Hundreds potentially put at risk as council homes safety inspections missed
- Credit: Archant
Hundreds of people in council homes across Norwich were potentially put in danger - because crucial safety inspections of fire, water and electrics were not done.
The "shocking" failure in oversight meant electrical safety checks at nearly 900 homes, some of which should have been carried out at least five years ago, were never carried out.
And water supplies in up to 500 homes may have missed vital checks for legionella, a germ which can cause lethal illnesses.
Letters have been sent to 17,000 Norwich City Council council tenants and leaseholders to tell them the council has put in place an "urgent" programme to make sure checks are done.
How was the backlog discovered?
The council's community services director Louise Rawthorne, who was appointed in April, discovered the inspections backlog after ordering an internal review.
The audit found hundreds of cases where electrical, fire and water safety checks and some follow-up work had not been done.
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The city council says an urgent work programme has been put in place to complete all checks, risk assessments and follow-up work.
It uncovered 892 properties (6pc of council homes) where electrical checks, supposed to be carried out every five years, had not been done.
The council has had some of those checks carried out, but is working to get the others completed.
The review also found fire risk assessments had not been done and up to 500 homes may not have had a legionella risk assessment done.
The council has appointed a water hygiene specialist to do that work, which will start later this month.
People in the affected properties will be contacted directly to arrange for inspectors to go into their homes, officers say.
The council is also supposed to ensure fire safety inspections are done for properties with shared communal areas, such as blocks of flats.
The number which have not been done is not yet clear, with the council having brought in experts to establish what work needs to be done.
But the council says it aims to complete outstanding inspections by the end of November.
Fire safety inspections in all of Norwich's high-rise tower blocks - Normandie Tower and Winchester Tower in the city centre, Markham, Seaman, Aylmer Towers in Mile Cross and Ashbourne, Burleigh and Compass at Heartsease - have been completed.
The Labour-run council had paid contractors, including Norfolk County Council-owned Norse and Gasway, to carry out such checks.
The council is also awaiting clarity from the independent audit to confirm the compliance position relating to asbestos.
The council said: "We will update the regulator with this information as soon as we have it and have reviewed it.
"If there is a need to update residents of specific properties in due course, we will do so."
'Very sorry' - council apologises for putting tenants at potential risk
Council leader Alan Waters acknowledged the buck stopped with the council - which had oversight for the contracts.
He said: "We are very sorry that we have put some of our tenants in this position and we do feel responsible for getting this sorted.
"We are taking on the backlog of cases and some of the work we need to do has already been done.
"The ambition is to make sure we have got 100pc compliance within 12 months."
When the scale of the missed inspections became clear in June, City Hall referred itself to the Regulator of Social Housing - the government body which monitors standards.
The council is working with the regulator to help forge the urgent improvement plan.
Mr Waters said: "Once we have got the full scope back from the independent experts and the views of the social housing regulator, then a report will come to a special cabinet meeting which will look at the resources and plan for what we need to carry out."
A compliance board will also meet four times a year to monitor progress.
Asked to explain what had gone so wrong and who was to blame, Mr Waters said: "I think there have been some systemic issues which needed to be addressed."
The city council said it would not comment on which officers would have had responsibility for the contract arrangements or if there had been any disciplinary action or departures as a result.
They said: "As part of our review we identified the changes we need to make, which includes putting robust and transparent contract management and governance arrangements in place, and we are clearly identifying the roles and responsibilities regarding all future compliance work."
The council has said it has not identified any occasions where a missed inspection led to an incident in any of the housing stock.
Mr Waters said there would be an extra cost to get the inspections done, but a figure cannot be calculated until the independent experts have completed their work.
Meanwhile, letters have been sent to 17,000 homes - 14,000 council homes and 3,000 tenants.
The council says it has sent letters to all of those homes to outline what has happened, but that not all of them have inspections which have not been done.
They say the council will contact householders directly if inspections do need to be done.
Norse, Gasway and the Regulator of Social Housing have been approached for comment.
What others have said - and who is to blame?
The responsibility for what went wrong must fall squarely on the shoulders of the Labour-run council, political opponents have said.
Ash Haynes, the shadow portfolio holder for housing on the Green group at City Hall, said it was "shocking" that so many checks had not been done properly.
She said: "The current danger to tenants would not have arisen if contracts had been managed properly.
"The Green group has continuously highlighted that the Labour council needs to check the work of their contractors better.
"The housing cabinet member needs to take responsibility for the fact that this serious situation has been allowed to develop.
"We are talking about the basic health and safety of thousands of tenants which has potentially been at risk for years.
"The Labour cabinet has not run a council which has looked after tenants and has some serious questions to answer.
"We are reassured that the officers who uncovered the problem are dealing with it.
"Additional checks and balances need to be established to bring all issues that affect the safety of tenants into the open so they can be fairly, safely and efficiently monitored.”
Norwich North Conservative MP Chloe Smith said: "This scale of bad management is shocking and will be worrying for thousands of residents.
"Norwich needs a better council than this and this might stick in people's minds come the City Hall elections in the spring."
James Wright, leader of the Liberal Democrat group at the city council, said: "The situation raises some serious questions about the housing service and oversight by the Labour cabinet.
"It is right that the council has put its hands up and taken responsibility, but we need to understand how processes went so badly wrong.
"As chair of scrutiny, I would like to see us look at this failing as a matter of urgency and will work with colleagues to make that happen."
Questions and answers
How do I find out if my property is affected?
The council has written to all 17,000 council house tenants and leaseholders to explain the action it is taking. The council says it will contact people directly if any outstanding inspection or work is needed in their home.
What do I do if I have concerns about the safety of my home?
The council urged people not to worry. Officers say if an inspection or work is needed in their home, they will be in touch directly to arrange it. They said people who notice repairs that are needed, they should report them in the usual way.
What about leaseholders - will their homes be inspected?
The council says there are variations between different leases, but, in general, the leaseholders are responsible for safety checks inside their properties, such as electrical safety. But the council is responsible for checks in communal areas and the building as a whole, such as fire safety.
I rent a property from a council leaseholder. How can I find out if my home is affected?
The council says the landlord of the property (ie - the leaseholder) is responsible for gas and electrical safety in the home, while the council is responsible for the electrical and fire safety of communal areas. The council says it will be in touch with landlords if properties are affected and then tenants will be contacted to arrange access to complete outstanding checks.
I still have concerns, what should I do?
People can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0344 980 3333 (select option 3 for housing, then 5 for housing compliance) Monday to Friday, between 9am and 4pm.
This is hugely embarrassing for Norwich City Council, which, as a Labour council, prides itself on its commitment to social housing.
Council leader Alan Waters has apologised to council tenants for the situation the authority's failure to ensure safety checks were done has placed them in.
He has acknowledged the buck stops with the council, for all that it was contractors such as Norse and Gasway who were paid to carry out the actual inspections.
But whatever the whys and wherefores of what led to these inspections not being carried out, ultimately, it goes down as a serious blunder by the city council.
Officers and councillors should have had oversight over these contracts and that oversight was clearly not good enough.
That is a failing which has potentially put the safety of council tenants and leaseholders at risk.
The council is keen to put that right, but, with political opponents describing the situation as "shocking", reputationally, this could be very damaging.