Colin Nickless and his family moved into their newly built home on the Orchard Village estate in September 2014. They had come to the outer edge of east London to be near a special school for their daughter Ellie, who is autistic and also has cystic fibrosis.
On the face of it, their three-bedroom house – acquired under a shared ownership scheme – was more than satisfactory. Indeed, a year before, the then Tory communities and local government minister Nick Boles had visited Orchard Village, which is in the borough of Havering, and put it in the top five new housing developments in the UK, praising it as “uplifting, fine, bold and human”.
“We realised pretty quickly that there were loads of problems with our house,” says Nickless. He goes on to recount some of the many faults and failings that quickly revealed themselves – and, he discovered, were being experienced by people all over the estate: problems with draughts and leaks, an erratic heating system, mould growing on walls, and an absence of insulation in the walls and ceilings, so bad that in wet weather, his daughter’s bedroom is filled with the cacophonous sound of raindrops hitting the roof. He puts the number of repairs to the house so far at 117. Both his daughter and her younger brother have been hospitalised with respiratory illnesses that he relates directly to the state of their home.
Recently, Nickless and other Orchard Village residents have started to turn their attention to apparently high local levels of methane and hydrogen sulphide, which they say are partly caused by the estate’s proximity to a landfill site. The presence of hydrogen sulphide, they say, is betrayed by a widespread smell comparable to that of rotten eggs. Some residents complain of unexplained ailments including headaches that they say could be related to exposure to either that gas, or methane.
The story of what has happened in Orchard Village and who is responsible stretches back at least a decade. Among other things, it highlights how much housing associations – which adminster the homes of more than 2 million people in England and Wales – are changing. Once, they were thought of as a community-based, grassroots alternative to supposedly faceless and impersonal local councils. Now, encouraged by government deregulation, they are combining into new “mega-associations” and becoming powerful players in the rush to build so-called affordable houses and flats. In the process, say their critics, the people they are meant to serve are too often forgotten.
The Orchard Village saga is focused on an organisation that was until recently known as Circle Housing Group, which received about £250m of public money between 2010 and 2016, according to MPs. Circle is now part of the Clarion Housing Group, the largest housing association in the UK, which owns £20bn of assets and houses about 500,000 people. Clarion aims to build another 50,000 flats and houses over the next 10 years, with the aid of a £1.1bn fund to buy land, and is in talks to put up another 500 homes in Havering alone.
It also involves the Homes and Communities Agency, the public body that local residents and politicians say has failed to effectively regulate housing associations. While some people are pushing for repairs and compensation, others are suggesting that Orchard Village should be knocked down, and started again.
The development sits in a flat expanse on the London/Essex borders. Two minutes’ walk away is the former home of the giant Ford Dagenham plant, which once employed 40,000 people. Nearby are streets full of suburban housing that evoke the faded dreams of the 1950s and 1960s. Now, though, the area is part of the Thames Gateway, a huge stretch of land earmarked to provide homes for key workers who cannot afford to live in London.
Orchard Village, which Circle habitually described as a flagship development, was once the location of the notorious Mardyke estate, a mixture of high- and low-rise housing that provided the setting for both the gritty 2009 British film Fish Tank and the backdrop to the following year’s movie hit Made In Dagenham.
The Old Ford housing association, one of nine such organisations under the Circle umbrella, took over the estate in 2008, and its £80m redevelopment – assisted by £12.4m in public money from the Homes And Communites Agency, and £18.8m from the Greater London Authority – began in late 2009. Phases one and two saw the building of around 300 rented homes, many of which were set aside for former Mardyke estate council tenants. Phase three was focused on shared ownership and homes to buy outright. Phase four is ongoing, and will take Orchard Village’s 387 homes to 555. Outwardly, the development is the epitome of a kind of futuristic optimism (it even has a road called Diversity Avenue). When it was built, brochures promised “expertly designed living space that suits growing families perfectly” and “homes people truly want to live in”.
For scores of people living here, the day-to-day reality has been very different. Residents have a dossier of problems drawn from more than 50 homes: “holes in roof of landings”, “mould in bedroom”, “balcony door broken”, “cold house”, “lawn dying after no drainage installed”, “no fire break in between properties”. Some annual heating and hot water bills are said to be three times more than people were led to expect. There are also endless claims about treatment of residents by Circle and its contractors: “Waited three years for repair of stairs”; “staff ignore telephone conversations”; “no response to complaints”.
Elizabeth Turner, 53, moved into her three-storey, three-bedroom house four and a half years ago. She started to notice “problem after problem” about 12 months later. Dripping water from outside drains – an issue mentioned by lots of Orchard Village residents – is now so noisy that, although her 27-year-old daughter has her own bedroom, she tends to sleep in a room with Turner’s grandson. “Even with the windows shut, you can’t sleep,” says Turner. “It’s like water torture.”
Late last year, the top steps of stairs that connect the ground and first floors of her house fell in – thanks, she says, to the fact that they were held in place by “two little pieces of MDF” – and it was at least three weeks before Circle’s contractors started the repair. Pipes under a bath have leaked into the kitchen because of rusted screws that were holding them in place, leaving a large patch of damp on the ceiling.
In the past, she says, Circle has sent people to look at faults in her house, but in most cases, “I never, ever got a follow-on call about coming round to fix it.” She also talks about a foul smell that pervades her downstairs toilet, and seems to highlight the presence of hydrogen sulphide. For two years, her grandson has had time off school with severe headaches – “terrible, terrible migraines” – that began at around the same time as the smell.
In a nearby three-bedroom house, Sanchez Franklin-Garcia, 43, says that his family’s bathroom floor was found to be rotten, but it took four months for Circle and their contractors to respond to his complaint. At one point, his staircase “literally came off the walls”. He says the repair team sent by Circle simply filled up the resulting gap with silicone. “I said, ‘Do you think that’s going to help?’, and they said, ‘That’s what they asked us to do.’
“I’m really scared,” he says. “I can’t sleep at night. I’ve just got a feeling this building is going to collapse.”
Bob Ewer, 60, lives in a ground-floor flat with his wife Shainie, who has kidney disease, recently suffered a stroke, and is effectively housebound. Their bathroom is built around an accessible shower, which began spewing sewage whenever their toilet was flushed. “We’ve had trouble with this for years,” he tells me. “Every time, Circle say they’ve got rid of it, but it just comes back.”
The same problem has affected 81-year-old Dennis Olyett: late last year, his flat was filled with leaking sewage, and his inundated kitchen was unusable for three days. “It was horrible,” he says.
John Grant, 47, is the caretaker at Orchard Village’s community centre, one of the few buildings inherited from the old estate. Among the biggest issues in his house is the state of the first floor. Beneath the carpet next to the stairs is concrete, which has sprung fist-sized holes, as it has split away from the banister and stairs. “You put in a call, and they log everything, but help never materialises,” he says. “They’re not interested in doing anyone’s work. All you get told is, ‘You’ll hear in due course.’”
Julie Eade says that her two-year-old daughter’s bedroom is significantly colder than the rest of the house, because of inadequate insulation in the ceiling. “She has had ear infections and chest infections; every two months she is on antibiotics.”
Violet Rutherford, 70, complained for years about draughts at her front door. When a repair team attempted to fix the problem, she was unable to close the door afterwards: “Help always arrives late – ‘We’ve had emergencies today’ – that’s always their excuse.”
Most of these people’s homes are social-rented properties that were built in Orchard Village’s first two phases. When contacted about the estate’s problems, the company that built them and initially saw to repairs, Willmott Dixon, issued a statement that referred to “the successful completion of phases one and two” and cited the fact that phase two “was declared best social or affordable new housing development of the year in the Local Authority Building Control Excellence awards”. It only acknowledged problems with homes built as part of phase three, and said that “we never walk away from our liabilities”.
As for the new Clarion Housing Group, it claims that its “dedicated project team has already made significant progress in tacking the build defects at Orchard Village”, and that during that time, Clarion has ensured that “residents receive a swift response and action [sic] to any defect or general repair issues as it was clear that has not always been the case previously.”
When it comes to allegations of health-threatening levels of methane and hydrogen sulphide, Clarion says that it is “taking residents’ concerns extremely seriously”. It says it has now instructed “ground investigation specialists to undertake rigorous scientific tests”.
Between 2000 and 2016, Havering’s member of the London Assembly was the Conservatives’ Roger Evans. He says the Orchard Village housing case “is worse than anything I’ve ever seen”, and highlights big issues about the public money being spent on housing in London. The mayor’s office issued a one-line statement: “We are aware of issues regarding the construction of Orchard Village and are working closely with Havering council and Clarion Housing Group to investigate.”
When it comes to an alleged corporate failure by a housing association, there is one public body that is meant to be dependable and to enforce basic standards: the Homes and Communities Agency. The HCA issues “governance ratings”, comparable to the ones used by schools’ regulators, to grade housing associations’ performance. In April 2015, Orchard Village residents were not surprised to hear that the agency was downgrading Circle Housing’ from G1 to G3, the second-lowest level (housing insiders say that a G4 rating is extremely rare, and would threaten a housing association’s existence).
In early 2016, evidence was submitted to the agency of Circle’s alleged serial failures on the estate. Meanwhile, complaints about Circle in the borough of Tower Hamlets were also reaching a critical point, as tenants there complained about incomplete repairs, delayed responses to complaints, and being “left without heating and hot water for periods over the winter months”.
Then, in June 2016, something remarkable happened. The HCA announced that it was taking Circle out of the regulatory danger zone and upgrading its governance rating from G3 to G2 – because, the agency said, Circle had worked with the HCA to “develop an action plan to address identified failings”.
As all this took place, Circle Housing and the huge housing association Affinity Sutton were merging to create the Clarion Housing Group, in charge of 125,000 homes across the country. Around three weeks after three weeks after completion of the merger was announced, in December last year, the HCA announced a sudden U-turn. It said Circle had indeed “breached the regulator’s home standard” and “risked serious harm to its tenants”.
The HCA issued Clarion with a warning about the potential of “serious detriment” to its residents, but Nickless and his fellow Orchard Village campaigners were angered by the new judgment’s timing. “Circle should have been downgraded again, and dissolved.”
So why had complaints against Circle been initially rejected, only for the agency to act after the merger had gone through? Was this, as Nickless puts it, because the HCA was “protecting Circle, and protecting the merger, because Clarion wants to build 50,000 homes in 10 years”? The HCA insists that its change of heart was down to “further information and referrals” over the autumn of 2016”. Its spokesperson says that “we are continuing to hold Clarion to account”.
A group of 13 Orchard Village residents are now taking legal action against the Old Ford housing association through the high court. And other developments are moving fast. In January, letters featuring the Circle Housing logo were sent to Orchard Village residents who are homeowners or live in shared-ownership properties, offering them an “initial compensation” payment of £1,000, in recognition of “delays you have experienced in having defect [sic] works remedied satisfactorily”. A similar letter sent to some tenants offers only £100.
Although it claims to be working hard to somehow fix Orchard Village, Clarion Housing has made a drastic move, agreeing “in principle to buy back shared ownership and freeholder properties” because of “defects” that have caused “a huge amount of inconvenience and stress”. How it will convincingly help social housing tenants who want out of the estate is unclear.
As far as some people are concerned, this goes nowhere near the heart of the problem. At the end of January, Ukip councillor Philip Martin put a proposal to Havering’s housing chiefs: “Residents’ lives have been blighted by the substandard building work that has taken place,” he said. “The only solution is its demolition and complete reconstruction.”
Nickless and his fellow residents still think they are living in what their campaign material calls a living hell. “This has consumed my life,” he says. “This whole story is a ticking time-bomb.”
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