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Giant rats, asbestos and flooding: So why was this house in Harold Hill signed off as fit for purpose?

PUBLISHED: 17:00 19 November 2019 | UPDATED: 16:39 20 November 2019

A void report gave the house in Hilldene Avenue a clean bill of health. Right: A rat found at the property; the sheet of asbestos discovered upstairs; the state of the bathroom when tenants moved in. Pictures: Sophie Lewis

A void report gave the house in Hilldene Avenue a clean bill of health. Right: A rat found at the property; the sheet of asbestos discovered upstairs; the state of the bathroom when tenants moved in. Pictures: Sophie Lewis

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A family is planning to take legal action against Havering Council after three years of misery in a home contractors said was up to scratch.

Havering Council owns just two homes in the road. Picture: Hannah SomervilleHavering Council owns just two homes in the road. Picture: Hannah Somerville

Retired bailiff Paul Lewis, 52, daughter Sophie and her three-year-old son moved into the house in Hilldene Avenue in September 2016.

An inspection in the summer had given the council property a clean bill of health after basic renovations costing £6,700.

But from their first night, the tenants said, a series of nightmares - from chronic leaks to mould to rats, and the recent discovery of asbestos in the roof - have blighted their lives and led to further repair works costing tens of thousands to the taxpayer.

Mr Lewis, who is disabled and cared for full-time by his daughter, said: "We told them we've had enough of this place. We can't go on living like this.

Nearly 10,000 council homes in Havering are maintained by a private company and sub-contractors.Nearly 10,000 council homes in Havering are maintained by a private company and sub-contractors.

"This was meant to be my last home but it hasn't worked out. Instead they're digging their heels in, my grandson is caged up like an animal in the summer and we're running alive with rats."

In June 2016 an operative for Harold Hill-based contractor the Breyer Group inspected the empty property and found no issues with the plumbing or electrics.

Breyer was awarded a £35million contract in 2014 for repairs and void works in Havering's 10,000 homes.

The move was controversial at the time as the firm's last contract with Southwark Council had been terminated over a "life-threatening incident".

Left: Rainwater seeping through the ceilings. Right: Damp in the property at the time the family moved in; carpet beetles. Pictures: Sophie LewisLeft: Rainwater seeping through the ceilings. Right: Damp in the property at the time the family moved in; carpet beetles. Pictures: Sophie Lewis

The contract expired in March 2019 but has been extended until 2021, at a rough cost of £3.3m a year, before Havering begins re-procurement.

On the night the family moved in, the upstairs flooded as the radiators turned out to only be gaffa-taped to the walls.

Mr Lewis said, "An emergency plumber came out and said 'How the hell have they signed this place off?'."

Black mould that had been "washed down" for £8.82 in the summer was already re-growing and rainwater seeped through the ceilings from a a leak in the roof. The leaks, the family said, "destroyed everything we had".

A rat found in the garden after it was baited by the council's contractor. Picture: Sophie LewisA rat found in the garden after it was baited by the council's contractor. Picture: Sophie Lewis

Builders were drafted in in October 2017 to replace the old tiles and rip down the chimney stack, which it emerged was on the brink of collapse.

The electrics cabinet was out of date and pronounced "unsatisfactory" in a later inspection, while wiring in the ceiling roses were not earthed: a possible fire hazard.

In mid-2017 the family reported concerns about rats and mice to the council. The garden was baited but huge rats have been found scuttling across the garden and in the kitchen cupboards, and are now thought to be living in the cavity walls.

Sophie Lewis, a former NHS secretary, told the Recorder: "My son wakes up screaming 'The rats are going to bite me, mummy'.

A rat crossing the back garden in Hilldene Avenue and, right, another is caught on CCTV. Pictures: Sophie LewisA rat crossing the back garden in Hilldene Avenue and, right, another is caught on CCTV. Pictures: Sophie Lewis

"We lost our whole summer; we couldn't have the back doors open. How do you explain to a three-year-old that he can't go outside and play?".

Mr Lewis's floor had to be torn up after birds found their way in through a hole left open in the wall.

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The bathroom - which the council paid £2,700 to be brought up to "decent homes standard" in 2016 - has now been ripped out and replaced three times.

The whole roof was ripped off by contractors who somehow did not notice or report asbestos in the loft. Picture: Sophie LewisThe whole roof was ripped off by contractors who somehow did not notice or report asbestos in the loft. Picture: Sophie Lewis

In spring 2019, contractors investigating the rats in the loft made another discovery: a full sheet of chrysotile asbestos, somehow not flagged up by roofers in 2017.

One thing the Breyer operative had flagged up in summer 2016 was the need for an asbestos survey.

And throughout the roof works in 2017 dust from that part of the house had been flooding the living room.

The family, two of whom have asthma, were told that they would be moved as a matter of urgency. But then the council said it was safe for them to stay as long as the material was not "disturbed" - although the sheet was already broken.

The broken sheet of asbestos found in the loft. In June 2019 independent firm Scopes tested a sample and found it contained chrysotile fibres. Picture: Sophie LewisThe broken sheet of asbestos found in the loft. In June 2019 independent firm Scopes tested a sample and found it contained chrysotile fibres. Picture: Sophie Lewis

The family complained to Havering Council and the Housing Ombudsman. In June 2019, a member of Havering's complaints team upheld it, saying: "I have seen evidence of service failure and evidence procedures have not been followed."

They also apologised "for the failure in services provided to you dating back to the start of your tenancy."

But in a letter to Julia Lopez MP in August, the council's interim head of housing, Bernadette Marjoram, wrote that to date all repairs issues in the property were caused by "wear and tear", adding: "The correct processes were followed at the time."

The family have said that once re-housed, they will be seeking compensation for the council for the thousands they have paid on independent expert help.

Mr Lewis said one sub-contractor alone told him they had made more than £60,000 from work since they moved in.

He said: "A few months ago they knew we didn't want to be around anymore and fudged it internally, and they still haven't dealt with the problems. I can't carry on living like this. They owe me compensation for everything we've been through."

Analysis by homelessness charity Shelter this year found that one in 10 social housing tenants had reported an issue with their home more than 10 times.

Some 56 per cent of tenants surveyed in the UK had experienced a problem - from electrical hazards to gas leaks to faulty lifts - in the past three years.

The Breyer Group in Harold Hill is due to receive around £3.3million a year until reprocurement. Picture: Steve PostonThe Breyer Group in Harold Hill is due to receive around £3.3million a year until reprocurement. Picture: Steve Poston

The charity has backed calls from campaign group Grenfell United for a new regulator for social housing. Chief executive Polly Neate said:

Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said: "Tinkering with the current system just isn't good enough when people have lost trust in it to keep them safe."

The Breyer Group did not respond to a request for comment and Havering Council did not initially respond.

However, upon publication of this article, a Havering Council spokesman did then respond, describing Mr Lewis' case as "very complex" and claiming that the issues highlighted in our reporting of his living conditions "do not tell the whole story".

The spokesman added: "We have done and continue to do everything we can to resolve certain problems at the property. We are also supporting the tenants in finding a new home where we hope they will be happier."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article included a photograph of part of Hilldene Avenue. We are happy to clarify that none of the houses in that photograph were the subject of this report, and apologise for any confusion caused.

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