SOCIAL housing tenants across Northern Ireland lodged more than 209,000 requests for repairs and other jobs at their homes over a six-month period that cost £21.7m to fix.
New data released to The Detail by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) showed it sent engineers to respond to 209,432 issues between the beginning of October 2018 and the end of March 2019. The housing body confirmed it dealt with over 98,500 requests during the previous six months.
Jobs covered many different types of complaints: from faulty heating systems, leaking pipes and beeping or missing smoke alarms to infestations of rodents and insects, homes damaged by bad weather and asbestos or legionella inspections.
They also related to homes whose residents included older people (over 5,200), children and babies (around 1,600), disabled people (over 2,400), blind and visually-impaired tenants (over 120), people with dementia (around 40) and cancer (approximately 17), as well as those diagnosed as terminally-ill (at least 10).
Requests included the installation of two smoke alarms for a deaf tenant living in the south and east Belfast area which took six months (153 days) to complete and a flea infestation at a home in the Causeway area in which young children were reportedly being bitten. It was responded to within six days.
Engineers took nearly two months (54 days) to address a complaint of damp and mould in a property with a baby and 11 days to respond to an emergency job for a visually impaired tenant who had left a tap running which caused water to come in contact with electrics.
The most expensive job was a building and electrical inspection at a property in west Belfast amid a change of tenancy, which cost just over £25,900.
Four out of every five repairs (171,624) examined by The Detail were labelled as either emergency, routine or urgent and had a combined value of £11.8m. This categorisation means the NIHE will attempt to complete the jobs within a certain timeframe: within 24 hours for emergency jobs, four days for urgent repairs and four weeks for routine requests. Failure to meet this deadline can result in compensation for the tenant of up to £50.
Of the 59,253 emergency jobs, 97% were fixed within 24 hours. The longest response to an emergency repair, relating to three broken plug sockets and an exposed live wire, took over five months to fix.
The four-day target time was achieved in 66% of the 61,327 urgent repairs with the longest job to replace smoke alarms taking five months.
Of the 51,044 routine repairs, 88% were completed within the recommended 28 days and the longest job to improve a garden following a shed removal took around six months.
The remaining jobs were given different categories, such as change of tenancies (over 6,150) and heating systems being serviced (13% of total workload). Around a dozen repairs were completed under the ‘self-help’ scheme which reimburses tenants up to £200 to fix the problem themselves.
The NIHE said it received over 380,000 repair requests during the 2018/2019 financial year and that it completes nine out of 10 routine and emergency repairs within the set timescales.
The spokesman said its tenants are asked how satisifed they are with the work after it is carried out and that the satisfaction rate sits at over 90% each year.
A spokesman said: "There are a number of reasons why we may not meet the timescales, the main reason being that the contractor cannot get access to a property: other reasons include repairs taking longer to solve; some issues may be part of a wider problem; the contractor may not have correct parts to complete the repair. We monitor contractors’ performance through a set of key performance indications and will work and challenge any contractor to address any drop in performance.
"The Detail's data also highlights how we prioritise repairs in terms of health and safety and also the vulnerability of tenants and their family members. Emergency provision remains 24 hours a day, every day of the year. The contractor must make a call to the tenant within 15 minutes of receiving an emergency order and arrive to make it safe within two hours."
Each request logged by the NIHE had a different description so The Detail searched the database provided to us with common words relating to an issue in order to arrive at a rough figure for each type of repair.
From this we could see that nearly one third of repair requests (around 68,000) concerned heating systems with tenants reporting they had no heat or hot water in at least 5,150 cases. Around 30% of heating system repairs were categorised as emergencies and 98% of these were dealt with within the targeted timeframe of 24 hours.
Jobs that missed the target included a faulty gas system at a home in the south and east Belfast area which took 66 days to fix. This was the longest response time for an emergency heating repair job and the second time it had broken.
Also included in those that took longer to address was a home in which water was leaking through light fixtures and smoke alarms, affecting the electrics (30 days to fix), a tenant who had no power or heat for over two weeks (21-day response time) and a faulty boiler resulting in no heating in a property with children (17 days).
Another emergency job which missed its target was to repair a cracked fire grate of an open fire which was described as being the only source of heat for the elderly tenant. This was reported at the end of November and took four days to respond to.
Nearly 10% (over 20,500) of the NIHE repairs workload related to burst or leaking pipes, guttering, radiators, boilers and toilets. Of these, 44% (over 8,900) were categorised as emergencies with 93% dealt with within 24 hours. A leak from a bathroom into a kitchen ceiling and electrics at a property in north Belfast took 68 days to fix which was the longest response time.
Rodents were the focus of over 1,500 jobs with several descriptions of rat or mice infestations in children’s bedrooms - one of which took 21 days to respond to.
The NIHE was alerted to approximately 120 incidents involving fleas, bedbugs and other insects such as woodlice, silverfish and beetles.
More than 570 call-outs happened following a crime such as theft, arson and vandalism, including one complaint of damage by a car. Another request, to replace a broken living room window which had been smashed by vandals, was for a tenant who was just out of hospital after having a stroke and took 50 days to repair – missing the four-week target set by the housing official who logged the call.
Nearly 200 jobs related to the replacement of doors or windows that were damaged by police when they forced their way into the properties, including one for a new composite door at a cost of approximately £742 which took engineers 110 days to install. Some of these requests followed police raids while other forced entries were due to concerns over the tenant’s wellbeing. In at least one case, the person was found dead at their home.
One tenant in north Belfast requested additional security measures after a hammer attack while another home required plastering work to fill in holes in the hall and landing following a ‘domestic issue’.
At least three calls related to bonfires, including one in west Belfast where the tenant said his entire guttering and windows had been melted by a bonfire years earlier and another in the south west area requesting the removal of pallets.
Bleeping, broken or missing smoke alarms accounted for over 8,800 call-outs while an additional 2,500 jobs related to carbon monoxide detectors.
A deaf tenant, living in the north Causeway area, had to wait three months (91 days) for a smoke alarm and loud tone doorbell to be installed at a cost of just over £651.
An 88-year-old tenant living in the Lisburn/Castlereagh area waited more than two months for a vibrating smoke alarm to be installed in their home at a cost of around £645. This was a reissue of a previous job so it is not possible to say from the data how long the tenant was waiting since the original request.
Older people were mentioned in more than 5,200 jobs, of which 75% were completed within 24 hours. The longest job for an elderly tenant took over four months to complete (130 days) and related to a complaint of black mould in a bedroom and bathroom when it was targeted to be fixed within four weeks.
Children and babies were mentioned in around 1,600 jobs, of which 83% were completed within 24 hours.
Around 60% of the repairs for blind and visually-impaired tenants were labelled as emergencies, with the longest response time for an emergency call-out being 17 days to fix broken lights in the kitchen and landing of the home of a tenant who is registered blind.
Over 660 repairs followed incidents of bad weather, including fallen and broken roof tiles, fences and doors while over 170 requests were for adaptations to properties, such as installing grab rails, ramps, specialised smoke alarm systems and shower rooms on the ground floor.
The data has emerged amid ongoing financial pressures facing Northern Ireland’s largest social landlord which believes it requires an investment of £7.1bn over 30 years to ensure it can provide good standard homes for its 85,000-odd tenants.
In May it was revealed that a review of 800 NIHE social homes in 2017 found the cavity wall insulation in 63% of them did not comply with industry standards. The Consultancy Investigation Training (CIT) report also found 84% of the properties examined showed evidence of not being adequately maintained and had varying levels of stress in the condition of their external façade.
Emeritus Professor of Housing Paddy Gray believes the Grenfell Tower disaster in which 72 people died has highlighted the importance of investing in social housing stock.
He said: “The main focus of our housing debate in Northern Ireland is to build new social housing but we don't hear as much about the deterioration of existing housing stock particularly the Housing Executive’s.
“Safety is now a major issue as a result of Grenfell which is an example of how residents were ignored. In Northern Ireland we are lucky to have an organisation that provides good networks for tenants to get involved in decision-making in their areas but I do have a concern about the amount of investment in our existing stock.”
As previously revealed by The Detail, the NIHE may be forced to allow half of its social housing stock to fall into a state of disrepair due to an ongoing maintenance backlog and an estimated £140m annual budget deficit.
A spokesman for the NIHE said: "Our most immediate requirement is to lever-in £7bn of funds over the next 30 years to ensure that the Housing Executive’s homes remain fit to live in. The alternative would be that the Housing Executive would have to begin to disinvest in its homes and, therefore, some of our stock would become uninhabitable.
"Aligned to this, is the need to make urgent decisions on the future of our tower blocks. The Housing Executive’s position is that many of the blocks should be decommissioned over a period of time and that a comprehensive re-provision of homing and a wider regeneration plan for each neighbourhood should be put in place. These plans should be prepared in a way that allows the local community to help shape its future."
The scale of works required to deal with the NIHE’s maintenance backlog first emerged in a major survey of a quarter of its social housing stock four years ago.
The study, published in December 2015, identified bathrooms, electrical wiring and roofs as priorities in terms of future maintenance due to the age of the properties. It also recommended improvements to the energy performance of the stock.
Despite these concerns, the report found that 99% of NIHE homes met the Government’s Decent Homes Standard in 2014/2015 however it stressed this is “designed to represent the minimum acceptable standard for housing”.
An NIHE spokesman said: “Unfortunately given three years of a rent freeze and uncertainty about future rent increases and capital funding allocations, the Housing Executive is still projecting a deficit in the order of £1bn in the funding required for stock investment over the next 10 years.
“Following agreement with the Department for Communities last year, the Housing Executive’s investment programme is currently focused on compliance/health & safety works, adaptations, External Cyclical Maintenance and addressing component renewal backlogs. It is, therefore, imperative that a long-term sustainable solution is developed for investment in the Housing Executive’s stock.”
The total budget for the housing body’s maintenance programme for 2018/2019 was £186.8m and involved 26 contractors and 61 contracts.
The NIHE said it is currently considering whether it would be more financially viable to bring all its maintenance work in-house.
A spokesman said the NIHE's chair, Professor Peter Roberts, commissioned Business Consultancy Services (BCS) in January this year to undertake a review of the current provision and assess options for future delivery.
He added: "The review will support the Housing Executive on future direction and also aims to inform the debate on the provision of public services by private companies. The Housing Executive’s maintenance service is a vital provision for our tenants, assets and the wider community. The current provision relies on a combination of an in-house Direct Labour Organisation (DLO) and private contractors.
"In the last 10 years, the collapse of a number of contracts, the most high profile of which was Carillion in 2018, has resulted in significant challenges for the Housing Executive’s maintenance service. It impacted on important tenant services and resulted in the expansion of the in-house DLO team. Carillion’s collapse has renewed the debate on the continuing value, relevance and sustainability of the current contracted out model.
"This review provides an independent and evidence based assessment of the costs, benefits and risks of both in-house and out-sourced provision of maintenance services. A key part of the review is not just to consider ‘who’ provides the service but to assess the current maintenance model in terms of ‘what’ and ‘how’ the service is provided."
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