A highly critical report on St Helena’s government housing service is to be reviewed by the island’s Public Accounts Committee on Monday 10 February, more than four months after it was quietly published. The service was declared “inadequate”.
Years of neglect and poor management have left many Saints living in poor and even unsafe conditions.
A survey found not a single home met basic standards set out for the government landlord housing service.
Officials have also allowed rent arrears to mount up by acting too slowly, according to a value-for-money review by the St Helena Audit Service.
When Andy Crowe started work as the island’s first Housing Executive in November 2012, he found that the living conditions of many islanders “never been” a priority for St Helena Government (SHG).
The cost of putting things right was initially put at £1.5 million – but then raised to £6.5 million when the scale of failings became clear.
Andy has now told St Helena Online that improvements are being made but the service is still too fragmented. The audit report said responsibility was split between three departments, leading to inefficiencies.
The survey he carried out on arrival found that:
- Residents of 15 homes had to cross courtyards to go to the kitchen, bathroom or toilet
- 35 homes lacked adequate facilities for food preparation, cooking and washing up
- 50 had serious problems of damp and flooding because of poor land drainage
- 15 lacked adequately lighting
- Every home lacked an adequate electrical system
- Lack of sockets meant excessive use of extension leads, creating a fire risk
- 160 homes had asbestos roofs and some had asbestos guttering that was starting to fail
- Most homes had metal windows that were failing
Key health and safety concerns included falls in Jamestown flats and houses at new Ground, gas bottles in flats and houses, aged electrical systems and an absence of fire doors in flats.
On the plus side, all homes had an adequate supply of drinking water and satisfactory foul drainage, and few had structural problems.
Minimum standards have since been introduced, and a 15-year maintenance programme drawn up to deal with a backlog of “repairs which should have been undertaken long before now”.
A qualified electrician has drawn up a detailed programme of rewiring and fire precautions.
The contract includes creating two apprenticeships, to help address a shortage of skilled electricians on the island.
The work will also bring water heating to each home.
The audit report highlighted failures in management of the service, including an absence of routine repairs and safety checks, but also some strengths, including fast response to problems.
A tradition of giving tenants free paint – but then failing to check whether they actually used it – has been stopped. The audit report said it was costing “thousands of pounds in paint and administration.”
In March 2013, a housing newsletter said 16 tenants owned more than £1,000 in rent arrears.
The audit report found “a long history of not tackling arrears until too late in the day”. It said officials were reluctant to take legal action because the courts had never allowed eviction for bad debts.
But a comment from Andy Crowe in the audit report was also strongly critical of a lack of help for tenants who got into difficulty.
He said: “The Welfare Benefits system is in need of reform because of the pace with which financial help is withdrawn from those on low incomes, making it impossible for some to pay the bills.
“There remain no money advice services, but housing advice visits have been made by the Housing Executive to tenants at most risk of eviction.”
Andy Crowe has now told St Helena Online that improvements are being made – but slowly.
“We are making inroads into rent arrears, tackling anti-social behaviour (mainly dumping of rubbish in stairwells and gardens), have a substantial planned maintenance programme in place, which prioritises rewiring, and have tried hard (but with limited success) to involve tenants.
“I have a local resident in post as a housing management officer and she has just achieved a merit for her first assignment towards the Chartered Institute of Housing professional qualification.
“That said, we are starting from an extremely low base and still have a long way to go.
“The service is still fragmented and so the background work taking place to create a viable and professional housing service is going to be critical to the quality of service in the future.”