Partners For Improvement face residents’ rage and laughter in tense meeting

Islington Town Hall. Photograph: Islington Council.

The company responsible for managing Islington’s council homes has once again faced the wrath of residents at a meeting in which housing bosses were directly confronted and heckled by their tenants.

Partners for Improvement looks after over 6,000 properties through a PFI scheme set up by the former Lib Dem administration.

The firm met with councillors’ scorn at a similar meeting last year, when figures indicating a 99.4 per cent success rate of repairs completed on time had been presented to the disbelieving local authority.

As the organisation prepares to hand over 4,100 properties held under one of its contracts set to expire in the next couple of years, Tom Irvine, Partners’ CEO, and Neal Ackcral, chief property officer at Hyde Housing Association, which provides Partners’ housing management service, were challenged by councillors once again on the level of complaints.

Cllr Sue Lukes (Lab, Highbury East), said: “In terms of objective external meaurements, the figures I’ve got show that in terms of complaints upheld by the housing ombudsman in relation Islington homes, 28 per cent of those related to PFI homes, and you only manage 19 per cent of our homes.

“Clearly the rate of upheld complaints at the housing ombudsman is much higher than the proportion of the homes. The ombudsman is upholding many more complaints than they are against us a borough.

“That is an objective assessment of what we’re seeing in the room. We’re very much aware that Islington council tenants have lots of complaints about the council, but generally we get them resolved inhouse before they hit the ombudsman.”

When Irvine responded that the figures behind those statistics would be quite low, he was heckled from the crowd, who invited him to imagine how many cases would not reach the ombudsman stage.

Lukes went on to address the involvement of Rydon, which carries out day to day services for Partners, pointing out that it has been specifically asked not to bid for any government contracts until its role in the Grenfell fire had been fully investigated.

The Highbury councillor added that this was an “uneasy and difficult” relationship for the council, and when she asked about the possibility of re-examining it, the crowd applauded.

Despite Partners’ attempts to only hear the details of individual cases in a separate room, saying that it was unwilling to share “personal and sensitive” information in public, many residents continued to heckle and berate the housing boss over issues including antisocial behaviour, lack of engagement, increased scaffolding charges and delayed or botched repairs with frequent calls of ‘Bring it in-house’.

In one telling moment, when Irvine mentioned the recent Christmas party held by the organisation, laughter spread throughout the room, with committee member Rose-Marie McDonald interrupting: “The Christmas party was disgusting. A soup kitchen is better served.”

Irvine responded: “You have already given me that feedback, and I am very grateful. Whilst I’ve heard that, and I’m sorry to hear it, what I thought was positive about it was that 45 people would otherwise have been alone on Christmas Day, so I think that was positive.”

Lukes spoke of a family who came to her for aid whose front door was smashed in and house invaded by a gang of drug dealers in a case of mistaken identiy in August.

The councillor claimed that Partners had failed to contact resident spport services to help get a refurbishment grant for the family, and that when Lukes was assured support would be given, she heard in October that family were still without a cooker or a secure front door.

The Highbury councillor added: “Those are all mistakes that can be made, but my concern was that as a councillor I raised it, and nobody thought to tell me about any progress on the case.

“What happens is, the tenants give up because they’re getting a constant runaround and people feel like they’ve had enough, and think they’ve contacted us and we’ve been ineffective. Then we find out a month or two months down hte line that the situation is still the same.”

Ackcral committed on the spot to Partners proactively engaging with councillor enquiries, of which the company received 11 per month.

Irvine said that one of the challenges PFI has is its campaign to prepare to hand over properties to the council, to which the crowd responded ‘Oh, great’ and ‘Can’t wait, hurry up’.

Other clashes seen at the meeting flared up around the value of the contract held between Partners and the Town Hall, as well as the organisations’ attendance at leaseholder meetings.

A leaseholder said: “Nine weeks’ notice I gave you for an hour’s meeting on three different occasions, at these previous meetings, in front of all of those councillors. If I was to invite you now, to the next meeting, would you guarantee to come, and speak to all these people now in public?

“”The council have far more tenants and residents and leaeholders than come under PFI. I can invite any of the councillors, and they will turn up at the leaeholders’ meeting, and we can ask them any questions. They can do it, why can’t you?”

Councillors and residents pitched a number of different dates, with Lukes asking if a guarantee could be given for a meeting at some point in the next six weeks, but Irvine would not guarantee his attendance.

Ackcral explained: “We need a clear agenda about what is going to be discussed. I’m not prepared to go to an open Q&A session. If we’ve got an agenda in terms of submissions you’d like to discuss, then we will go and answer those questions. That is constructive, and we’re trying to be helpful.

“If it’s a meeting where we are just going to get loads of questions that we can’t answer in the evening, it’s going to frustrate everyone there and it won’t be helpful.”

Despite repeated pressing from both members of the housing scrutiny commission and watching residents, neither Irvine or Ackcral would be persuaded to reveal the value of the contract held with the borough in public.

Irvine said: “I think it’s probably right to acknowledge that there are a large number of people in this room who are in principle opposed to private finance initiatives.

“There are probably many who would point out that the housing PFI contracts here in Islington were entered into by a previous administration. This is a matter of fact.

“What is also a matter of fact is that these contracts exist, and Islington Council and Partners are in them. We want to make sure that we deliver the requirements of those contracts and provide good service.

“We will work with Islington and with Islington council to achieve those aims. It’s absolutely fine to say that you hate PFI in principle, that’s absolutely fine, no problem at all. Let’s keep working together for the good of the residents and communities we serve.”