Mayor reports his own council to watchdog over troubled housing estate
- Credit: Vickie Flores
The mayor of Havering has reported his own council to the ombudsman over its failure to protect residents on a notorious housing estate.
Michael Deon Burton claimed that when vulnerable tenants on the Mardyke Estate signed tenancy agreements they did not understand the terms, which landed them with huge heating bills.
The Mardyke, now rebranded Orchard Village, was transferred irreversibly to Old Ford Housing Association in 2008.
Around £80m was spent rebuilding it but the project was riddled with problems and residents have long complained about living in poor-quality homes.
Cllr Deon-Burton also said in his complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman he had seen an agreement signed by Havering Council and Old Ford Housing Association which was "so secret even elected members were not informed of its existence".
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In it, he said, the council agreed not to intervene in the event of a landlord-tenant dispute.
He asked for a copy of the terms of sale in November 2018 but after a year of wrangling, senior council officers have still not provided him with the document.
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Cllr Deon Burton, who has a flat in Barley Court, Lower Mardyke Avenue, said: "Before the transfer tenants asked time and time again what the conditions would be if they signed. Havering Council gave the assurance: 'If there's a problem we're here to protect you'.
"If they hadn't given tenants that assurance, they wouldn't have agreed to the transfer.
"But at the same time, the council signed a contract with the developer to say in the event of a disagreement they wouldn't support them. It is a scandal."
In August 2007 a ballot took place in which 60 per cent of residents agreed to a stock transfer - almost a year after Havering Council agreed plans to pass the estate to Circle Housing, which had taken over management of the site in July 2006.
The entire 4.2-hectare estate was sold by Havering Council to Old Ford, a Circle subsidiary, for £960,000 on March 31, 2008.
According to documents seen by the Recorder, council-owned furniture, security fittings and onsite equipment were passed on for an additional £1.
Some 250 then-council tenants then signed new agreements with Old Ford at its offices in Chantry Way.
Cllr Deon Burton said: "Some of my constituents are vulnerable and aren't so worldly-wise. They were called in one at a time and presented with an eighth-of-an-inch legal document and told to sign it, or they wouldn't have anywhere to live, with no legal training."
On the same day, residents signed an agreement for heating with SSE Heat Networks, the new landlord's chosen energy provider.
The document the Mayor was given said SSE would provide heating services "on the terms agreed herein", but no sheet of terms was provided.
Tenants were then told they would now be on Pay-as-you-Go meter with no "extra charges" but despite this, continued to receive heating bills on top.
Pointing out few residents could afford to fight their case in court, Cllr Deon Burton said: "Tenants would pay unknown amounts on top of their Pay-as-you-Go. It was a blank document they would fill in later. It's complete nonsense.
"There are tenants with English as a second language, and pensioners. I've had people coming to myself in floods of tears, in a complete mess. They've got bills and been told if they don't pay they'll be cut off."
Fees of £150 are also charged if tenants are disconnected, and a 15 per cent "administration fee" if debt collectors are brought in.
Cllr Deon-Burton had his own supply cut off in June 2018 after refusing to pay £538 in additional charges, which had snowballed to £1,124 in March 2019.
It is not the first time the Mayor has intentionally refused to pay a bill in order to get an issue investigated.
After he withheld water meter payments in 2017, the Northumbrian Water Living group acknowledged there was an issue with Orchard Village tenants being billed incorrectly, leading to a hearing at Romford Magistrates' Court being dropped.
Havering Council declined to comment, first on the complaint, and then when asked specifically if it could refute whether a "non-involvement" agreement existed.
Clarion, the housing association that finally subsumed Old Ford after the rest of Circle in 2018, declined to comment.
An SSE spokesman said: "We would welcome the chance to have a meaningful conversation with Mr Burton on his outstanding debt so we can ensure we have a proper repayment plan in place. We disagree that Mr Burton has been treated unfairly and remain happy to speak to him directly."