Horrors of social housing in Sheffield revealed as former cabinet member for housing says ‘enough is enough’

Since Peter MacLoughlin, 77, became a tower block council tenant more than 30 years ago much of his time has been spent battling disaster after disaster.

Rubbish at Robertshaw House tower block, Netherthorpe. (Pic: LDRS)

“I’m horrified at what I’m seeing, I’m more horrified at what is going to happen in the near future,” said the former Sheffield Council cabinet member for housing who lives with his partner in Robertshaw House tower block, Netherthorpe.

From their 14th floor council flat, he can smell the unbearable stench of rotting rubbish below and pollution from the main road that runs just meters away with no green barrier.

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Outside the windows there are insect infestations and dead birds that have been trapped between cladding. There are cracks in walls and mould and leaks from the ceiling.

A neighbouring family with two young children was forced to evacuate due to a “waterfall” leak in their flat (Pic: LDRS)

He can smell people smoking on the staircase despite three doors between him and them. He is worried the bin chute will catch on fire again and he will be forced to inhale noxious fumes.

When he leaves his flat he sometimes sees rough sleepers finding shelter on the staircase. On his way out of the tower block he sees rubbish dumped in and outside the building. Among piles of rubbish and flytipping surrounding the tower block, there can be drug taking and antisocial behaviour and tenants from nearby tower blocks throwing trash out of windows.

If he looks up, he will see algae and moss growing up the walls.

“You wouldn’t put a dog in those conditions,” he said. “There is no excuse for what has gone on here.”

Rubbish left outside the block of flats (Pic: LDRS)

Mr MacLoughlin said these are everyday experiences for the building’s residents and fears tenants in the 23 other Sheffield Council owned tower blocks are suffering similarly.

He said some officers had dealt with issues well but now he has lost confidence in the council. He said: “At the end of the day, the buck has got to stop somewhere. If there is rot then who is going to take responsibility for it?”

Just recently, a neighbouring family with two young children was forced to evacuate due to a “waterfall” leak in their flat. The council arranged for them to stay at a hotel but the family was turned away apparently because the council failed to pay. As a result, they lived outside in the hallway until the alarm was raised and the council eventually moved them to temporary accommodation.

Mr MacLoughlin said the problems were not new.

Before the UK was struck by Covid-19, dozens of vulnerable residents were effectively housebound between Christmas Eve and New Year 2019 when one lift was being refurbished and the other broke.

Jean Hodgkin, who is in her late 80s, said she was stuck in her 12th floor flat for a week and her daughter had to climb 24 flights of stairs to deliver food and other essentials.

Councillor Paul Wood, cabinet member for housing, said council engineers attended within half an hour of being notified on Christmas Eve but failed to fix it for another week because some parts needed were unavailable. The service apologised and said it would take action to prevent it happening again.

The same lift that broke down then failed again last month and a man was allegedly stuck inside for 45 minutes.

Other council tenants across the city have lived similar nightmares and struggled to get the support they need.

In February this year, the local democracy reporting service revealed a family’s fight to move out of their council house in Fox Hill following years of racist attacks from neighbours. They were experiencing an “unbearable amount of suffering” from repeated damage to their car, stones thrown at their home, false accusations of fly tipping, verbal abuse and physical attacks.

Despite a recommendation by South Yorkshire Police’s Parson Cross Neighbourhood Team that they move out of the area, they had to stay because the alternative property offered by the council was in a bad area and condition, the family said.

The council said it was keen to resolve any issues and continue looking at the available options but at the time the family disputed this and said it was not offered support.

It was reported earlier this month that a vulnerable man, who lives in a council flat in Walkley, had a broken soil pipe leaking into their home for three years despite calls from neighbours to move him to a safer place. The council was said to have tried and failed to resolve the issue.

Maintenance problems rocketed during Covid when the government put a pause on all but urgent work. Snapshot figures in a council report showed as of March 30 – when the service was fully reinstated – there were a total of 9,469 jobs outstanding and by the end of June this increased to 13,775. Of those outstanding in June, 192 were classed as “urgent and emergency”.

A Freedom of Information Act request by the local democracy reporting service revealed the council spent £1,129,218 in legal fees and damages fighting a soaring number of disrepair claims as a result between the start of 2019 financial year and August 15 this year.

Coun Sophie Thorton asked questions about the repairs backlog during this month’s full council meeting. In a written response to one of her questions it said: “We have an excellent track record as a landlord and have very rarely breached the Homes Act 2018.”

Coun Thorton said: “The Homes Act is a piece of government legislation which calls for homes to be ‘fit for human habitation’. For the council to have breached this act even once is inexcusable.”

As council funding has been cut to the bone, Mr MacLoughlin worries that things will only get worse.

“If we cannot safely and efficiently manage the housing stock I think somebody needs to ask the question: who can?” he said.

“If we cannot deliver this service then we need to examine the future of our continuing management of these flats because it can’t carry on with apology after apology after apology. I’m fed up with apologies. Apologies [don’t mean anything] if you don’t actually do something about it.

“If this sort of thing can happen to somebody like me with all my experience, contacts and ability to question and challenge, God only knows what may be happening to other more vulnerable voiceless tenants and residents.”

Offering advice to other tenants, he said: “It’s important that people don’t give up and they keep the evidence of everything that is said between them and the officials supposedly serving their benefit.”

Sheffield Council was contacted for comment.