By Edward Kellow

If you have been down Hanson Street in Fitzrovia recently you may have noticed the number of buildings shrouded in scaffolding and green netting. This isn’t an art installation or a leftover from the Fitzrovia Arts week.

Street scene with scaffolding.
Scaffolding and green netting covers seven housing blocks in Hanson Street.

The scaffolding is part of a programme of repairs to housing managed by City West Homes (CWH) on behalf of Westminster City Council.

But City West Homes has poorly managed the maintenance programme, blighted people’s lives, and needs to radically review the way it communicates and works with residents — something I’ve been writing about since July this year.

The works were long overdue: the roofing had suffered damage, paint was peeling from the windows and doors, and some of the window frames were rotting and had to be replaced.

In May this year CWH wrote to residents saying the works would start at the end of May and be completed by the end of July.

But now we are told that scaffolding is scheduled to come down mid-December — more than four months late. Since the works began CWH have been unable to provide with residents an accurate schedule.

Seven buildings, each with about 11 flats, are home to a mix of households, including many elderly and disabled people. That is over one hundred people who for more than six months have been deprived of natural daylight.

The access points to the scaffolding have been situated in front of the doors to the flats. As a result when the ladders are in place the entrances to the flats are obstructed.

The scaffolding obscures the house names and street numbers which means delivery services can’t identify the addresses they need, and deliveries have been delayed. At the request of residents Axis Europe, the contractor carrying out the work for CWH, put up signs with the house names, but not numbers.

Between May and August no real work took place. People living in Hanson Street lost their summer. For elderly and disabled residents, unable to escape the confines of their flats, life must have been grim. And it still is.

Some of us tried to raise our concerns with CWH. We were trying to help. After getting no response, we wrote to the CEO. This led to a meeting with senior managers.

According to one CWH member of staff, one reason for the delay was that no decision had been taken about what colour to paint the stairwells.

Why did this seemingly minor decision take so long? What were project managers doing between 12 May, when the programme was confirmed, and 22 July, when they asked residents to vote on a colour scheme for their stairwells?

In August a new delivery team was appointed and they worked hard to address residents’ concerns, and to improve communications. Despite this, the date for completing the works kept being extended.

The quality of the internal and external decoration has also been very poor. The rubbing down was not thorough, and there were runs in the gloss paint on the window and door frames, suggesting that the decorators either didn’t know how to use gloss paint, or that they were not paying attention to what they were doing.

One resident said wryly: “It takes two men to paint a window”.

The work was so bad that in October CWH asked the contractor to stop all decoration works. Axis then brought in a new team of decorators from another job. But it took Axis a very long time to admit that the work was not being done to a good standard.

Programmes like contract S163 depend on residents to co-operate. There is anecdotal evidence that residents have not been rushing to help by providing access to their flats. Once work began, conditions deteriorated. Windows had to be kept locked. Homeworking became difficult because of the noise. The decorators were careless and unfriendly. On occasions they ignored residents who tried to speak to them. With workers on the scaffolding at the front and the back, at times it was like living in a goldfish bowl.

What can we learn to ensure that future programmes are better managed?

Sherry Arnstein’s “Ladder of citizen participation” is a useful framework to examine the relationship between CWH and Hanson Street residents. Arnstein worked for the USA department of housing. She designed her ladder to show how citizens and public agencies interact. The steps on the ladder fall into three main categories of participation: “Non-participation”, “Tokenism” and “Citizen Power”.

Diagram illustrating citizen participation.
Sherry Arnstein’s ‘Ladder of citizen participation’ is a useful framework to examine the relationship between CWH and Hanson Street residents. Source: American Planning Association.

“Non participation” brings back memories of the lengthy planning stage during which residents were invited to a number of meetings about the negotiation process for contract S163. It was difficult to know what questions to ask.

“Tokenism” includes a step that Arnstein calls “placation”. Recent experience shows that residents have to complain a lot just to get a response from City West. Some of these responses could be described as “placatory”.

“Citizen Power” at the top of the ladder includes “partnership” and “citizen control”. CWH have said that they will involve residents in the signing off process. They want us to be happy with the quality of the work. This feels like a huge “step up the ladder” for residents. “Citizen control” is not the goal. But working in “partnership” would be a change for the good.

At the time of writing CWH predict that Hanson Street residents will see daylight before Christmas.

But will CWH as an organisation see the light? How can they capture the learning from contract S163? Will they use it to manage future programme of works better? And does CWH as an organisation have the skills and the will to shift from “placation” to working in partnership?

Follow Edward Kellow on Twitter @edwardkellow

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