Recent revelations about the shenanagins at the allegedly reformed RBKC have been less than reassuring for residents of the Rotten Borough’s social housing estates. Some weeks ago it was revealed that RBKC would be transferring most of the employees of the now defunct KCTMO to Hornton Street to manage the bnorough’s housing stock in-house. These are of course the same staff who were responsible for the mismanagement of the social housing stock during the years leading up to and including the tragedy at Grenfell Tower.
It is now clear that RBKC, despite their grand aspirations for the regeneration of the entire Notting Barns area, have proved incapable of handling even the emergency rehousing of the survivors of Grenfell and the associated evacuees. To make matters worse, when the TMO declared itself incapable of fullfilling its obligations to the RBKC residents it was responsible for, the only short term solution RBKC could come up with was to to transfer the same TMO staff team which had performed so poorly into direct RBKC control.
Do they really expect the residents of North Kensington to be OK with this?
Recently It has emerged that RBKC are planning to contract out to Pinnacle Housing the management of the housing stock newly acquired for the many remaining Grenfell survivors and evacuees, most of whom have been stuck in hotels for the last nine months. According to information provided by RBKC this contract is for an initial period of six months, extendable on a quarterly basis subject to performance and review. More recently still it has emerged that Pinnacle have already assumed responsibility for emergency weekend cover of all former TMO properties.
It’s important to note that Pinnacle and Rydon are joined at the hip as partners under the umbrella of Regenter Ltd, a property development and management consortium for which Rydon invariably provide the repairs and maintenance service. In fact Regenter is registered at the same London address (6 St. Andrew Street, EC4) as Pinnacle and appears to be a mere alias for Pinnacle (or vice versa). This means that Rydon are almost certain to be responsible, on Pinnacle’s behalf, for the out-of-hours emergency repairs service for all RBKC properties and will be responsible, in particular, for all maintenance and repair services provided to rehoused Grenfell survivors and evacuees.
In their heyday the KCTMO managed about 9,500 properties for RBKC and one of the criticisms levelled at them is that they were too big and remote from residents, and that this was one of the root causes of the negligence and incompetence that led to the Grenfell fire. Pinnacle, by contrast, is absolutely huge, providing housing and property management services to a wide range of local authorities, social housing providers, schools and other public sector bodies. They employ over 2,200 staff across the UK, directly managing 22,500 social housing properties and providing complimentary services to a further 450,000 homes, schools and public spaces. Unlike the KCTMO they are a private company run for profit, whose first responsibility will always be to their shareholders and not to their clients. This sounds like a recipe for even more remote and incompetent service delivery, and the fact is that, long before entering this new contract with RBKC, Pinnacle/Rydon were already mired in scandal over their shabby and incompetent regeneration of the Myatts Field North Estate in Lambeth.
According to an article published in the Guardian by Zoe Williams in July 2016 Pinnacle were contracted at Myatts Field North to manage estate and housing services, and Rydon to oversee refurbishment and maintenance. The local residents’ association were later contacted by a whistleblower from Rydon who claimed (in a letter) that no fire assessments had been carried out in some blocks, that Rydon’s divisional manager had overruled its technical manager, who had called for more detailed risk-assessment, that fire-stopping at floor level had not been carried out, that communal emergency lighting had not been properly tested and that the procedure for testing smoke alarms was unclear.
Disgruntled residents invited Stuart Hodkinson, an expert from the University of Leeds, to investigate and record their experiences of the regeneration. He conducted a survey of 14 homes refurbished by Rydon that had been the subject of a large number of complaints and discovered showers that had been installed next to electric fans, a toilet installed so close to a wall that you could only sit on it sideways, cupboards fitted with wrongly sizeed doors and households that had been left for days without electricity and for weeks without cooking facilities. Another report by Fuel Poverty Action, addressing the many hot water failures reported by residents, found the majority were linked to the communal heating system installed by E.ON and Rydon which had failed 48 times in the first four years.
One wonders why the properties acquired by RBKC for the displaced residents of Grenfell and its immediate surroundings would require special management, rather than RBKC simply managing them in-house as they are now proposing to do with all the rest of the housing stock formerly under KCTMO control. It has also been suggested that RBKC might not be fully committed to the long-term in-house management of their housing stock and that the curent RBKC/Pinnacle arrangements may be a pilot scheme designed to test Pinnacle’s performance with a view to entrusting the future care of all RBKC properties to them. It should be noted that Pinnacle already manage 7,614 properties for the neighbouring Hammersmith and Fulham Council, as well as housing in Newham, Lambeth and Lewisham, and are negotiating deals with Kingston and other boroughs.
Accoring to the Guardian article referenced above, there are very real dangers when the management of council property is turned over to private contractors without sufficient oversight and accountability. In such cases profit is invariably prioritised over the welfare of tenants. Channels of communication that once existed between social tenants and the local authority landlord become labyrinthine, creating confusion not only over who to complain to, but also who is liable should anything go wrong. When public and private sectors enter into such deals they tend to combine the worst of each. Council and contractor effectively become allies and residents invariably lose out. We have already experienced this phenomenon under the KCTMO – a far smaller organisation than Pinnacle – so there is little reason to expect a better outcome from Pinnacle/Rydon.
The catalogue of shoddy work by Rydon at Myatts Field North which is detailed in the Guardian article contains sinister echoes of the many complaints made by Grenfell residents during the refurbishment works that preceded the catastrophic fire that took so many lives last summer. Nor should it be forgotten that Rydon are under investigation by the Metropolitan Police and that Rydon executives may yet face charges of criminally negligent manslaughter in the 72 deaths that resulted from the Grenfell fire.
We were promised, following the Tenants Consultative Committee meetings in December last year, that tenants and leaseholders would not only be consulted but could fully participate in deciding and co-designing how their homes and estates are managed in future. Given that there has not yet been any consultation on the decisions detailed above it would seem that the RBKC leadership have sidestepped that promise already.
There are some indications that RBKC may now be considering a rethink of the Pinnacle deal, or some aspects of it, under pressure from Grenfell United and other resident groups. Nonetheless, we would argue very strongly that the outsourcing to private companies of social housing regeneration and/or management is completely unacceptable. In this case also the abandonment of Grenfell survivors to the tender mercies of Rydon and/or KCTMO staff, widely believed to be culpable in the deaths of the Grenfell 72, is not just unacceptable but unconscionable. We would admonish RBKC to think again before they proceed with this ill-begotten Pinnacle deal.