By Councillor Sian Berry
On Wednesday 14th January, the Housing Scrutiny Committee is holding an evidence session to hear the views of tenants and leaseholders on repairs and major works on their homes, including the Better Homes programme.
The committee has also asked Councillors for their views on the progress made so far, following two previous sets of recommendations on how better to manage contracts and works, and communication with residents.
I’ll be attending Wednesday’s meeting and have submitted a written report to the committee with recent evidence from Highgate Ward, based on work done by me, and by my predecessor Councillor Maya de Souza.
Our report also restates the recommendations of a dossier produced by Maya in 2012, which interviewed residents in Highgate about their experience of the work of contractors and the council. This was highly critical of the quality of work, and particularly the quality and amount of engagement with residents before, during and after works take place.
There are many recommendations in our new report, but the most significant are:
Employ more project managers within Camden
There needs to be much better in-house scrutiny of contractors and more detailed specification of what works are needed.
In our recent proposals for Camden’s budget, we asked for more qualified surveyors and project managers to be employed by the council to oversee works, and estimated conservatively that this could save up to £10 million.
We pointed out the use of surveyors to manage contracts in works to communal areas on the Holly Lodge Estate – after a group of residents insisted on this – led to dramatic cost savings. Compared with the original estimate of close to £80,000 for this block, the final cost was just over £35,000 – approximately a 50% saving.
Bring more services in house
This is a key recommendation in previous committee reports, and something the Greens have repeatedly called for. Repairs is an obvious candidate for an expanded in-house team, as it is ongoing and the level of staffing needed will be relatively constant. We hear many reports from residents of works by the current contractors being carried out late or inefficiently, and a strong suspicion that callout fees are being exploited.
Despite this, the council has not increased its in house repair capacity, with the progress report to the committee saying that in reviewing procurement: “officers evaluated the options available and concluded that the in house team would not have the capacity at present to undertake additional workstreams. It was also identified that any service or work package assigned to the in house team would not be recognised as a ‘qualifying long term agreement’, this complicating the delivery of rechargeable works.”
We want this looked at again, as we believe expanding the in-house team would prove good value, and these are not good reasons to continue to waste money on an inefficient contract.
Better communication and engagement with Tenants and Residents Associations (TRAs) and residents
The progress report says “We are also convening resident panel meetings with support from TRAs and the ‘We are Camden’ website is being promoted widely.”
However, our experience shows serious problems still remain in both these areas. After a range of problems when the works started, a resident panel to help oversee works was promised – but has never materialised – for the current Better Homes work on the Whittington Estate in Highgate.
And the We Are Camden website seems barely used for these functions – not just by residents but also by council officers and members. For the Highgate group on the site, the councillors listed are still those from before last May’s election, recent meetings are not reported and the most up-to-date comments from residents are from November 2014.
Overall on repairs and major works, though some changes have taken place, there is much still to do. When both tenants and leaseholders are paying large proportions of their income (in very straightened times) to Camden to keep their homes and estates in good order means we must spend their money wisely and transparently with a much more appropriate level of consultation and communication.
The fact that the relevant scrutiny committee is monitoring these issues is positive, however, and that residents are being given the chance to take part this week. I hope our evidence and proposals will be able to get improvements speeded up and make a difference to how things work in future!