Law firm says social housing tenants in Southwark are being forced to live in houses with vermin, cockroaches and broken windows

Hundreds of social housing tenants in Southwark are being forced to live in homes that are riddled with vermin, cockroaches, severe damp and broken windows, according to statistics from a national law firm.

During the past two years alone, CEL Solicitors – which specialises in civil litigation including housing disrepair claims – has settled a total of 109 cases against Southwark council, with more than 70 cases currently in progress.

The law firm, which acts for housing disrepair claimants across England and Wales, believes there could be many more. CEL has fewer than 100 cases collectively across Lambeth, Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster councils.

Mother-of-one Veronica, whose two-bedroomed flat in Southwark was infested with cockroaches when she moved first moved in with her son in 2008, is one the company has represented.

The property was in severe disrepair, with broken windows and doors, graffiti-covered walls and a cockroach infestation making it ‘barely liveable’, she claimed.

There were also leaks both inside and outside the property and severe damp. But, despite numerous complaints over the course of more than a decade, she claims officers failed to solve the disrepairs, forcing her to try to treat the damp herself.

Veronica, 46, whose 16-year-old son suffers from asthma, said: “As soon as we moved in, it was clear that the flat was barely liveable.

“The damp issue was made worse by the broken windows. As my son, who was just four years old at the time, has asthma, I tried to treat the damp myself by using anti-mould sprays, but nothing worked.

“I continued to complain to Southwark council, but nothing was done and we had to live in these awful conditions for a long time.

“I couldn’t believe the state of the flat when we arrived – wallpaper was coming away from the walls because of the damp, there was a cockroach infestation and there was fire damage that had been previously caused by squatters.”

Veronica instructed law firm CEL Solicitors to take action and was awarded £2,000 in compensation in May last year, plus a guarantee of repairs being made.

But the council failed to complete the necessary repairs within the specified timeframe and CEL earned a further £1,000 compensation for Veronica in August 2020.

Amy Tagoe, housing disrepair specialist and director at CEL Solicitors, said: “We always advise clients to contact their landlord about disrepairs in the first instance. But, many of our Southwark clients have waited years, in some cases up to a decade, for repairs that haven’t been made – these are people who feel they have no voice and have tried to get answers from the council before even considering legal action. With many people having no idea that they can bring a housing disrepair claim, I suspect many more residents are living in unfit properties.

“Unfortunately, Veronica is just one of many people who have been let down time and time again by the council, with complaints and concerns going ignored. Southwark is by far our worst offending public landlord.

“Not only did the council force Veronica and her son to live with these issues for a number of years but, even after our case was settled and repairs were agreed, no action was taken. That’s when our repairs team stepped in to ensure Southwark council was held to account once more.

“Of course, Southwark is not alone and there are housing associations and local authorities right across the country allowing their tenants – many of whom are vulnerable with severe health conditions – to live in unsafe, hazardous conditions. This should not be allowed to happen and more needs to be done to ensure that landlords – both private and public – keep their properties in a habitable condition.”

Councillor Leo Pollak, cabinet member for housing at Southwark council, said: “Southwark council manages 55,000 properties, far more than any other council landlord in London, so it’s inevitable that we receive more repairs complaints than smaller authorities do.

“We want all our residents to be living in the best possible living conditions so take any complaint extremely seriously and work hard to maintain our properties to a high standard, but it’s hard to see what useful conclusions can be drawn from these numbers.

“Even where issues do regrettably fall through the net, we will continue to ensure our complaint handling captures those struggling to resolve their repairs, ideally before this kind of ambulance-chasing law firm tries to make money from people’s misfortune.

“I would urge residents with ongoing repairs issues to approach the council rather than lawyers who will only delay the resolution of the repair, and put further pressure on the housing department’s already tight budget.”

Pictured top: Southwark council’s offices, in Tooley Street

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