'To keep on going, to keep on fighting, just to get the bare minimum to keep living… it does affect me pretty hard'
Words by Senior Assistant News Editor Joseph Wardropper
Joseph O’Donnell should have been enjoying his first weeks as a father. Instead, the 21-year-old from North Shields was trying to keep his newborn baby warm in an unheated, uncarpeted flat.
Joseph and the baby's mother were given the property two months ago to find the gas was supply switched off - and despite repeated attempts to get it turned back on, they have been forced to live in the freezing cold, unable to bathe their eight-week-old baby.
"You constantly have to keep putting on layers," Joseph told ITV News. "It feels like you’re outside, especially at night."
After first swaddling their eight-week-old daughter in thick blankets, the couple were forced to rely on a small electric heater, donated by Joseph’s father.
"We have to put it in whichever room the baby is in, just to keep her warm," Joseph said. "It just gets to a point where you don’t know what to do anymore."
The gas supply was cut-off after the previous tenants ran up hundreds of pounds in energy arrears due to a fault with the utility meter.
The family's countless calls to Utilita, their energy supplier, went unanswered. The company sent letters to the flat demanding hundreds of pounds in payments and threatened visits from bailiffs over the previous tenant’s debt.
Without hot water, Joseph and his partner were unable to bathe his daughter at home. Instead, they walked the 45-minute journey to Joseph’s mother-in-law’s house each time their daughter needed a hot bath.
"It is like £4.70 each just to get the bus there, which when you’re on strict money, it’s really hard," Joseph said.
Almost two months after the family was given the keys to the council-owned flat, their gas supply has only now been reconnected. This meant their daughter spent her first weeks in a flat that was, at times, "extremely cold."
In a statement, Utilita apologised "for the frustration and inconvenience caused to Mr O’Donnell and his family" and acknowledged it had "failed to meet our own high expectations."
The company said it should have set up the family’s account "in a timelier manner" and acted more quickly "to diagnose a gas meter commissioning issue, which we have since rectified."
Utilita added that the family’s electricity bill had been cleared by the company and credit had been added to both of their utility meters.
The family say they informed their landlord, North Tyneside Council, about the situation and were told they would receive electric heaters. North Tyneside Council told ITV News it has no record of correspondence with the family on this subject.
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The hardships of caring for their baby in a cold flat added to the family's problems.
A chronic pain condition forced Joseph to give up work weeks before his daughter was born, and the family lives on Universal Credit (UC).
Previously "okay with money", now they struggle to afford the necessities, including baby formula.
"You’re lucky if [a tub of formula] lasts a week, maybe a week and a half… which if you’re only getting two or three hundred quid at most a month… It does take a massive chunk out of what you are able to do."
The cost-of-living crisis has seen them turn to family for support. Joseph’s grandmother uses her disability benefit "to help as much as she can", buying food and baby formula for the young couple.
"It doesn’t seem like it’s enough, with Universal Credit especially, when you have a kid to look after", Joseph said. "With everything rising, with the electricity rising, it never seems like there is enough to go around."
"To keep on going, to keep on fighting, just to get the bare minimum to keep living… it does affect me pretty hard," he said.
In a statement, Peter Mennell, Director of Housing and Property at North Tyneside Council, said: “We want all our Council tenants to live in safe, secure properties and our Housing and Repairs teams support them quickly and professionally whenever a concern is raised.
"I am sorry that this family has had difficulties with their energy provider, gas, central heating and hot water and I am pleased that a positive resolution has been reached," he added.