This article is written by Cllr. Marc Francis (Labour), for Bow East Ward.
The header photo above this article shows Tait Court, Bow. Marc says that over 50 older tenants were left without running water for a week at Tait Court because of a broken pump which Clarion did not treat as a priority repair. This is the second time this has happened in the past two years.
It is now 16 years since the transfer of the Parkside estates in Bow from Tower Hamlets Council to Old Ford Housing Association. I (Cllr. Marc Francis) supported that transfer at the time. But if I would have known then what I know now I wouldn’t have done so. The reality is that for a decade now the service our constituents have been getting first from Circle Housing and more recently from Clarion Housing has been far below what they have a right to expect.
Back in 2005 when the ballot of tenants for this transfer took place, many people had really high hopes for it. Old Ford HA was a “community-led” housing association, in which residents were in the driving seat, with six serving on its Board. It had built on the foundations laid by the Housing Action Trust (HAT) and had nearly completed the regeneration of the Tredegar, Monteith and Lefevre estates. Its housing management was as good as almost any other social landlord in London.
Unlike the £100 million HAT programme, the Parkside estates transfer didn’t envisage demolishing blocks. But it did promise to bring all tenants’ homes up to the Labour Government’s Decent Homes Standard, with new kitchens and bathrooms and improvements to the estate environments. It also promised a repairs service they could rely on and ongoing investment into the future.
As one of the local councillors, I joined the Board of Old Ford in 2008 to ensure these promises were delivered upon. And for the first three or four years they were. The kitchens and bathrooms were done and the environmental works had begun, including at St Stephen’s Green which was transformed into the landscaped playground that has been enjoyed by hundreds of families over the past. But by 2012, things were going wrong.
Old Ford had never been an entirely independent organisation. It was technically a subsidiary of the well-respected Circle-33 Housing Trust. But it had operational control within quite broad financial parameters. Residents were told back in 2005 that Circle-33 was in discussions with Anglia Housing association over a possible merger. However, they were not told that Anglia was a very different kind of housing association to Circle-33. They really should have been.
By 2011, Circle Anglia’s senior management had begun to dictate what Old Ford could and couldn’t do. Despite the objections of residents, they imposed a new Chair of the Board and then started bringing in the Coalition Government’s five-year “Fixed-Term Tenancies” instead of the usual Assured Tenancy and much higher “Affordable Rents” of £250 a week or more. The next year, they forced Old Ford and Circle-33 to end their own repairs and major works contracts which were performing well and sign up to those agreed and overseen by the new Circle Housing Group.
Here in Bow, this quickly proved to be a disaster. Tenants were being left waiting for weeks or sometimes months for repairs to be completed. Throughout 2013 and into 2014, the Board of Old Ford challenged Circle’s senior management over this poor performance. It became increasingly clear that Circle was letting its contractors manage their own performance. Despite our requests, they failed to provide the Board with any performance data at all. Even Circle’s own appointee as Chair of Old Ford became exasperated.
After repeated assurances things would “settle down”, I decided the time had come to try a different tack. A friend put me in touch with someone they knew at the Homes & Communities Agency (HCA), which still had some limited powers to oversee the running of social landlords. She was incredulous Old Ford’s Board was being denied access to the performance data and horrified about the stories of disrepair. Within weeks Circle had been downgraded and instructed to release the data to Old Ford’s Board and come up with an improvement plan.
For several months things began to get better. Then as soon as the HCA took its eye off them, Circle’s performance began to decline again. We went back to the HCA to say the service was deteriorating again, but strangely, this time the new team there didn’t want to know. Then in 2016 we began to get wind something else was going on – another merger. It was clear Circle’s focus was on that deal and new development, rather than the day-to-day management of its existing homes.
In desperation, we played the last card we had. We asked our local MP Rushanara Ali, to get a debate in Parliament on the HCA’s failure to ensure adequate services for Old Ford’s tenants. Within hours of this being listed for debate in the House of Commons, I was invited to meet with the Chair of the HCA’s Regulatory Committee and the Executive Director. They agreed to begin an investigation and within weeks, Circle found itself downgraded all over again. The threat of being publicly shamed for its inaction had stirred the HCA to take action it should have taken months beforehand.
What we didn’t know then was that the Regulator had also given the green light to the merger with Affinity Sutton to create “the biggest housing association in Europe”. Inexplicably, the Regulator also quietly upgraded Clarion Housing within months of the merger after a supposed ‘In Depth Assessment’ that was nothing of the sort. In the six years since then, residents have been repeatedly promised action is being taken to get the service back on track. But it never results in any sustained improvement. Our own complaints to the Regulator have fallen on deaf ears too. They refused to speak to tenants and told us there wasn’t a problem because Clarion said there wasn’t.
In the absence of a Regulator willing to do its job of holding big housing associations and councils to account, ITV News’, Daniel Hewitt has stepped in. He has repeatedly exposed some of their worst failings around the country. Tenant campaigner, Kwajo, has also been exposing Clarion’s treatment of tenants on his family’s estate in south London, and is now shining a spotlight at other failing social landlords too. After yet another scandal last autumn, Housing Minister, Michael Gove wrote to Clarion’s Chief Executive saying he was giving her one last chance to get service back on track.
Here in Bow, residents know that far from getting back on track, the service is probably even worse. Of course, it does lots a repairs without any problem. But far too many are being delayed for weeks or even months without an explanation, let alone apology. As local councillors, we are taking up dozens of enquiries and complaints chasing repairs each month. Almost everyone I speak to tells me Clarion is difficult to get through to on the phone, that it doesn’t respond properly to emails, and queries raised via its online portal often simply vanish into the ether. And the value for money they get from its rocketing service charges is non-existent.
That’s why tenants I have been speaking to are saying they’ve had enough. Over the summer, we started collecting a petition calling on the Housing Minister, Michael Gove MP, to investigate what’s gone wrong at Clarion and what needs to happen to put it right. More than a thousand tenants and leaseholders have already backed that petition and more tenants are signing up every day. Mr Gove has refused to do anything to help directly, saying tenants should complain to the Housing Ombudsman instead. This is rubbish. The Ombudsman can investigate individual complaints, but not enforce the changes needed to address this kind of systemic failure.
We the undersigned are concerned about the continuing failure of Clarion Housing Group’s housing management, especially its repairs services and Contact Centre and poor value for money. Tenants and leaseholders are being left for weeks or months before repairs are carried out and frequently require multiple visits, with missed appointments. We believe its persistent poor performance shows that Clarion’s organisational structure and governance is not fit for purpose, especially in its failure to address tenants’ concerns.
We understand that, after being downgraded during the merger between Affinity Sutton and Circle Housing Group, Clarion was upgraded by the Regulator for Social Housing previously without any views being sought from residents whether there had been any real improvement in Clarion’s performance. We call on the Housing Minister to instruct the Regulator to urgently undertake a review whether Clarion is meeting its legal obligations under the Homes Standard and into the effectiveness of its governance arrangements.The text of the petition
The petition has now gone directly to the Regulator. The Regulator has let Clarion tenants down badly in the past. But the new Social Housing Regulation Act which is coming into effect following the appalling revelations how tenants at Grenfell Tower were ignored for years before the fire there gives the Regulator some sharper teeth to tackle the bigger landlords. More importantly, it now has a duty to listen to tenants who are complaining. I don’t doubt the Regulator will try to avoid taking action against Clarion. But the law is finally being rebalanced to give tenants a real chance of forcing it to do so. We will do everything we can to ensure it does.
If you are a tenant or leaseholder of Clarion and want to support the petition or have a problem you need help with, please contact me at: email@example.com
Cllr. Marc Francis, Bow East Ward