For the past six months, ITV News Political Correspondent Daniel Hewitt has been travelling the country uncovering the shocking conditions being endured by some people and families living in social housing – homes owned and run by local councils and housing associations.
In a documentary - Surviving Squalor: Britain's Housing Shame - to be broadcast on ITV on Sunday at 10.15pm, he hears first-hand from residents being forced to live for months or even years in unsafe and uninhabitable properties - some are overrun by damp and mould, others have fallen apart in front of tenants’ eyes.
The documentary asks why some of the most vulnerable in society are being failed by a housing system that consistently ignores their concerns, fails to fix their problems, and offers them nowhere else to go.
On Christmas Day 2020, Fransoy Hewitt woke to prepare lunch for her two young boys. Despite everything, she was determined to make it a special day.
Coronavirus had all but cancelled Christmas for the south of England, but the pandemic was the least of Fransoy’s concerns.
A month earlier, a small but persistent leak in her living room, which she had been reporting to her landlord Croydon Council for over a year, suddenly began to spread, taking on a new ferocity.
No longer confined to a small patch of her one bedroom flat, water began leaking from the kitchen ceiling, into the bathroom, the hallway and across the living room. Water cascaded through light fittings, soaking the floors and destroying the family's possessions.
Fransoy’s living room was so sodden and cold, within days it was no longer habitable. She placed buckets, and the plastic bath she once used to bathe her baby boys, under the drips, emptying them every few hours.
The kitchen became plagued with thick mould. Black, furry spores saturating the walls and ceilings, growing on plugs and in cupboards and spreading onto their food. No matter how much Fransoy wiped it away, it soon came back.
She continued to complain repeatedly to Croydon Council throughout November and December. Maintenance workers would sometimes be sent out. They turned off the electricity to their fridge, and the lights in their bathroom and hallway, to prevent electrocution, but they never fixed the leak.
They would have seen the water dripping into buckets around the flat, and walked on the sodden floors, their shoes squelching. They would have seen the mould-infested kitchen and smelt the unbearable stench of damp that hits you the moment you walk through the door of the flat. And yet the leak went unfixed, for months.
So on Christmas Day 2020, Fransoy woke to make lunch for her two sons in this one bedroom council flat. Water dripping around her, she prepared their dinners and plated up, as the boys sat down at a small wooden table in the living room, the steadily-filling baby bath at their feet.
As she handed them their food, water began dripping onto the table. Determined that they should eat Christmas dinner together as a family, and with nowhere else to sit, Fransoy grabbed an umbrella. She held the umbrella above her sons heads, while they ate their Christmas dinners.
Fransoy told me this story when I first met her 10 weeks later, in March 2021. I saw for myself what those maintenance workers would had seen. I saw the horrific conditions that Fransoy had reported time and time and time again to Croydon Council.
Watch Daniel Hewitt's report from March 2021, when the team first met Fransoy and saw the dreadful conditions her family was forced to live in
She showed me the logbook of all the calls she had made and the emails she had sent to the complaints department. Such was Fransoy’s lack of trust in the council, she meticulously noted the dates and times of every phone call, should they ever question her.
Her desperation was palpable. She had turned to the media in a last-ditch effort to get her and her sons out of a flat she genuinely feared would kill them.
Our report on conditions not only in Fransoy’s flat but in the homes of other residents in Regina Road in South Norwood, triggered a national response. The head of Shelter described them as the worst living conditions she had ever seen. So did the author of the report into fire safety after the Grenfell Fire, Dame Judith Hackitt.
Croydon Council, after months of failing to either fix the leaks or attempt to move Fransoy out, apologised as soon as we sent them our findings. Within days they moved the family into a hotel, and launched an independent inquiry which would later conclude “systemic failure” at the council’s housing department “with a lack of care and respect for tenants” whose lives were placed in danger by their inaction.
In an extremely rare move, the Regulator of Social Housing threw the book at Croydon, while the council leader told a parliamentary committee that the conditions were down to “a complete corporate failure”.
See the appalling and dangerous conditions some people in a tower block in Croydon have been forced to live in for months
It was the response from viewers, however, that blew us away. We received hundreds, then thousands of messages after the report went out on ITV News.
Among the anger and disgust at what Fransoy and others were going through, were messages from social housing tenants from across the country who, like Fransoy, said they were living in squalor but were struggling to be heard by their landlord.
The sheer volume of messages led us to setting up a dedicated email address - firstname.lastname@example.org - and they kept coming and coming - six months on, they still do.
It soon became clear that Fransoy’s situation, though extreme, was not unique.
In one of world’s richest countries, families are being forced to endure unimaginable housing conditions. Every week I visit people living in homes with leaks, mould, damp, overcrowding, collapsed ceilings, rodent problems - conditions their landlords wouldn’t tolerate for their own families for a single day.
Watch Daniel Hewitt's report on the families 'stuck' in England's overcrowded social homes
I have found the resilience of people living in these properties remarkable - they are forced to show a superhuman resolve, and a level of patience I suspect most are incapable of.
Yet what often causes the most despair is the way their issues are dealt with, or more often, not.
The way they are spoken to on the phone, or being made to explain their problem time and time again because their complaints haven’t been logged, or the problem being logged as “fixed” on the system when it hasn’t been, or being made to fill in an online form for the fifth, sixth, and seventh time but still not getting a reply, or maintenance workers failing to turn up for a job that was booked weeks in advance, or workers turning up without any notice at all, or leaks being fixed but the huge hole it caused in the ceiling remaining for months afterwards, or being told to open more windows, or to dry clothes outside, or to wash the mould off yourself.
These are all real examples, and I could go on and on. The point here is one of culture.
'I feel like I have been treated like an animal': Daniel Hewitt hears from the social housing tenants desperate for somebody to listen and care
At the Housing 2021 conference in Manchester this week, the chief executive of national tenant engagement body TPAS, said the housing sector had lost “empathy”.
“When a phone rings from a tenant to report a repair, are our staff handling it with empathy by saying ‘how can I help this tenant? I hear what they are saying’, said Jenny Osbourne.
“Not 'how can I get them off the phone? I don’t believe them'. That’s the question we have to ask ourselves.
“If ITV hadn’t raised these issues, we wouldn’t be talking about these issues today.”
That we have a housing crisis in Britain is beyond doubt. Successive governments have not built enough affordable homes to rent and there is a chronic shortage of social housing.
Around 1.1 million households are on the the social housing waiting list in England. Last year just one was built for every 175 families that are waiting for one.
None of that means housing associations and councils can’t treat their tenants with respect.
Councils tells us they are short-staffed after years of austerity. That, of course, plays a part in how efficiently and quickly you can deal with complaints, but you don’t need money to speak to people properly on the phone.
When it comes to housing associations, the big ones turnover enormous sums of money, some close to a billion pounds a year. They pay their chief executives more than £400,0000 per year, salaries the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick told ITV News were “out of control.”
The point is the money is there, and following our investigation associations including Clarion, L&Q and Bromford have pledged to spend significantly more money improving existing properties.
For six months Daniel Hewitt and his team have met residents of social housing facing unimaginable hardship. Mehdi was one of those people, living in a property with a leak running down his walls found to be contaminated with faeces
Social housing tenants regularly contrast the speed at which their landlords contact them if their rent is a day late. Many have told us they get a calls, emails and letters almost immediately if there has been a problem or delay with a payment - while they wait weeks and months for repairs to be made in their home.
There are long-term, systemic problems beyond the control of housing associations and councils, but they can treat their tenants better, with a bit more “empathy.”
After the Grenfell Tower fire, the Hackitt Report said a cultural change was needed in the construction of buildings. Having spent six months investigating the state of social housing in Britain it is clear a cultural change is needed in how social housing tenants are treated.
Right now, tenants aren’t short on promises to make this happen - the government says it’s Social Housing White Paper will give tenants more of a voice, the Regulator and the Ombudsman are promising a more interventionist approach, social landlords are promising to listen more and spend more money.
For social housing tenants, they are familiar promises. In the wake of Grenfell, they were told things would change. They’re still waiting.
Daniel presents Surviving Squalor: Britain's Housing Shame, Sunday 12 September at 10.15pm on ITV. It will be available to watch on catch up afterwards on the ITV Hub.