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Orchard Village: what went wrong with PRP’s flagship housing scheme?

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FEATURE: The AJ looks at how design and build played a key part in the problems at PRP’s Orchard Village, a dream housing project in east London which became a nightmare for its residents  

Less than three years ago, PRP’s Orchard Village scheme in Rainham, east London, was lauded as a showcase for estate regeneration. In 2014, the project was named Best Social or Affordable New London Housing Development in the Local Authority Building Control (LABC) Building Excellence Awards. The previous year, then planning minister Nick Boles listed the project in his top five favourite regeneration schemes, calling it ‘uplifting, fine, bold and human’.

Things look very different now. New residents have made hundreds of complaints about problems with the quality of their homes, citing issues ranging from insulation problems to noise pollution. While some of the claims are disputed, the episode has sparked a debate in the House of Commons and raises important questions about ensuring build quality within a future deregulated housing association sector.

Orchard Village replaced the high-rise Mardyke Estate, built for London Borough of Havering in the 1960s to house workers at the neighbouring Ford Dagenham car factory. In 2007, residents voted in favour of a stock transfer to Old Ford Housing Association, part of Circle Housing Group. In 2009, work started on demolition of the tower blocks, and their replacement with 555 new homes designed by PRP. The practice was retained by contractor Willmott Dixon on the first three phases of the scheme under a Design and Build contract.

The first two phases comprised affordable rented homes for existing residents on the estate. However, after residents began moving into the third phase – consisting of shared ownership, private sale and private rental properties – many became disillusioned and unhappy with the quality of their homes.

One, Colin Nickless, moved into his shared ownership home in September 2015. Since then, he has meticulously documented evidence of what he says are numerous breaches of building regulations and the terms of public grants given to the housing association to build the scheme. He says: ‘It totally drives you out of your mind. I have spent every day working on this.’

He is not alone. Local MP John Cruddas, speaking in a debate in the House of Commons on Orchard Village, said: ‘I have scores of resident complaints covering all aspects of building and repairs. In every instance, there are multiple complaints about each property, and most of them involve long-term problems regarding resolution of the faults.’

Cruddas reeled off a list including ‘failure to build homes to an adequate standard with regard to damp, mould, noise pollution, fireproofing and adaptions; failure of the maintenance service; unacceptable response times for repairs, with the treatment of vulnerable residents and tenants being of particular concern; homes without adequate insulation in all phases of the development; heating issues whereby homes with vulnerable residents are left for days without heat, as well as excessive heating bills and major concerns about the standing charges on district heating systems.’

A spokesman for the housing association points out that all phases of the scheme received building regulations approval from both Havering Council and NHBC warranty cover. But in a statement to The Architects’ Journal it admits that, despite this, ‘the required standards may not have been delivered’. It says it is currently undertaking a full build survey to assess exactly where the issues lie and what lessons it can learn from the incident.

Whatever the exact extent of the build quality issues, it is generally agreed that design issues played no part in the inconvenience suffered by Orchard Village’s residents. PRP is keen to point out that its drawings were technically correct, ‘so we must infer that the apparent failings have come about as a result of inadequate installation, poor workmanship and an inferior process for checking built quality on site’. 

PRP, in assessing the episode, is far from the first practice to lay the blame for a problematic final product at the structure of design and build contracts. A spokesperson says: ‘It had a big effect. The design and build contract has little or no provision whatsoever for the architect to retain a role which involves the inspection of the works on site, or anything to do with on-site quality control.’

The design and build contract has little or no provision for the architect to retain a role which involves the inspection of the works on site

The practice has since taken down images of the project from its website

Meanwhile the council insists that each of the three phases were inspected at various stages over the five-year construction period and that it carried out its legal duties properly. When pressed by the AJ, a Havering spokesperson said: ‘The council issues a completion certificate when satisfied, after taking all reasonable steps, that the requirements of the building regulations have been met. As full site supervision is not carried out a certificate is not a guarantee that all works have been done to the required standard. Primary responsibility for the building work rests with those who commission it and those who do the work.’

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Contractor Willmott Dixon admits that problems arose on the project, but plays down their scale. It says that build quality issues were confined to 35 of the 87 phase three homes, which were caused by ‘incorrect pipe sizing within the heating installation that made the heating inefficient’. This, it says, coincided with the plumbing subcontractor suffering financial difficulties and being replaced towards the end of the project by another company. Willmott Dixon says that it responded to the problem by preparing a plan of remedial works on which residents were kept fully updated. ‘We gave our absolute commitment to put things right as we never walk away from our liabilities,’ it tells AJ.

The firm also disputes that issues of mould were widespread. ‘We did have an instance where one resident had mould in the under stairs cupboard that was caused when they switched off the mechanical ventilation system,’ a Willmott Dixon spokesman says. ‘We fixed the mould issue and also gave guidance on the correct use of the system.’

In December, social housing regulator the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), censured Circle Anglia Limited (since rebranded as Circle Housing) for breaching the home standard over its performance in responding to and carrying out repairs and maintenance, particularly in east London. Nickless complains that the issue should have prevented the merger until the issues were properly investigated.

On the specific problems affecting Orchard Village, a spokesperson for the HCA says: ‘Our view on whether there has been a breach of our standards is always based on the facts of the presenting issue. We considered all the information that was initially brought to our attention and a thorough investigation of this case found no breach of the standards.’

Cruddas remains far from convinced, and voices concerns that housing associations, as government strategy forces them to raise more money from private development, ‘appear to be in danger of losing their historical role, and, indeed, their historical ethic’. He is also worried about the government’s commitment – reiterated in the recent housing white paper – to reclassify associations as private bodies.

‘The government argues that further deregulation will not change their strong regulatory framework. Well, the experience of Circle Housing and Orchard Village does not bode well in terms of whether that works at present,’ he warns.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • As the chair of the residents association I feel that I am in a good position to speak for the residents. To refute the individual claims made by Willmott Dixon, firstly the problems are estate wide, not limited to 30 odd homes. Just a simple glance at Google will see the hundreds of residents in social housing homes in phase 1 and 2 suffering from poor build quality. Type Orchard Village and the local paper Romford Recorder and you will see articles about falling metal, damp, mould, electricity leaching around homes, gas incursions, huge heating bills, flooring collapsing, roof leaks etc. It's ludicrous to even think that anyone would be stupid enough to believe that statement. Look up Colin Nickless on Twitter and see the real story that Willmott Dixon don't want you to know.

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