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Clyde House and A2Dominion

Volume 656: debated on Thursday 14 March 2019

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stuart Andrew.)

I want to raise an issue that has been raised by residents who live in Clyde House in my constituency. It is a block—[Interruption.]

Order. It is not fair that the right hon. Lady cannot be heard at all. Let us just have a moment while everyone leaves the Chamber a little more quietly. That is better. Thank you.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Clyde House is a block of flats where residents have experienced problems pretty much from the word go after it opened several years ago. The issues came to a head several weeks ago when a huge water leak from the heating system rapidly spread through the electrics, causing huge concern for residents, who were worried about the inevitable health and safety issues. As the local MP, I did my best to see what I could do to get A2Dominion, the agent that manages the property, to respond more promptly to residents’ concerns, but residents have experienced major issues in trying to get urgent repairs done. I have encountered similar problems and was initially unable to find someone at A2Dominion who was prepared to take some responsibility to ensure that the necessary repairs were done.

I have held three meetings for residents of Clyde House and have had the chance to inspect some of the flats. I saw potential electrical faults, water damage close to electrical fittings, and severe condensation due to poor ventilation, which residents told me had been a problem right from the start. Those are just a few of several issues with the block. Another problem is that the lifts that serve the flats were extremely unreliable to the extent that, on several occasions, elderly and disabled people have been literally unable to get into their homes because the lifts were not working. They could not even be carried or get upstairs some other way, which is totally unacceptable. Other families have been worried about health and safety issues, and some with children who suffer asthma have suspicions that it had been brought on by the damp and mould.

After those three meetings, we did get a plan of work from A2Dominion, and it was vital that the organisation finally responded to the issues that Clyde House residents were experiencing. Since then, although some deadlines were initially missed, which only led to concerns being raised even further in the first week that we were trying to get some action, I can tell the House that more progress has been made. To be even about A2Dominion’s record, it has now done much more to address the urgent and broader issues affecting Clyde House.

I thank the right hon. Lady for allowing me to intervene and congratulate her on securing this debate. I have experienced similar issues with A2Dominion, and her sequence of events mirrors mine. I have had issues with blocks run by A2Dominion for eight or 10 years since I was councillor—three and a half years before I came here. I also recognise the long-standing lack of maintenance and communication with residents. However, like the right hon. Lady, I have also noticed a recent improvement in communication with my office, with residents and with the London Borough of Hounslow, which has also experienced issues, so I am hopeful that things are improving. However, does she agree that there is an issue of accountability when it comes to housing associations and their key stakeholders?

Indeed, and I will come on to what I think could be some of the solutions. The hon. Lady highlights one of the other issues that came out of the experience of Clyde House residents, which is that nobody is willing to take responsibility. On the one hand, A2Dominion said initially that the responsibility for rectifying some of the major urgent issues was down to the developer, which was responsible because it had built the building. On the other hand, the developer was clear with me that it had handed over that responsibility and that the issues within the footprint of the building itself had been passed on to A2Dominion, which is responsible for maintenance. While that discussion was happening between those two organisations, my constituents were left with no action, from which there are lessons to be learned.

I thank the right hon. Lady for securing this debate. She is making a clear case about the lack of responsiveness and responsibility from the housing association, A2Dominion. It is incredible how common these issues and stories seem to be.

Over the past two months I have had an issue with a broken lift at Camellia House in Feltham, where the issue has been between A2Dominion and FirstPort, with neither seeming to take responsibility for resolving the issue as quickly as it could be. There has been poor communication with residents throughout the process. They also said that a fob was available for an alternative lift, which was not available to all the residents.

Where people have been affected, whether they are families with young children or people with disabilities, it has become even more of a stress and a strain at the beginning and end of every day. Does the right hon. Lady agree that we need to do much more to ensure there is transparency of service charges and accountability so that housing associations work in the interest of residents, and not in their own interest?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The work now under way at Clyde House will steadily make a difference to residents. Communal areas on all the floors will be redecorated, and fresh flooring will be put down. Work is beginning on upgraded CCTV, and the entrance doors will be much friendlier for disabled people who will now not have to reach the doors to open them—the doors will open automatically with a fob. A whole series of improvements will be made, which is welcome, but it should not have reached a crisis point for my local community and residents before action was taken. They should not have had to call me, as their local MP, to step in and force the issue to get action.

I will briefly address some of the possible solutions, because it strikes me that people see housing and homes as the ultimate public utility, yet whatever expectations we have of any other utility, whether mobile phones, water or energy, we have a completely different approach to the one on which we are most reliant, the home we live in. Who built it and to what standard?

I know the Government are looking at how we can have a more streamlined approach, but I will finish by setting out where positive differences could have been made in the case of Clyde House. First, when buildings are completed, obviously an independent inspection is needed to sign them off. My suggestion is that there should be a further follow-up inspection in, say, one to two years to consider whether issues have emerged since the building was finished and occupied that simply were not there to be identified at the beginning.

In cases like ours, the issues were clear from the first three months of residents moving in, but there was no independent person to pick them up. This suggestion would allow the industry to take quick action before problems become worse and more costly to rectify. It should also happen on an independent basis so that residents have the reassurance that somebody entirely separate from both the developer and the managing agent is able to come in and look at whether the building is performing and being maintained as expected.

I thoroughly agree on the need for more transparency on service charges and the whole range of costs that residents often experience in such homes. I do not know why we cannot have an approach like our approach to energy ratings, which is more consistent and transparent across buildings, wherever they are in the country, so that residents can get a sense of whether the various charges they are being asked to pay to live in their flat are at the high end or the low end for an average flat of the same nature. People are used to seeing that for other utilities and should be able to see it for the flat they live in.

We need a more pan-regulatory system that allows us to identify issues that are not just specific to a particular residence but symptomatic of an organisation with failings. Based on what other MPs have said to me about A2Dominion—I must repeat that it has now responded to the issues at Clyde House and is working hard to resolve them—my sense is that my constituents are not the only ones who have had issues. Organisations such as A2Dominion need to consider whether particular issues are in fact symptomatic of wider organisational problems around promptness, the efficacy of what they do and whether they follow up to make sure residents are content with the work done.

From what I can gather, the ventilation at Clyde House might not have been the best approach for that building, given its circumstances. Where such issues are systemic—for example, if the developer at Clyde House is repeating them in block after block—we need an approach and a regulatory system that can pick that up so that developers can learn from building mistakes and suboptimal approaches and get them rectified and so that the industry as a whole can rectify problems. It would also enable people thinking of living in a particular property to find out whether it was built by someone who tends to get these buildings right or someone who tends to get them wrong.

We urgently need a broader review of this area. It is unacceptable that people are living in the sorts of conditions I saw in Clyde House. It does not matter on what basis they are living in those conditions. People should know they have redress to get urgent action taken, and taken effectively, so that they do not have to live like that for long.

The right hon. Member is making an important point about the need for a wider review and rightly draws a distinction with developments where there have been positive experiences. On the management of properties, particularly where there is shared ownership, is it not also important that there is fairness in the system—that people feel they are being treated fairly—and that the system works for those doing their best to have a home they can feel secure in, not exploited in?

Indeed. It is really important that residents have access to redress, independent oversight of the quality of the work and somewhere to go when there are issues, and it is important that the system be streamlined so that it is simpler for residents. They should not need to have access to expensive lawyers to get proper advice about how to get their problems sorted out.

This is important. I was shocked at the kinds of environments that Clyde House residents were having to live in. I am pleased that A2Dominion is now responding to them, but the situation has raised some systemic issues and it would be good to hear from the Minister about what action the Government can take to ensure they are addressed.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) on securing this important debate. I understand her concerns and those of her constituents about the terrible situation at Clyde House, the state of their homes and how this has been addressed by the landlord, A2Dominion. I also congratulate her on the obviously pivotal role she played in resolving the situation. It is obvious from events that her intervention has brought A2Dominion up short and made them acknowledge its mistakes and errors. Indeed, I read in The Guardian that the director of property services had issued an apology saying:

“We recognise that things are not right and we’re going to put them right. We haven’t performed well, and you have my personal apology.”

She no doubt has the gratitude of her constituents and my congratulations as the Minister and those of the many Members who deal with these sorts of issues on a daily basis, as I do in my constituency.

Let me first make it clear that everyone has the right to be safe and to feel safe in their home, and they should expect their complaints to be dealt with promptly and effectively. The Government have taken steps to ensure that happens. Last year we published our social housing Green Paper, which sought views on how to improve redress for social housing residents in particular, and on a number of other issues that my right hon. Friend has raised this evening.

We engaged extensively with residents to inform and shape the Green Paper. We heard that residents want redress quickly when things go wrong, and for processes to be clearer and simpler. The Green Paper asked a range of questions on how we could deliver that, including a question on the future of the democratic filter, which is the process whereby a complaint is referred to the ombudsman via a designated person, or the complainant must wait eight weeks, which can further delay the complaints process.

The Green Paper also set out proposals to hold landlords to account more. To that end, we are reviewing the regulatory system for social housing so that the regulator can take action when a landlord consistently fails its residents. We want to rebalance the relationship between landlords and residents, and we will underpin that with a robust regulatory framework. We will publish our response to the Green Paper and the outcome of the review of regulation in due course.

I held roadshows across the country with hundreds of residents, particularly in social and affordable housing. I made a pledge that at some point before the summer we will publish that action plan. It will have a clear sense of direction and a clear timetable, because I was asked repeatedly by residents whether it was worth attending the roadshows, and whether they will actually see some change. I have made that pledge. How long I will be in this job, I am not sure—Housing Ministers do not often last that long—but I will try.

I also want to mention the other actions that the Government are taking to help all tenants. The Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 will strengthen all tenants’ rights and protect them from poor practice. The Act, which comes into force on 20 March, will empower all tenants, both private tenants and those in social housing, to take their landlord to court if their property is unfit for human habitation. Under the Act, landlords must ensure that their properties are fit from the start and throughout the tenancy. If they do not do so, the tenant has the right to take legal action. We have published guidance for tenants to help them understand their rights and responsibilities under the Act, and guidance for landlords and local authorities on how the Act might affect them.

Can the Minister clarify whether, under the new arrangements, which I think we are all pleased to see coming into force, if a resident takes a landlord to court and wins, there are any circumstances in which they might be required to pay the landlord’s legal fees?

That is a very good question, to which I do not actually have the answer, but I will make inquires and write to the hon. Lady. In most cases, as I am sure she knows, it is at the judge’s discretion where costs fall, and often it is decided on the merits of the case.

The 2018 Act does not place any additional responsibilities on social landlords, as they are already required to maintain their homes to a decent standard; it will act only as a backstop. We expect any problems with properties to be resolved far before they reach that stage.

The first step for residents with a complaint is to report problems to their landlord. The regulator expects all social landlords to have in place a complaints process that deals with issues promptly, politely and fairly. The onus is on individual landlords, working with residents, to set their approach and timescales for handling their residents’ complaints. I want to stress that if any hon. Member, acting on a constituent’s behalf, is unhappy with the response provided by a registered provider once their internal complaints process has been exhausted, that hon. Member may take the matter further.

Social housing residents can also approach the Housing Ombudsman Service at any time to seek advice. However, in order to refer a complaint formally to the ombudsman, a resident’s complaint must pass through the democratic filter. That involves referring a complaint to a designated person—a local councillor, a Member of Parliament or a tenant panel—for them either to deal with the complaint or to refer it to the ombudsman, or waiting eight weeks after their landlord’s complaints process has been exhausted. If the ombudsman determines that a complaint falls within its jurisdiction, it will investigate the complaint to determine whether there has been maladministration by the landlord. It will then issue a determination letter, which may include orders and recommendations to resolve the dispute. The landlord is expected to follow any orders within a specific timeframe.

A2Dominion is one of a number of large housing associations that, by definition, are charities, and yes, it is a registered social landlord. Almost all of its residents, certainly in my constituency, are either social rent tenants or leaseholders under the shared ownership scheme, many of whom are on fixed incomes. I see again and again seriously poor management practices and lack of repairs, such as those the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) has described. These residents do not have the time or energy to go through the process that the Minister has just set out. What they want is a decent-quality housing service that is at least as good as the local authority, and it should be as good as anyone would expect.

I completely agree. I have a large number of housing association properties in my constituency, too, and my postbag as a constituency MP is filled with similar complaints. When I first became a Member of Parliament, I was astonished and dismayed to find I was effectively the postbox for local housing association’s complaints service. Were I the chief executive of such an organisation, I would be mortified if local Members of Parliament were receiving the level of correspondence that some of us do, and I would be taking action.

We have recently seen some large housing associations acknowledge their failures: A2Dominion has acknowledged its particular failure in Clyde House, and L&Q, one of the G15, has come out very publicly and acknowledged its failure. Action has been taken—for example, in the past couple of years on Circle Property, which also failed on service—but there is more we can do, particularly on regulation, about which the Green Paper will say more. We can swing the pendulum of regulation toward a sense of customer service and away from purely financial regulation. As I say, there is more to come.

Sometimes things go wrong, and where that happens it is of the utmost importance that any safety concerns are resolved as soon as practicable. All registered providers of social housing must comply with the regulatory standards set by the Regulator of Social Housing. That includes ensuring that all their properties meet and are maintained at the decent homes standard, which means that homes should be free of any category 1 hazards, in a reasonable state of repair, have reasonably modern facilities, and provide a reasonable degree of thermal comfort. The regulator’s standards also require landlords to provide a repairs and maintenance service that responds to the need of tenants and offers them choices. The objective is to get repairs and improvements right the first time.

It would be helpful if my hon. Friend covered the question of compensation. Often there are very serious problems with people’s properties, and they may even need to be moved out. Those are extremely disruptive times for families with young children, and they end up living in hotels. Will the new framework provide more redress to compensate people who are affected by bad performance, as my constituents have been?

My right hon. Friend poses a good question. I do not want to front-run the publication of the plan document, but she can be assured that one of the critical issues for the Government is to make sure that tenants are dealt with professionally and quickly, and that their problems are sorted out the first time. We are considering devising a performance framework for housing associations and other registered social landlords, making performance transparent to tenants, which might be useful to them when comparing landlords.

Where landlords do not provide a proper repairs and maintenance service, tenants should complain and have the right to expect that something is done. If my right hon. Friend’s constituents consider that their property has serious hazards that present a risk to health and safety, they can report that to their local council, which can inspect and assess the property using the housing health and safety rating system. If the local council becomes aware of a serious category 1 hazard, it has a duty to take appropriate action to address it. Hazards can include, among other things, damp, excess cold or heat, poor sanitation and fire risks. Councils have a range of powers to ensure that landlords take appropriate action to rectify the problem; in extreme cases, the council can take emergency remedial action itself and charge the landlord to do the work.

My hon. Friend has reminded me that it was remiss of me not to give thanks to Wandsworth Council for the work it did when issues of safety in Clyde House were raised. I put on record my thanks to the inspectors who went and made sure that health and safety measures were in place.

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s intervention. I am pleased to hear that the system is working and that Wandsworth Council has played its part in resolving what was obviously a difficult and trying time for the residents of Clyde House. I hope the work we are doing on the social housing Green Paper and on shifting regulation generally more towards consumer standards and away from financial regulation will mean that the time in question will become a piece of history that we can all forget.

I thank my right hon. Friend again for securing this valuable debate. I have tried to set out the arrangements that are already in place to protect tenants, and I hope I have also made clear my commitment to improving things further. Nevertheless, there are valuable lessons to be learned from the issues at Clyde House, and I will be asking A2Dominion to come into the Department to explain what happened, what went wrong and where things might be improved. I would be more than happy to sit down with my right hon. Friend to discuss her ideas so that we can feed them into our work on the social housing Green Paper. As I have said, I am committed to ensuring that everyone can seek timely and effective solutions when they have a housing problem and can live in a home of which they can be proud.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.