'I can't put my kids to bed' - Disabled dad's plea for new council home
- Credit: Danielle Booden
A father-of-three who has been waiting for a wheelchair-accessible council house for more than a year is "sad every night" because he cannot tuck his young children into bed, his wife says.
Dom Hugman, 32 and living in Lowestoft, has been on the hunt for a three-bed council bungalow since November 2020 and is one of almost 10,000 Suffolk applicants trapped in limbo on the county’s housing register.
According to government data, Suffolk local authorities have 19,000 council homes between them – with West Suffolk Council selling off its stock years ago.
But at the time of writing HomeChoice, the platform tenants use to bid on eligible properties in Suffolk, had just 107 available.
In the last year Mid Suffolk, Babergh, Ipswich and East Suffolk councils told this newspaper that almost 2,500 social housing applicants had been allocated properties via HomeChoice, or Home Link, which is what West Suffolk uses to help people who are already housed upsize or downsize.
Councils, however, also lost 890 of their homes via Right to Buy, a political scheme dating back to the 80s allowing tenants to buy the home they rent with a discount of up to £84,600 – or £112,800 in London.
And despite councils building new homes to offset the decimation of their stock, only Babergh and Mid Suffolk said 2021 had offered up a net gain in their social housing portfolio.
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In Mr Hugman’s case, each day he spends without a home adapted to his needs harms his health.
He has a rare hereditary condition called spastic paraparesis, where his nervous system does not send signals correctly.
He said he risks “snapping his ankles” every time he walks and was put on the highest-need band by East Suffolk Council when his condition deteriorated further during the pandemic.
His consultant has advised him to avoid walking completely – but because his wheelchair doesn’t fit onto the stairlift, or in the kitchen, he is forced to hop around the house on crutches every day, leaving him in agony.
There isn’t even outdoor ramp access at the three-bed house he shares with his three young children and wife Danielle in Bramble Green because there is not enough space for the council to install one.
He said: “We’ve been checking HomeChoice every week for a year-and-a-half but there’s been absolutely nothing available.
“It’s frustrating for me, I can’t do the things a normal parent should be able to do.”
Ms Hugman, 27, said her husband was “sad every night” because he couldn’t help his kids get washed or ready for bed.
“They’re so little – two, three and four years old. They don't really understand why dad can't help them get washed or tuck them in.
“The government really needs to give local authorities more funding to invest in new council homes.
"It's terrifying. We have no idea when we'll get out of here."
An East Suffolk Council spokesman said adaptations were made to the Hugmans’ home when they first moved in, but that the maintenance team is on hand to revisit the site and make further assessments if necessary.
He said plans to extend or adapt current council homes in the area were being reviewed to help speed things up – and that a “key” part of its housing strategy is to “make the best use of the homes we already have”.
“This strategy includes building 50 new council houses each year between 2020-2024, which will increase to 66 this year and 86 the year after that”, he added.
In Ipswich, a council spokesman said it also takes the need to build new homes “so seriously” a house building company called Handford Homes was set up, which is aimed at delivering new homes every year to add to the council’s social housing portfolio.
He said 100 homes had been built since the start of 2021 and “300 more” were in the pipeline, while a further 60 had been incorporated into the council’s housing stock via buy-back sales from tenants who bought their council homes through Right to Buy.
Mid Suffolk and Babergh Councils, meanwhile, said they were “constantly investing in the provision” of new-build social and affordable rent properties, with the conversion of the former Middle School at Needham Market and Eves Meadows in Haughley into affordable housing the most ambitious of the projects.
Their spokeswoman added that the councils were also trying to increase affordable stock in “non-traditional” ways. In 2019, they created Central Suffolk Lettings, which helps households facing homelessness find tenancies in the private sector.
‘A drop in the ocean’
Housing charity Shelter said these plans, however welcome, were a “drop in the ocean”, and called on the government to build a “new generation of genuinely affordable social homes”.
Shelter’s director of campaigns Osama Bhutta said 5,955 new social rent homes were delivered between March 2020 and April 2021: a 12pc decrease on 2020 and a decrease of 85pc from ten years ago.
He said: “Building a few thousand social homes nationally every year is nothing when you consider there are over a million households stuck on social housing waiting lists, and over 96,000 households living in temporary accommodation”.
As we reported in our last story exploring housing issues in Suffolk, the number of households in temporary accommodation across the county last September stood at 298 – up from 167 five years earlier.
Colin Kreidewolf, Ipswich borough councillor and chair of Hanford Homes, said these stats confirmed how necessary it was for the government to give councils the proper finance to build more affordable homes.
“It costs £50m for the council to build about 250 new houses”, he explained. “That’s a really serious commitment when you think that Ipswich council’s budget each year is roughly around £20m.
“We need the government to rethink Right to Buy, because why tenants are still being offered such hefty discounts to buy their council homes is beyond me”, he said.
“Rents have run away in the private sector but council homes are still very attractive. We have to fight back against the mantra that an increase in house prices and rents is good news.
“But there really is only so much that local authorities can do. This has to come from the top.”
Chairman of the Eastern Landlord Association, John Pitts, said an important factor to consider was the quality of the homes councils do currently provide, and that authorities had to ask themselves why so many tenants wanted to exchange or move into another house entirely.
“Everyone talks about private landlords as being awful people, but a lot of the worst properties are owned by councils themselves,” he said. “A lot of them are in a dreadful state. It’s hypocritical.”
Matt and Leanne Mitcham, 40 and 39, who live with their three children in Bildeston, would agree.
They are desperate to move over the condition of their three-bed council flat and have re-joined the register. They claim a lot of their neighbours feel the same.
“One of the guys who lived next door did get out of here a while back”, Mr Mitcham explained. “But only after his kitchen ceiling collapsed when he was cooking his dinner because of a leak."
Mr Mitcham said he fell on hard times and was “thankful” that Mid Suffolk Council paid for the family to stay in temporary accommodation for nine months.
But when they were moved into their permanent home in Toppesfield Gardens eight years ago, they said issues with damp and mould became apparent almost immediately.
At one point, the dad claims there were mushrooms growing in some of the rooms.
“Every time we saw one we had to pounce on it so that our small children wouldn’t put them in their mouths”, he said.
Last month, they had to beg the council to repair a nearby drain because sewage and waste water from upstairs flats was flowing down past their back door for more than five weeks.
“Again, it was difficult trying to get our autistic four-year-old to stay away”, Mr Mitcham said.
Mr Mitcham said it wasn’t until he contacted his MP around five years ago that the council started to book in works, despite complaining dozens of times.
“We just want the council to come in here and sort the place out once and for all, or move us somewhere else”, he added.
But a spokeswoman for Mid Suffolk Council said works treating damp and mould were due to be completed shortly and that the drain had been fixed earlier this month, delayed by a Covid outbreak among the contractor’s workforce.
She said the council completes more than 250 repairs across the district every week, adding that surveys of the homes within their stock are completed every five years, along with visits or inspections as “part of [our] responsibility to conduct an annual heating service or improvement works”.
“If works are identified, we as the landlord are responsible for this and they will be carried out within the prescribed timescales", she explained.
“We also have a formal complaint process that can be used to escalate issues if tenants think our service falls below their expectations.”
Also in this series:
- 'I had to smash up mouldy furniture' - Private Suffolk landlords hit with 10,000 complaints
- 'We're about to be made homeless because estate agents won't touch us'
- 'It was disgusting': Landlords say rogue tenants make their lives hell
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