Regulator finds serious failings in Bristol council housing

Bristol City Council has drawn the city’s attention to the failure to meet new quality standards. Thousands of repairs, damp and mould incidents are long overdue, and many safety inspection records have gone missing.

A government watchdog has warned of “serious failings” in Bristol’s council housing sector after concluding that local authorities do not have a clear picture of the condition and safety of their own homes due to a lack of documentation.

The finding is part of a highly critical review published this week by the Regulator for Social Housing (RSH), which lists a number of areas where Bristol City Council is failing to meet new quality standards following the Grenfell tragedy.

This assessment follows a decade of austerity and the fact that for years council tenants had been reporting to Cable TV and other local media about poor living conditions and the lack of action to improve them.

The council wrote to all tenants yesterday to apologise and set out how it intends to repair the damage – a process that will also take years, and a spokesman told Cable there was no set timetable yet. The repairs are expected to restrict Bristol City Council’s ability to build new homes and decarbonise existing ones, making its target of achieving net zero emissions by 2030 even less likely.

Bristol was one of five major landlords – alongside Sheffield, Cambridge and Guildford councils and housing association Octavia – to be given a ‘C3’ rating for serious non-compliance. But the scale of the failures was greater here than anywhere else, with the report revealing the council has more than 1,900 open damp and mould complaints, with more than 200 of them more than a year behind schedule.

Serious, long-term problems with damp and mould have been the subject of complaints from tenants in St Jude’s blocks, who were finally promised major repairs to their leaking homes in June after months of campaigning. Such problems became widely known nationally after ITV investigations exposed appalling living conditions on social housing estates, and after mould exposure was found to have contributed to the death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak in a flat in Rochdale in 2020.

Tenants at St Jude’s were recently promised action to fix the neglect in their blocks (source: Alex Turner)

The regulator also said there were almost 16,000 outstanding repairs in Bristol, with around half of them more than 12 months overdue. The council says the real figure is more likely to be 11,000 because some of them were reported multiple times by frustrated tenants.

Fewer than half of the 27,000 homes managed by the trust had electrical safety certificates, and only one in seven homes had smoke and carbon monoxide alarms.

In the area of ​​fire safety – which the council has a legal duty to assess and take precautions against – more than 3,000 corrective actions were found to be outstanding. Overall, the regulator said more than 80% of the council’s stockpile surveys were more than five years old.

“Given the limited availability of up-to-date research data and the lack of a systematic approach, we are not confident that Bristol has sufficient knowledge of its homes” to meet the quality standards, the ruling said.

The deepening crisis

For much of the past decade, Bristol City Council – like many other large social housing landlords – has been focused on delivering new homes in the face of acute housing shortages. Understandably, given how the local social housing waiting list has ballooned from 8,000 to more than 21,000 since 2017.

However, in recent years local authorities have been rocked by revelations about the condition of existing buildings, particularly tower blocks, which have been regularly cited in committee reports but insufficient action has been taken.

During the pandemic, residents of Barton Hill tower blocks have been raising complaints about the condition of their blocks, while in 2022 two major tower block fires – at Eccleston House in Barton Hill and Twinnell House in Easton – have highlighted flammable cladding and other fire safety issues in council flats in Bristol.

Then, in November last year, there was the chaotic and poorly communicated evacuation of Barton House, another block on Barton Hill, over fears the building was structurally unsafe and could collapse in a fire. A council spokesman stressed that none of the latest findings concerned the buildings’ structural safety.

But a striking feature of the Barton House saga is the lack of records stretching back decades about the condition of the block – a point highlighted again in this year’s judgment.

The scale of the issues identified became clear after the council commissioned consultancy Savills to assess how it would cope with new safety and quality standards which came into force in April this year.

The new standards aim to make social housing landlords more accountable for failures made in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster, media reports of damp and mould and the death of Awaab Ishak.

The deputy chief executive of RSH said earlier this year that there were “too many landlords” with outdated information about their homes and that many of them were likely to fail to meet the standards. Bristol City Council had already been working with the regulator on fire safety and other issues but eventually referred the matter to RSH after a Savills review, completed in April, made it clear how far it was from achieving the rating.

“We need to give it a political character”

The Savills report will not be made public until the committee meets at the end of July – three months after its conclusion.

Easton Green Party councillor Barry Parsons, who became chairman of the Homes and Housing Delivery Committee under the council’s new governance model in May, said the council had been advised not to disclose the information during reporting restrictions ahead of local elections. He added that restrictions came into force quickly ahead of the general election, which caused a long delay.

Asked about the cause of the problems, Parsons said he did not want to blame the previous administration, adding that finding fault would not help find solutions for tenants.

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

“We’re going to have to look again at our funding priorities and make sure we put the resources we need into fixing the backlog, into doing safety checks, into doing all the things we know we need to do now,” Parsons added. “You can’t prioritize everything – so that (will impact) some of our other ambitions, around housing, decarbonization and things like that.”

Today Bristol joined a group of 20 major local authority landlords, led by Southwark, in warning that England’s council housing system is in financial trouble and that a new Labour government must invest in solutions.

Regardless of the outcome of the case, Bristol has at least committed to addressing outstanding repairs and safety issues identified in this week’s ruling, which Parsons said will take several years.

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

“There is a lot of work to be done in terms of valuing the voice of residents, giving people a say in how their homes are managed, working with community groups and community leaders – and then there is the matter of handling complaints.

“We are not delivering the services that people rightly expect and we will only be able to improve the situation if we work closely with the people living in our homes,” Parsons said. “We are working on a tenant engagement programme and will be working on it much longer over the next few weeks and months in response to the judgment.”

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