For the past six months, ITV News Political Correspondent Daniel Hewitt has been travelling the country uncovering the shocking conditions being endured by some people and families living in social housing – homes owned and run by local councils and housing associations.
In a documentary – Surviving Squalor: Britain’s Housing Shame – to be broadcast on ITV on Sunday at 10.15pm, he hears first-hand from residents being forced to live for months or even years in unsafe and uninhabitable properties – some are overrun by damp and mould, others have fallen apart in front of tenants’ eyes. The documentary asks why some of the most vulnerable in society are being failed by a housing system that consistently ignores their concerns, fails to fix their problems, and offers them nowhere else to go.
On Christmas Day 2020, Fransoy Hewitt woke to prepare lunch for her two young boys. Despite everything, she was determined to make it a special day. Coronavirus had all but cancelled Christmas for the south of England, but the pandemic was the least of Fransoy’s concerns. A month earlier, a small but persistent leak in her living room, which she had been reporting to her landlord Croydon Council for over a year, suddenly began to spread, taking on a new ferocity.
No longer confined to a small patch of her one bedroom flat, water began leaking from the kitchen ceiling, into the bathroom, the hallway and across the living room. Water cascaded through light fittings, soaking the floors and destroying the family’s possessions. Fransoy’s living room was so sodden and cold, within days it was no longer habitable. She placed buckets, and the plastic bath she once used to bathe her baby boys, under the drips, emptying them every few hours.
The kitchen became plagued with thick mould. Black, furry spores saturating the walls and ceilings, growing on plugs and in cupboards and spreading onto their food. No matter how much Fransoy wiped it away, it soon came back. She continued to complain repeatedly to Croydon Council throughout November and December. Maintenance workers would sometimes be sent out. They turned off the electricity to their fridge, and the lights in their bathroom and hallway, to prevent electrocution, but they never fixed the leak.
They would have seen the water dripping into buckets around the flat, and walked on the sodden floors, their shoes squelching. They would have seen the mould-infested kitchen and smelt the unbearable stench of damp that hits you the moment you walk through the door of the flat. And yet the leak went unfixed, for months. So on Christmas Day 2020, Fransoy woke to make lunch for her two sons in this one bedroom council flat. Water dripping around her, she prepared their dinners and plated up, as the boys sat down at a small wooden table in the living room, the steadily-filling baby bath at their feet.
As she handed them their food, water began dripping onto the table. Determined that they should eat Christmas dinner together as a family, and with nowhere else to sit, Fransoy grabbed an umbrella. She held the umbrella above her sons heads, while they ate their Christmas dinners. Fransoy told me this story when I first met her 10 weeks later, in March 2021. I saw for myself what those maintenance workers would had seen. I saw the horrific conditions that Fransoy had reported time and time and time again to Croydon Council.
She showed me the logbook of all the calls she had made and the emails she had sent to the complaints department. Such was Fransoy’s lack of trust in the council, she meticulously noted the dates and times of every phone call, should they ever question her. Her desperation was palpable. She had turned to the media in a last-ditch effort to get her and her sons out of a flat she genuinely feared would kill them.