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A flood in my social housing block lays bare the folly of placing profit over people

Posted at Jan 12, 2021

T his is the story of the consequences of a flood that left me and my neighbours without water for four and a half days in the middle of a pandemic. The building in which I live houses seven flats, six of which are rented from the council, and one, bought years ago under right to buy, sold and resold, is now rented to private tenants. Sixteen people live in the flats, ranging in age from under 10 to over 70.

The building is located in Islington, north London, a borough associated in the public imagination with the metropolitan elite, and certainly there is wealth here, but less well known are the levels of deprivation. Islington has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the UK, with 43% of children living in poverty, according to recent figures.

Islington is also commonly regarded as the birthplace of New Labour: the building I live in is located in the few hundred yards between the house where Tony Blair used to live and the restaurant formerly known as Granita, where he and Gordon Brown struck their fateful deal in 1994. This is apposite, given that had that meeting gone a different way, I might not now be writing this from a flat with no running water.

For it was under New Labour that there was a massive expansion of the use of private finance initiatives (PFIs) as a means of injecting private money into public sector projects, and New Labour who, in 2000, launched the Decent Homes programme, promising to regenerate social housing, with the use of PFIs as a means of outsourcing improvements. PFIs suited New Labour down to the ground. They could salve the conscience of the middle classes by “improving” social housing, while apparently sparing the taxpayer the cost of doing so. It was a fudge, a marvellous fudge. Everyone could have everything and no one would have to pay for it. Except, of course, the social housing tenants, who saw the regeneration, management and maintenance of their homes handed to the private sector – for-profit companies with the primary objective of minimising costs in order to maximise profits.

The flat I live in was one of 2,348 homes transferred by Islington council to the PFI consortium Partners for Improvement in Islington in 2003. A 30-year contract worth £350m, it was the first council housing PFI regeneration scheme in England to begin.

Kitchens and bathrooms were given a facelift. In my own case, the space left for a cooker was, at 49cm, smaller than any cooker you could buy, necessitating the removal of the kitchen units, which in turn revealed spaces in the wall behind the tiles stuffed with newspaper, through which live cables were running. But leaving aside the quality of the “improvements” themselves, the biggest change from my perspective as a tenant is that under PFI, though my flat is still owned by the council, every aspect of my tenancy is managed by Partners. In the case of repairs, contracted out to Rydon (the main contractor responsible for the refurbishment of Grenfell), and often contracted on again. When phoning to inquire about a missed repairs appointment, it is not uncommon for the person on the phone to be unable to say which company the job was given to.

Social housing landlords in England face checks on tenants' satisfaction Read more

Which brings me to water. Or rather, the lack of it. The refurbishment of the property did not include the replacement of the plastic “polyorc” water pipes, installed when the council took over the square that our building is in, in the 1970s. These are now so brittle that when a plumber visited my flat to install a washing machine some years ago, he turned the stopcock and the mains water pipe snapped off in his hand. The resulting flood caused such major damage to the flat below that they had to shore up the ceiling to prevent it from collapsing.

Fast forward to early December. Thursday, 6pm. My neighbour Charlotte was standing waiting for the kettle to boil, when the cupboard under her sink burst open and water came gushing out. The mains pipe had spontaneously exploded, pouring water into Oscar’s flat below (the same one I had flooded – it runs beneath both properties), taking out the electrics, wrecking the TV and causing substantial damage in the minutes it took Oscar to fetch a screwdriver, open the cover of the stop tap, located in the pavement outside, and turn off the water to the building.

The emergency repair team was called, a surveyor visited that evening and determined that the pipe needed replacing. This, he said, would be put down for an emergency job the next day. Friday dawned and nobody came. Seven flats were now without water, resulting in multiple calls to Partners, who asked us to stop ringing. Around 4pm, a plumber visited, but as the information as to what was needed had not been passed down the chain of contractors, he was unable to do anything. He did provide us with bottled water, up to 35 litres per flat, and the first we had received since the water was turned off. We were told there would be engineers working on the problem all weekend, who would provide us with water as needed.

Nobody came on Saturday and no water was delivered. At midday on Sunday, after multiple calls, we received a delivery of 10 litres per flat, photographed and signed for, with instructions to “use it sparingly”. Several of the flats have three occupants. It takes five litres to flush the toilet.

On Monday, having tweeted the leader of the council several times to intervene, Partners finally swung into action. Plumbers from yet another contractor arrived, determined what was needed and ordered the necessary part. A large amount of water was also delivered. Four days after the water was turned off. Water was finally restored to our building late on Tuesday morning.

A spokeswoman for Partners says: “It is extremely rare that we are unable to restore water supply the same day and we are so sorry that it happened in this case because of the specific part needed. We were at the property each day, we made repeated deliveries of drinking water to every household, we reinstated the water supply as quickly as we could and we have awarded compensation, but we know it must have been very difficult and distressing for the residents.”

You might think my story is the exception, but tenants’ dissatisfaction with the quality of the service they receive under PFI housing contracts has been widespread almost from the start. It is symptomatic of a system that places profit over people. People like my neighbour Mariah, who was forced to move out because the lack of water meant she couldn’t shower after returning from her work on a Covid ward to the flat she shares with her parents. People like Janet, a few doors down, who welcomed us into her flat to fill bottles, despite being in her late 70s in the middle of a pandemic. “I think it’s disgusting what they’re doing,” she told me.

  • Clare Allan is an author and creative writing lecturer who writes on mental health issues