A housing association boss was accused of treating residents with “utter contempt” after saying she would live in a block plagued with vermin and fire safety issues. 

Residents of Clarson House in Newington South, managed by Wandle Housing Association, told Southwark’s housing scrutiny commission on Monday (March 9) about long-running mice problems, fire safety issues left unaddressed, and huge waiting times to get through to customer services.  

While people wait months for maintenance work and repairs, home owners are forced to pay ever increasing service charges.  

Wandle bosses admitted the lack of accountability within the organisation was “systemic” but that “things are going to dramatically improve”.  

Despite the promises to change, the commission recommended the council review its partnership with Wandle “in light of the serious issues that have been raised”.  

Emily Wilson, who has lived in the building for seven years on a shared ownership basis, said her experiences with Wandle have been “fairly consistently negative”.  

“What’s really striking about Wandle is the poor standard of customer service. 

“These are long running issues, something we’ve seen over a period of about seven years.  

“We’ve seen little from Wandle in the way of effort to try and make any improvements,” she said.  

It emerged at the meeting that Wandle had organised meetings with residents and an action plan but both of these tapered off.  

Emily said talking to ward councillors and the local MP hasn’t made a difference to Wandle’s behaviour.  

“There’s a real lack of accountability for Wandle and any way we can challenge them to get improvements made,” she said. 

She said despite the housing being dubbed affordable, service charges were “very high”.  

Emily said: “Just last week I had a letter notifying me of what my service charges will be for the next financial year.  

“I live in a small one-bedroom flat, my service charges are going up so they’re going to be £147 a month.  

“It’s not a fancy building, there’s no gym, no concierge, that’s just for basic maintenance so I don’t think that’s a reasonable thing to be charging and it’s certainly gone up pretty much every year.”  

She said “most years” Wandle tells residents they’ve incurred extra charges which can run into “hundreds of pounds”.  

“One year I was sent a bill for more than £500, demanding I pay it immediately even though it was in the run up to Christmas,” she said.  

Fire safety issues were also raised.  

“Shortly after the Grenfell Tower tragedy I contacted Wandle to ask to see a recent fire safety inspection report,” Emily said, adding it “took months” to get a reply and when she received the report it revealed “defects that needed to be addressed about the building”.  

“When I asked what was being done to resolve them they said nothing at the moment, it’s not a priority,” she said.  

Another resident added that children were unable to sleep because of mice “scuttling around” in the ceilings, that people were taking drugs and rough sleeping in the stairwells because of a problem with the entrance door, and that a hatch which releases smoke if there was a fire had to be forced shut after a leak.  

He said Wandle and K and T heating maintained the heating “so badly” that within two years of the building opening they had to replace both of the boilers at a cost of £150,000 – a charge he said was passed onto residents.  

Ward Councillor Eleanor Kerslake asked that the commission look at how the council can be more “muscular” in how it deals with housing associations and mentioned some local authorities has taken legal action to deal with issues.  

Maria Gillies, head of customer service delivery at Wandle, joined the organisation in January.   

She told the commission: “One of the reasons they appointed a head of customer service delivery, which is very much a new post, is following some of the really disappointing customer satisfaction results they’ve received over the last few years.  

“Clarson House is a block that I have heard quite a few issues about.” 

She said the idea to meet residents and have an action plan was the “right” one but that it had “fallen by the wayside”.  

“I don’t understand because it was a very simple technique we can use to make sure you’re building trust, you’re dealing with issues and you’re making sure that you’re listening to the customer because they’re the ones that will know what it is that we’re not doing very well and where we can improve,” she said.  

Ms Gillies, who said she was eager to meet with residents, said there were “some structural issues” within the organisation that are being dealt with.  

She added: “One of the things we need to change is having that level of accountability and making sure that we’ve got that information feeding into an individual person who is responsible for the service and who has a team of people who can help deliver the service.  

“I’m very confident that we will improve the service … I’d welcome coming back in six months and reviewing again.” 

Councillor Bill Williams said six months was too long for residents to wait and asked Ms Gillies if she would live at Clarson House.  

When she said “yes, because the service is going to dramatically improve”, Cllr Williams said: “I don’t believe you. You are treating those residents with utter contempt.” 

Ms Gillies then reiterated plans to engage better with residents and said it “won’t be a magic wand, but it will improve – we have to go back to basics”.   

Summarising issues raised by commission members, chair Cllr Gavin Edwards made three recommendations to cabinet.  

He said: “To develop clear policy on prioritising issues such as fire safety compliance, resident satisfaction, and other key performance indicators at the point of initiating partnership working with housing associations and possibly developing a service level agreement.  

“To ask the cabinet to investigate the possibility of creating an arbitration panel to deal with serious complaints of service failure within housing associations.  

“To ask the cabinet to review Southwark Council’s planned partnership working with Wandle in the light of the serious issues that have been raised at tonight’s meeting.”