This month Thanet council marks one year of taking its housing stock back under authority control after the four East Kent councils’ decision to close down management organisation East Kent Housing.
This followed revelations in 2019 that hundreds of council property tenants across east Kent had been awaiting gas safety certificates due to overdue Landlord Gas Safety Register assessments.
It then emerged that there were also grave concerns over potential further issues with electrical certification, lifts, fire safety and legionella testing.
Former Thanet councillor Suzanne Brimm had first raised electrical safety issues at council-owned homes back in 2017. The electrical engineer said her whistleblowing was the reason for her exit from the then-UKIP Cabinet.
The health and safety failures resulted in the four councils – Thanet, Dover, Folkestone and Canterbury – being issued with a Regulatory Notice by the Regulator of Social Housing in September 2019.
The notice said the authorities had breached the homes standard and meant potential for serious detriment to council tenants.
The Regulator said the four councils had failed to meet statutory requirements on fire, electrical, water, lift and gas safety, with an internal audit concluding “no assurance” on these first four areas and “limited assurance” on gas safety.
But since finally taking back management of Thanet’s some 3,000 council homes, work has been undertaken by the council to deal with the legacy issues of East Kent housing and bring in a number of improvements. These have resulted in the latest audit returning ‘reasonable’ assurance ratings with an action plan to work to ‘substantial’ and proposals to request the council is brought out of regulation.
Council housing boss Bob Porter said: “We have been meeting monthly with the Regulator and giving updates on our progress.
“We have said to the Regulator that we should be ready soon to ask them to review the notice and if they are happy with where we are they will withdraw the notice and we will be out of regulation.”
The council introduced a new Tenants and Leaseholders Service, which had just two staff on creation but now has 58 – half are former EKH workers and the rest are new employees. The past year has focused on training, getting out to talk to residents and reorganising teams so there are dedicated patch officers, calls officer and email response team.
Repairs have also been given a shake up after a high volume of complaints were highlighted. Contractor Mears has now created a Thanet team, manager and a new liaison officer.
An update on the service issued to councillors earlier this year says 73% of disrepair legal claims related to damp and mould and the total paid out for compensation and external legal costs in 2020/21 was £74,000. The same report said Thanet council had 222 decent homes failures reported at the end of March 2021, which represents 7.2% of council stock. The biggest failures were for tower block bathrooms.
The report says: “There had been a reluctance to carry out these replacements by EKH due t o the presence of asbestos insulation board (AIB), which needs to be removed before the bathroom can be replaced.” The other area where decent homes were failing was in electrical works. A programme of work is currently being carried out for both areas.
Mr Porter said: “One of the things people said to us was we need to have better communication so we have spent quite a long time working on that.
“Other areas were the condition of our estates with rubbish, fly-tipping, cleaning and repairs.”
The team have been holding ‘housing hubs’ so residents can talk to them and raise issues and these have taken place in eight isle locations so far.
Tenant and Leaseholder Service manager Sally O’Sullivan said: “We have improved communication a lot with quarterly newsletters. Residents are informed about any planned programmes of work and key messages around littering, no smoking in communal areas. We have an improved webpage posting key information, not just for residents but also for officers so there is continuity in information and advice.”
There is also work underway to transfer all records relating to health & safety, such as gas and electrical certification, to a new software system which will automatically read and record certificates, identify jobs, schedule renewal dates and produce performance information.
Mr Porter said: “This was all on spreadsheets with East Kent Housing, it was easy to make a mistake.”
Gas work data is the first which will go live after around three months work on the system with all other data areas – electrical, Legionella, lifts, fire risk and asbestos -expected to be complete by April.
Ms O’Sullivan said: “One of the most important things is our gas compliance is 100%. It was one of the first work streams we turned around as we recognised the importance of being compliant with gas safety and making sure it was done quickly.”
Domestic electrical safety certification stands at just over 70% and communal at 100%. A legionella work programme is being carried out and 100% of Thanet’s required risk assessments are in place. In the longer term TDC aims to remove stored water from buildings where possible to reduce the need for risk assessments and maintenance.
The council is required to have asbestos surveys in place for communal areas and 100% of these have been completed. Fire risk assessments also have a 100% completion and a programme of works is underway with staircase protection, fire doors, bin room sprinklers, fire alarms and automatic smoke vents completed at Invicta House in Margate, and underway at the council’s other housing blocks.
External wall cladding is also to be removed and replaced at Trove Court, Kennedy House, Harbour Towers, Staner Court in Ramsgate and Invicta House. A £5.8 million bid for government funding has been made for the work and has passed through the first stage with referral to Homes England.
A change of fire procedures has been put in place at the Trove and Kennedy blocks in Newcastle Hill with residents now advised to evacuate the building in event of fire rather than to stay inside their homes. This follows guidance from Kent Fire & Rescue Service. The same procedures may be installed at other council blocks if KFRS advise it.
A waking watch is also in place at Trove and Kennedy. This means a 24/7 security patrol on the estate, checking for and removing fire hazards and raising the alarm in the event of a fire. The patrol will also assist the fire service on site with a managed evacuation.
Thanet council is also installing new alarm sounders in every flat, and once these have been put in place KFRS has advised that there will no longer be a need to provide the waking watch service.
Thanet council is one of a handful of authorities in the country to have personal escape plans for any housing block resident who would need assistance in the event of a fire/evacuation.
This information is shared with Kent Fire and Rescue Service and stored in the fire services room in each block.
The fire safety works were contracted to Sureserve ((formerly Lakehouse plc whose fire compliance business, Allied Protection, was responsible for certifying installed fire safety systems in Grenfell Tower before the tragic blaze in 2017 which claimed 72 lives)
The two Sureserve contracts were procured prior to the council taking back management of the housing stock. One is a low value contract for miscellaneous fire safety works and the second is for fire safety works at Invicta House which have been completed.
Cabinet member for housing Cllr Jill Bayford said: “I joined the shadow cabinet last October at about the time housing came in-house. I have seen what people thought about the service then and what they think now. It has been inspirational.
“Bob an Sally have been transparent about the work being done and I have heard nothing but good reports about the improvements. There is much better communication and leaseholders have a say in what happens. I’m very proud of what has been done.”
Cllr Helen Whitehead, who was Labour’s Cabinet member for housing when the proposal to bring the service back in-house was made, said: “Having proposed the motion to bring housing back in house, which was passed unanimously by the Chamber, it has been a privilege to witness just how hard and how well Housing have worked over the past year.
“The new in house team sees new apprentices, a far more holistic approach to tenant and leaseholder involvement, and I am truly proud to have been part of this process. Housing have worked incredibly hard over a very difficult period to address the issues caused by outsourcing, and I hope to see them go from strength to strength.”