Thurrock's cheapskate repairs policy fails to impress. Woman with a leaking ceiling was told to use an umbrella when visiting the toilet! Cancer victim falls through floor. We look at how and why the system fails...

By Neil Speight

22nd Mar 2021 | Local News

EXCLUSIVE - News and comment from Thurrock Nub News

A THURROCK council tenant whose flat was subject to water dripping through the ceiling for a number of weeks was told by housing officers to use an umbrella when indoors!

That staggering message emerged following an investigation by a borough councillor into ongoing problems at the flat in Brisbane House, Tilbury.

Over recent months Thurrock Nub News has run several stories about the problems in the borough's high-rise flats – raising issues that have generally been waved away with platitudes from council officers and senior councillors.

We have reported on water oozing through walls and eating away at children's furniture in Bevan House, Blackshots; windows that screech and make unbearable noises in high winds in Chadwell St Mary and tower blocks in Grays where damp and water continue to be a serious risk to health.

In December last year we encapsulated many of the stories in a news feature, which you can read via this link.

Our continued questioning of Thurrock Council finally resulted in an official response, which read: "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."

But talk, it appears, is cheap and action too difficult for the council to act on.

And it's not just high rise flats. In recent weeks we have visited a number of homes where residents are living in diabolical conditions.

In one West Thurrock home a man stricken with cancer fell through damp and rotten floorboards of his wet room – which he had been unable to use for weeks because of problems that a council-contracted repair crew had failed to put right. Needing to use the toilet, he took a risk and stepped inside and suffered injuries and a seizure for his troubles.

The complaints of his distraught wife were instantly dismissed by the supervisor of the workers, who denied any responsibility even when confronted with the rotten and shattered flooring!

You can hear the exchange between her and the supervisor allocated responsibility here. Thurrock Council has not provided answers to our questions about this botched job.

In the case brought to our attention by angry Tilbury councillor John Allen, a female resident of Brisbane House has had to live with water running through her flat for weeks.

We were shocked to hear of the council's advice that she should use an umbrella when using the toilet, where the leaks are the worst!

We have met and spoken to the resident, who was fearful of being pictured or speaking live, – though today when we were due to film in the flat, a team from the council's favoured contractors Mears turned up and started work.

Cllr Allen makes his feelings clear in the video accompanying this story.

HOW IT WORKS: The schedule that damns Thurrock residents to shoddy repairs

Many of the problems appear to be down to work being contracted out at a price at which it is almost impossible to do a proper job.

Earnest, honest councillors often have to front up to the complaints of disgruntled tenants. They turn to the council for answers and often get unfathomable answers. But it may just be a simple case of money! Or rather not enough money!

In simple terms, the council is constantly seeking to drive down the price it pays for repair work.

The way contracting works, the National Housebuilding Federation (NHF) produces a huge document called the Schedule of Rates which is widely used across the UK for maintenance and repair contracts.

Thurrock Council asks firms to contract for the jobs it has on offer based on this schedule. By and large, in Thurrock the bulk of the work goes to big companies like Mears – who will offer to do the work for a figure less than the scheduled rate. Every single job, from changing a tap to painting or plastering a wall, has a fixed price.

As an example, the scheduled rate for doing a job (which includes standard materials and labour) might be defined as £100 by the NHF. A contractor might offer to do the work for Thurrock Council at ten per cent less than the rate, effectively charging the council £90.

But in many chases the contractor then sub-contracts the work out and the sub-contractor has to offer a cheaper rate. In Thurrock it is understood that it is not uncommon for sub-contractors to have to undercut the rate by as much as 42 per cent.

So they will do the job – originally fixed by the NHF for £100 - for £58! That leaves the middle contractor a healthy £32 profit for shuffling some paperwork. And the council thinks it is getting a bargain at £10 cheaper than schedule.

The reality is that to do the job and make a profit, the sub-contractor has to cut corners, use sub-standard materials and often, it is alleged, cheats the system by rigging timesheets and overestimating 'unforeseen' problems.

Thurrock Nub News asked a reputable local builder, who gets little work in the borough from the council, what he thought of the system.

The answer was not unexpected.

"It stinks. There is no way many of the guys who are doing these jobs can do it. The due diligence by the middle man is, shall we say, less than competent in many instances, and the council is so happy it has saved money on the schedule so it doesn't ask too many questions! There are lots of blind eyes in the borough.

"We don't bid for many jobs in Thurrock now. There is little point. Doing a good job isn't possible. Thankfully, many councils and housing associations have come to realise that in the long run it is better to do the job properly in the first place, for a fair price that comes with a guarantee and accountability.

"We get a lot of work now outside of Thurrock where we rarely bid against the schedule at less than 120 per cent. That's not seeking to make a ridiculous profit, it's building in a margin where we know we can do the job well, pay the workers - who are all our own highly-trained staff - well and we can afford to guarantee the work against any future problems.

"We don't cut corners, we don't skimp on materials and despite that, in the long run, the people we do the work for get much better value in the long run."

Meanwhile, in Thurrock, the answer to the repairs conundrum appears to be - don't forget your brolly!

*In the wake of today's video broadcast from Tilbury, we have received several more harrowing stories from tenants in Thurrock. We will be following them all up.

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