‘fluff and Puff’ but no real answers on heating fiasco following Fenland scrutiny meeting

Councillor Virginia Bucknor.
Councillor Virginia Bucknor.

An unreserved apology and promises of a “forensic investigation” into how it all went wrong were made at a special meeting called to hear why Fenland tenants have been left in the cold and without hot water for weeks on end.

The promises were made by bosses of both Clarion Housing - which manages Fenland’s former council housing stock – and their heating contractor Morgan Sindall offer cold comfort for the hundreds of tenants who have faced an uphill fight in recent weeks to get repairs carried out in their homes.

Councillor Jan French.

Councillor Jan French.

Independent councillor Virginia Bucknor, who represents Waterlees Village in Wisbech on Fenland District Council, was given special dispensation to speak at Monday’s meeting of the council’s overview and scrutiny committee.

But she was ordered by the chairman Councillor Fred Yeulett to keep her comments short and was cut off within five minutes of being invited to speak about the “deluge” of problems she and husband and fellow councillor Mike have faced in recent months.

Her five minutes was up before she had time to ask her numerous questions including why in some cases it is taking up to many weeks for spare parts to arrive to allow repairs to heating systems to be carried out - one of the issues not addressed during the one and a half hour meeting at the South Fens Business Centre in Chatteris.

Afterwards Coun Bucknor, who had started her address with the request for “no fluff and puff”, described the proceedings as a “disgrace” and said none of the issues faced by tenants had been properly addressed.

Councillor Fred Yeulett.

Councillor Fred Yeulett.

“All we have had is an apology and a promise that it won’t happen again in the future. But it did not address the issue of why some tenants have been left waiting for weeks on end without heating and hot water, or why it is taking so long for repairs to be carried out.

“In fact it was a lot of fluff and puff and very little substance. The representatives from Clarion and Morgan Sindall came here today without even having the relevant facts and figures to give us.

“I’m really not sure what this has achieved,” she said.

Both Clarion’s regional director Marek Witko and Morgan Sindall’s regional director Shane Greaves refused to speak to the press after the meeting, while committee chairman Councillor Fred Yeulett appeared to be more than happy with the duo’s responses during the afternoon, and said the council would work closely with the two firms going forward.

South Fens Business Centre in Chatteris was the venue for the overview and scrutiny meeting.

South Fens Business Centre in Chatteris was the venue for the overview and scrutiny meeting.

Mr Witko promised Clarion would look at what may have gone wrong during the procurement process when Morgan Sindall was awarded the contract, to see if “anything could be done differently in the future”, while Mr Greaves explained his firm had suffered a “catastrophic” problem at the contract’s outset.

He explained demand for repairs and emergency call-outs had been much higher than expected - in fact around 100 per cent higher - the number of engineers transferred across from the previous contractor Robert Heath was eight less than anticipated, and on top of that their technology had failed making it impossible to schedule appointments.

Both companies assured the meeting they had carried out due diligence before entering the contract, but no-one asked the question of exactly what that entailed nor was there any explanation as to how it had failed so drastically.

“It really has not answered any questions, and I’m not sure exactly what today has achieved. We are absolutely swamped by complaints from tenants, some of their stories are really heartbreaking. There was no proper timescale given as to when the situation will be fully resolved - all we can hope is that it is rectified as quickly as possible,” said Coun Bucknor.

Councillor Jan French, from March, agreed the meeting had achieved very little and said: “I think they have just paid lip service. I am still confused, and nobody asked the question - which if I had been allowed to speak I would have asked - is why residents have to call Morgan Sindall directly, when Clarion are the landlords and have a duty of care to their tenants. Basically the buck stops with Clarion.

“I also believe that the problems boil down to the housing stock not being maintained in a proper fashion.”

In the meantime residents who have been affected can make a claim for compensation to Clarion Housing - something that is not advertised by the association.

But Mr Witko explained is available and is dealt with on a “case by case” basis.