‘Council risks repeating same mistakes over housing report’

Paul Zukowskyj

Councillor Paul Zukowskyj. - Credit: Matthew Smith

The leader of the opposition in Welwyn Hatfield has claimed the council 'will be in court on a negligence case having killed a tenant' if more robust action isn’t taken on housing safety, following the publication of an independent report.

Cllr Paul Zukowskyj, Liberal Democrat for Hatfield Green and Hatfield South, made the remarks after criticising the council’s response to a report into housing safety checks, which he said risks making the same mistakes.

The borough council has said it is in a ‘much improved’ position 10 months after self-referring itself to the regulator, and is on track to be fully compliant by the end of March in regards to asbestos, water, fire, electrical and gas safety checks.

An independent report published last month found senior figures within the council were unaware of the serious failings for months, and the opposition leader claimed the council should take a wider view of health and safety within the housing stock.

The report from law firm Eversheds Sutherlands found a focus on gas safety over other areas of compliance, as well as issues with ‘silo working’ and an unwillingness for staff to raise concerns amongst the root causes.

Councillors on the council’s Cabinet Housing Panel discussed the report at a meeting on March 7, where the Cabinet member for housing Cllr Fiona Thomson, Conservative for Handside and the council’s chief executive apologised again to tenants.

The administration also confirmed it is on-track to be fully compliant before the end of March, and were reviewing the management structure of the department.

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The council’s chief executive Ka Ng told councillors: “First of all, I would like to apologise to the tenants and leaseholders who have been let down by the council over the housing compliance issue.”

“Since the issue came to light we have put in a new management team to oversee the housing property service, as the corporate director and head of service was no longer employed by the council.”

The chief executive said at times it felt like the council had been “left to pick up the pieces” after those who knew more about the issues had left their roles, but they had started to improve the service.

Ms Ng said: “We have been meeting with the Regulator for Social Housing to keep them up to date with the progress on housing compliance.

“We actually met with them last week together with Eversheds to discuss the findings of the independent review. They were pleased with our progress so far and no concerns have been raised to date.”

However, opposition leader Cllr Zukowskyj criticised the council’s response, and said he was concerned the council was not considering aspects of health and safety not included in the six areas of housing compliance, and the new response is focused on meeting compliance, rather than prioritising health and safety in general.

He told the meeting: “I’m afraid to say I have absolutely no confidence that the measures this council has put in place will keep its tenants safe.”

He added: “This council is making the same mistake again, it’s focusing entirely on compliance. Read the Cabinet paper, it mentions compliance maybe 30 times, it mentions health and safety not once. That is not an appropriate response.

“This council, if it continues down that line, in my view, within five years will be in court on a negligence case having killed a tenant.

“And I do not say that lightly, this culture will continue until you embed health and safety in all what we do and that is not happing with the response that we’ve seen to date.”

Ms Ng said there is an ongoing consultation into a restructure of the senior management team, which could bring together the appropriate teams in an effort to end ‘silo working’ described in the Eversheds report.

Cllr Thomson said she was “disappointed” Cllr Zukowskyj didn’t support the report, saying the council had been transparent and was addressing the issue to create “a more sustainable solution”. She added this was the beginning of the council’s response, and compliance was only one part of their response.

She said: “This is a bit of a reset button, and clearly we need to move forward, we need to continue as we have been doing and it’s not going to be easy but we don’t have an option because this is the right thing to do for our tenants and leaseholders.”

Councillors voted to note the report by 8-2.