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Watchdog finds ‘serious failings’ after concluding council does not know what state its housing is in

Bristol City Council has been called out by a government regulator for not meeting new quality standards, with thousands of repairs and damp and mould cases long overdue for action and many safety check records missing.

Reports

A government watchdog has warned of ‘serious failings’ across Bristol’s council housing services, after concluding that poor record-keeping means the local authority does not have a clear picture of the condition and safety of its own homes.

The finding was part of a highly critical judgment published this week by the Regulator for Social Housing (RSH). It listed a host of ways in which Bristol City Council is falling short of new post-Grenfell standards covering the state of homes and services to tenants.

The assessment follows a decade of austerity, and comes after years of council housing tenants reporting substandard living conditions, and failures to deal with them, to the Cable and other local news outlets.

The council wrote yesterday to all tenants to apologise and set out how it plans to make amends – a process that will also take years, with a spokesperson telling the Cable there is no definite timeline yet. Fixing things is expected to cut into Bristol City Council’s ability to build new homes and decarbonise existing ones, making its target of achieving net-zero by 2030 even less likely.

Bristol was one of five major landlords – along with Sheffield, Cambridge and Guildford councils and housing association Octavia – given a ‘C3’ rating over serious non-compliance. But the scale of the shortcomings was greater here than anywhere else, with the report revealing that the council has more than 1,900 open damp and mould cases, more than 200 of which are over a year overdue for action. 

Severe, longstanding damp and mould problems were at the heart of complaints by tenants of blocks in St Jude’s, who after months of campaigning were finally promised major repairs to their leaking homes in June. Such issues have had a high profile nationally after ITV investigations revealed appalling living conditions on social housing estates, and after exposure to mould was found to have contributed to the death in 2020 of two-year-old Awaab Ishak in a Rochdale flat.

Tenants in St Jude’s were recently promised action to fix disrepair in their blocks (credit: Alex Turner)

Residents in St Jude’s and elsewhere have also told us about having to repeatedly chase the council for repairs, sometimes for months, before any action is taken.

The regulator said there were almost 16,000 outstanding repairs in Bristol, with around half overdue by more than 12 months. The council says the true total is more like 11,000 because some have been reported multiple times by frustrated tenants.

Less than half of the council’s 27,000 homes were found to have electrical safety certificates, while just one in seven homes had evidence of smoke and carbon monoxide alarms.

Around fire safety – which the council has a legal duty to assess and take precautions around – more than 3,000 remedial actions were found to be outstanding. In general, the regulator found, over 80% of the council’s stock condition surveys were more than five years old.

“Given the limited availability of up-to-date survey data and the lack of a systematic approach, we do not have assurance that Bristol has a sufficient understanding of its homes” to meet quality standards, the judgment said.

A deepening crisis

For much of the past decade, Bristol City Council’s public focus – like many other big social housing landlords – has been on delivering new homes in the face of an acute shortage. That’s understandable, given the way the local waiting list for social housing has ballooned from 8,000 to well over 21,000 since 2017.

But in recent years, the local authority has been rocked by revelations about the condition of its existing homes, especially high-rises – which have been regularly referenced in committee reports, but insufficiently acted upon.

During the pandemic, residents in Barton Hill high-rises raised complaints about the state of their blocks. Meanwhile in 2022, two serious tower block fires – at Eccleston House in Barton Hill and Twinnell House in Easton – drew attention to flammable cladding and other fire safety defects in Bristol’s council housing.

Then last November came the chaotic and poorly communicated evacuation of Barton House, yet another Barton Hill block, over fears the structure of the building was unsafe and could collapse in a fire. The council’s spokesperson emphasised that none of the latest findings related to structural safety of buildings.

But a striking feature of the Barton House saga has been the lack of records, going back decades, about the state of the block – something this week’s judgment has again drawn attention to.

The extent of the problems it has highlighted became apparent after the council commissioned the consultancy firm Savills to assess how well it was likely to perform against new safety and quality standards, which came into force this April.

These new standards are designed to make social housing landlords more accountable for failings in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster, media reporting around damp and mould and the death of Awaab Ishak.

The deputy chief executive of the RSH said earlier this year that there were “too many landlords” with out-of-date information around their homes and that many were likely to fall short of complying with the standards. Bristol City Council had already been working with the regulator around its fire safety performance and other issues, but ended up referring itself to the RSH once Savills’ review, completed in April, made clear how far away it was from making the grade.

‘We need to give this political focus’

The Savills report will only become public ahead of a committee meeting later in July – three months after it was completed.

Barry Parsons, the Green councillor for Easton who in May became chair of the Homes and Housing Delivery Committee under the council’s new governance model, said the authority had been advised not to release it during pre-local election reporting restrictions. He added that restrictions ahead of the general election had then quickly come into effect, resulting in the long delay.

Asked about the root cause of the problems, Parsons said he was reluctant to point the finger of blame at the previous administration, adding that finding fault would not help find solutions for tenants.

“It’s clearly a systemic issue, a national issue, and a consequence, I would say, of many years of [central government] underfunding and shifting regulatory standards,” he said. “Our focus now is to make sure that we give this issue the level of political focus it needs, and make sure we’re actually improving things locally – because it’s clearly not good enough.

“We’re going to have to look again at our financial priorities, and make sure we put the resources we need to into fixing the backlogs, into doing safety checks, into doing all the things that we know we now need to do,” Parsons added. “You can’t prioritise everything – so that is going to [have an impact on] some of our other ambitions, around council house-building, around decarbonisation, things like that.”

Today, Bristol joined a group of 20 of the biggest local authority landlords, led by Southwark, to warn that England’s council housing system is financially broken and that the new Labour government must invest in solutions.

Regardless of the outcome of this, Bristol has pledged to at least clear the backlog of repairs and safety issues identified in this week’s judgment, which Parsons said would take several years.

He added that the council would also take steps to try to rebuild trust with tenants, many of whom have felt disrespected by the response they have got when reporting inadequate living conditions.

“There’s an awful lot of work to be done around valuing residents’ voices, giving people a say in how their homes are managed, working with community groups, community leaders – and another thing is around handling complaints.

“We’re not delivering the service people rightly expect, and we are only going to be able to improve things if we are working really closely with our people who live in our housing,” Parsons said. “We’ve got a tenant engagement programme we’re working on, and we’re going to be doing a lot more work on that over the next few weeks and months in response to the judgment.”

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Comments

Report a comment. Comments are moderated according to our Comment Policy.

  • The Tenant’s Resource Center based on the bros of the hill at St. Mary Redcliffe was partially funded by Bristol City Council but staffed/run by tenants.

    It was very experienced and knowledgeable on all matters concerning living in a rented premises.

    The City Council cut funding. Some would say it was because neglect, incompetence and stupidity where found out and challenged.

    As this report and others point out, this decision to withdraw funding turned out to be a false economy resulting in the sorry state we are now having to endure.

    Added to the above there seems a greater reluctance to engage with the public/tenants on any future plans. Seemingly to pursue short term profit at the expense of sustainable quality.

    Reply

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