Should council call time on borough's high rise flats as dangers to residents mount and children live in damp and distress' Where is the compassion'

By Neil Speight

8th Dec 2020 | Local News

Thurrock Nub News SPECIAL REPORT

THURROCK's tower blocks are casting a shadow of shame across the borough, with many residents, including children, living in dangerous – if not life threatening – conditions.

Over recent months Thurrock Nub News has been contacted by residents from tower blocks run by the council in Chadwell St Mary, Tilbury, and Grays prompting us to quiz councillors and council officers over the true state of these buildings.

And the answers make shocking reading as, despite many people's best efforts and a considerable investment of time, planning and energy, real solutions to the problems seem far away.

So much so that one councillor, Little Thurrock's Ben Maney says the time has come to demolish the blocks in his ward.

He has a stark message for his cabinet colleagues and the council, saying: "I have long regarded the high rise blocks in Blackshots as outdated and poor quality accommodation. I know the financial and logistical task of doing so would be immense, even unachievable in the current climate, but I live in hope that one day the blocks will be demolished and the people there rehoused."

The three 12 storey blocks in Blackshots - Morrison House, Keir Hardie House and Bevan House - were built in the mid sixties. Between them they offer 168 dwellings. Like other blocks in the borough, the flats are currently set to be renovated with new cladding because the existing external facia of the blocks does not meet building regulations for fire and thermal performance criteria.

But many of the residents do not believe the work – if it happens – will solve the problem. They believe the flats are inherently flawed. Many of those residents are living in dreadful conditions with damp and mould invading their homes. Despite their best efforts to keep their flats clean, safe and presentable – and frequent visits by council contracted workers who replaster and paint – the homes continue to deteriorate.

In one, Bevan House, residents in more than 20 flats on the south-facing side of the building have detailed a never-ending battle against damp, water running down the walls and high humidity which makes living in some rooms impossible.

And while the problem is recognised by the council, dealing with it on a practical basis has brought about some of the worst facets of public service – with residents ignored and lied to by council staff, who it seems are reluctant to act.

Thurrock Nub News can highlight the story of one young mum. We won't name her but the council are aware of the full details of her case. The video with this article was filmed in the flat where she lives with her young daughter. They now have to share a bedroom because the daughter's is uninhabitable because of the damp and humidity.

It's a common tale and more than a dozen of her neighbours have spoken of having similar problems.

The mum keeps the flat impeccably. The living room, kitchen and her bedroom are pristine and well-maintained but her daughter's room has become the nightmare she loses sleep over.

"I've lived here for five years and I really like living here," she says. "The flat is a nice size and I get on with the people, but it's just become impossible for my daughter, who is now six, to use her bedroom.

"The walls are running with water, there is mould growing everywhere. The council have been in a couple of times and they have stripped the plaster back and replastered and painted but in a very short time the damp and water comes through.

"It seeps everywhere, I have had to throw away her furniture and many of her clothes, the mould just creeps in. I can't let her sleep in there, it's dangerous, the humidity gets up to as much as 94 per cent.

"I have had visits from the council but it takes a lot of complaining for that to happen and on the last visit I was told by the woman who came that I would 'just have to live with it'."

We were shown a collection of correspondence from the council which backs up her claim that the problem is being glossed over – and she has collected a survey of many of her fellow block residents who say they have similar problems. And we have been sent pictures of the damp creeping into their homes as well.

After visiting the flat we passed on all the information to Thurrock Council, ward councillors and the housing portfolio holder Barry Johnson – but despite platitudes and promises that action will be take, in the past three weeks the pledges of a visit to the flat by the council have been fruitless. Assurances given by officers to ward councilors appear to have been a mere brush-off!

"Living here is hell"

Across the borough, in Chadwell St Mary, there are similar stories in the town's three tower blocks, also legacies of the sixties high rise building programme.

Earlier this year we reported on the horrific noise nuisance endured by a family when the wind blows strongly.

The story of Nikita Abbott Stacey, and life in the flat at George Tilbury House where she lives with her partner Ryan and two-year-old daughter Demi was endorsed by other residents who shared Nikita's view when she told us "Living here is just hell."

And in October we were contacted by another resident in adjacent Poole House, who told us of her constant battle to scrub her walls and keep the damp and wet at bay.

The young mum lives with her two small children in a flat which is another blighted by damp and mould.

She told us: "I have complained lots of times to the council Eventually they sent a surveyor to check the walls but he said he found no issue. That's because I had just cleaned the walls. I try to keep on top of it by cleaning as best I can.

"But my flat clearly has an issue. I get condensation all the time, the window are soaked and puddles are left on window seals and runs down the walls.

"Mould grows around my windows and walls constantly. Last year I lost so much furniture and clothes due to it

"It's so damp I can't dry clothes my kids wake up with damp quit covers. We are using damp towels to try and dry ourselves.

"They don't know what it's like to live here. Last year I didn't use any bedrooms so me and my two babies had to stay in the living room which was also mouldy.

"Eventually the council came back and said they would come to "treat and paint", which they did but basically I was told it's going to happen again this winter. It's just a big cycle and it's a real worry.

"I just don't want to live here any more. It's just so depressing."

As at Blackshots, we furnished the council with details of the flat, but again there has been no positive response.

We received a something of a sop by way of a brief email from the council which said: "Thurrock Council does not comment on individual cases. If the council receives reports with concerns of this nature, these are reported to the housing repairs service and appropriate remedial works are carried out."

However, the reality appears to be very different.

A statement from Cllr Johnson in October to Thurrock News, when we made him aware of the nature of the complaints, said: "We continue to make significant investment in improvements to our council-owned properties and have carried out internal refurbishments to more than 8,500 homes in recent years, providing upgraded kitchens and bathrooms and replacement windows and doors.

"This year, under government COVID-19 guidelines, our Transforming Homes contractors have been working on completing refurbishments to the outside of 41 blocks. Further improvements include 205 individual households benefitting from replacement windows.

"Residens living in three tower blocks in Chadwell St Mary are aware of planned works to upgrade the windows of the communal parts of these blocks, which are due to be completed over the coming months.

"We are also planning household energy improvements in these blocks in Chadwell as part of a project to provide residents with more efficient, cost-effective heating and water systems, which are environmentally sustainable."

Residents in Tilbury's Brisbane House, Tasmania House, and Fremantle House have documented many problems with their flats in recent years. And in Grays, many residents in the tower blocks in the Seabrook Rise area that were built in the late sixties and early seventies are also unhappy.

"I love this flat. I want to die in it."

In 2015 the council announced that it wanted to demolish Greenwood House, Davall House and Butler House, but a number of residents in the blocks – which have been up since the mid sixties, fought a successful battle to stay.

The plan to knock them down and replace them with new homes was thwarted after residents were split on the issue. The launched a consultation to collect residents' views on the demolition. 48 per cent were in favour of demolition, but a small majority, mostly the older residents, wanted to stay and the council capitulated.

The view of one resident, then 85 and who had lived in Davall House for 40 years, summed up the argument for staying, saying: "I don't want to move. I'm beginning to get walking problems and this apartment block is perfect for me. I love this flat. I want to die in it."

Five years on, the Seabrook flats which also include Lionel Oxley House, Arthur Toft House and George Crooks House remain problematic.

As well as the common problem of damp, some residents had to leave their homes in Davall House in May and June this year due to flooding from corroded copper pipes in the block. And that led to unearthing a further problem with the amount of asbestos in the building. Residents were moved out after being told it wasn't safe for them to stay there any more.

And fixing the ever-growing problems looks to be a more and more expensive proposition. In 2015 it was estimated renovation would cost £10 million. That cost has since soared.

In May this year the council launched another consultation about what to do with the flats at Seabrook and Blackshots. The council said it wanted to carry out a complete upgrade of the external wall system that is currently in place on the blocks.

[H2]"Bad 'housekeeping' by residents"

In the consultation residents were told: "The roofs of the blocks will be replaced, the insulation upgraded, a new canopy will be fitted to the entrance of the blocks and, as a further improvement to the thermal efficiency, the current uPVC windows will also be replaced with double glazed aluminium windows."

Planning applications for the recladding of the nine blacks at Grays and Blackshots was granted in August but residents remain skeptical about the work and fear it is literally a case of 'window dressing' rather than really solving the problem.

Our continued questioning of Thurrock Council finally resulted in an official response, in which it appears to put some of the blame for damp and mould on bad 'housekeeping' by residents.

It details the council's position, with a statement saying: "Thurrock Council does not take the living conditions of its residents lightly as the safety and health and wellbeing of all our residents remains our number one priority.

"We will continue to engage with our residents about how we maintain our high rise blocks which includes the appetite for viable redevelopment opportunities, and we are committed to delivering significant investment in improvements to our council owned properties having carried out more than 8,500 internal refurbishments in recent years.

"The council will continually explore more efficient, cost effective heating and water systems which are environmentally sustainable and will help to contribute to addressing mould and damp issues.

"The council will also continue to offer advice to residents on adequate heating techniques and air circulation and ventilation within their property to alleviate the condensation build up which in turn could lead to potential mould growth.

"The council reviews all reported mould or dampness to a dwelling, depending on the severity of the issue one of two approaches will take place.

"For severe cases of dampness or mould growth within a property a survey will take place. Any required repairs identified by the surveyor will take place as routine repair within the 20 day target time.

"Minor mould growth caused by condensation and attributed to housekeeping will be addressed under a batch programme following a review by our contracted delivery partners. More about our programme can be found here.

"The external wall insulation on a number of the council's tower blocks is due for planned renewal. These works are not cosmetic. The external panels on these blocks are now showing expected signs of wear and tear.

"In addition the fixing system used, while still fulfilling its purpose, is at the end of its anticipated lifespan and is also due for renewal. External wall insulation is also a good preventative measure for condensation and damp.

"The scheduled refurbishment, which will also provide new windows for every flat and a new roof for each of the blocks, will ensure the council continues to provide quality homes for our residents that meet the latest building regulations introduced."

However, the council did not give a timescale for the start of works – and with the looming financial crisis the authority is facing, fears are growing that the problems may be brushed under the carpet again.

COMMENT by NEIL SPEIGHT – Thurrock Nub News Editor

NO-ONE in their right mind would suggest that there are easy solutions to the problems with Thurrock's high rise blocks.

The general consensus among those people, inside Thurrock Council and outside, that I have spoken to in recent days – both on and off the record – is that the flats should come down. Their time is done.

Sadly only Cllr Ben Maney has been prepared to voice his views publicly – and he recognises that the cost of carrying out demolition and rebuild would be massive.

But this is a problem that is not going to go away.

When I arrived in Thurrock to edit the Thurrock Gazette in 20045 the subject of the state of the borough's high rise blocks was on the agenda. It is a story I have revisited time and time again in the past 16 years.

Granted the council now has given itself planning permission to make changes that they stress are not cosmetic. But is new cladding the answer? Is it not time to grasp the nettle as many other local authorities up and down the country have done and tear down these legacies from the sixties?

It is not an easy question to answer, particularly as some of the flats are now in private ownership, and the task would require rehousing hundreds of families in a borough where more than 8,000 people are already on a social housing list.

But is making the best of a bad job really the answer?

And behind the actual concrete and steel of these structures have we not forgotten the humanity?

I am the first to acknowledge that not everyone in these flats lives a commendable lifestyle. Many undoubtedly abuse the dwellings they have been given. It's not unknown for residents to rip out the radiators and sell the copper and metal – then call in the council to come and fix the problem!

But you cannot operate by setting standards because of the lowest common denominator.

I have been in some of these flats and I have seen the people whose lives are genuinely blighted. They are people trying their damndest to make the most of what they are grateful to have been given

And met the children who live alongside damp and mould. Who struggle to breathe at night because of humidity in their rooms.

Not only is that not good enough, it is intolerable that these people are not given the respect they deserve.

Sadly, if what councilors have told me was going to happen – and then didn't happen - the only conclusion is that lies are being told.

That backs are being covered.

That compassion has been thrown out of the window.

It is not good enough.

There needs to be a strong, reasoned and detailed public debate about the state of these flats.

One that our 49 councillors need to engage in. Too many of them in the borough abdicate their social responsibility for an easy life.

They are elected to represent their residents, to ensure their rights are respected and the young children of this borough get as good a chance at life as we can give them. Their job is not to accept platitudes from officers but to challenge and question and demand answers.

15 tower blocks may not seem that huge in the complex problems that face Thurrock – but if this council can find a way to solve the problem of them through innovation, enterprise and a touch of bravery, then maybe, just maybe, that will light the blue touch paper to the real regeneration of this borough.

Have we not had enough of vastly expensive, high-blown, unrealistic and, quite frankly pie in the sky ideas brokered by highly paid consultants that have been conjured to put before a succession of failed administrations and a failed Development Corporation? Between them they have wasted tens of millions of pounds that could easily have fixed the problem of the tiny children featured in this report who are growing up at risk.

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