site in Northampton were intended to make that a reality for the residents, so the concerns that she has described on delivery of the works are clearly unacceptable.
My hon. Friend paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality. I hope that their meeting assured my hon. Friend that Government action has been taken. I understand that it was a positive meeting. I hope, too, that she understands from that meeting how seriously the Government take her concerns and the wider issues that she has raised.
The issues raised by my hon. Friend on the performance and management of the contract for the works at the Ecton Lane site are being investigated as a priority by the sub-board for finance that has recently been set up to seek improvements in Northampton borough council’s performance in that area. The contract to which she referred has been suspended while investigations take place.
An independent site condition survey is being commissioned, and we expect that to be available for the next meeting of the sub-board. It will enable the sub-board to compare the quality and extent of the work against the contract that was signed and the issues that have been raised. I hope that that addresses many of my hon. Friend’s concerns. The survey will also inform the sub-board’s decisions on the further action that will need to be taken to get the scheme back on track. I have asked officials to keep my hon. Friend up to date on the progress made by the sub-board in dealing with those issues. She should be kept fully informed.
My hon. Friend expressed her frustration at how long it has taken to act on the issues that she has raised. Officials from my Department have made contact with Northampton borough council and visited the Ecton Lane site. The council has commissioned independent consultants to investigate the issues that have been raised, but my hon. Friend raised concerns about that investigation. My hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality wrote to the chief executive of Northampton borough council expressing her concern about the issues that had been raised with her, and asked to be informed of the outcome of that investigation as soon as possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North is aware of the arrangements under which the Gypsy and Traveller site grant is awarded. The Government’s power to intervene is extremely limited. The grant is not ring-fenced, and it is for councils to spend the money on the areas for which it has been given. It is therefore up to the local authorities to resolve any issues arising from that grant. In those circumstances, giving the council the opportunity to investigate and resolve the issues that had been raised was the right thing to do at the time.
It has since become clear that Northampton’s response to the investigation did not adequately address the issues raised today, and we have taken the matter up with the council. We have taken action to ensure that all the issues that have been raised will be dealt with by the sub-board for finance, which has been set up to secure improvements in Northampton’s performance in that area.
My hon. Friend also raised the possibility of fraud in relation to some of those works. That is a serious allegation. I understand that she has taken the matter up with the district auditor and the local police, which was the right course of action. Those concerns should be fully investigated. It is clear that she has undertaken almost a forensic examination, and I hope that it will be considered. I understand that the district auditor is a member of the sub-board investigating the matter.
A number of other steps are being taken to help to ensure that the problems experienced at Ecton Lane are not repeated elsewhere. The Gypsy and Traveller site grant now forms part of the regional housing pot, and recommendations are made by the regional assemblies following a thorough assessment by independent consultants. The fact that regional assemblies are undertaking an assessment—I acknowledge that they have—will help local authorities to deliver schemes that better take account of all the factors involved.
We are also reviewing the information that we ask local authorities and registered social landlords to provide on the progress of schemes to ensure that delivery problems are picked up early and discussed with colleagues in the regions.
My hon. Friend also referred to public concerns over expenditure on site provision. She suggested that in many cases there was not much public sympathy. I believe that there is a wider public interest in ensuring that sufficient sites are provided for Gypsies and Travellers, as that will reduce unauthorised camping and the tensions that can be created among the settled community. It will also reduce the resources that authorities have to spend on costly enforcement action, which is estimated by the Commission for Racial Equality to amount to about £18 million a year. Furthermore, it will make it easier for authorities and the police to take enforcement action on unauthorised camping. That, too, has the support of the wider public.
The opportunity to occupy good-quality sites on a relatively permanent basis will also help to tackle the serious social exclusion experienced by Gypsies and Travellers, and it will help to improve health and education outcomes. There is clearly a wider public interest, and I thank my hon. Friend for raising the matter.
My hon. Friend spoke of the wider issues of the Government grant. We believe that schemes such as the Ecton Lane site are vital in ensuring that Gypsies and Travellers have the opportunity of a decent place to live. That is particularly important, because the shortage of authorised sites means that one in four Gypsy and Traveller caravans are on unauthorised sites, with all the attendant problems.
We have established a framework for increasing site provision and backed it up with additional resources. Coupled with effective enforcement action, that will both ensure that the number of unauthorised sites is reduced and provide additional benefits for local authorities and for Gypsies and Travellers.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this matter. She clearly feels passionately about it. She has shown her commitment to all her constituents by raising the question of how public money is spent. We want to ensure that it delivers the ends that we intend. I will ensure that she is kept fully up to date on progress. I hope that we can reach a satisfactory conclusion and ensure that the site is brought up to the standard that we all expect.
Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.