The ‘West End Extra’ reports;
“ALEX Calton put up with the cockroach infestation in the kitchen and the wasps’ nest beside her window.
She grit her teeth when the bathroom she shared with five families flooded, leaving water pouring into her room.
But, when she walked into her tiny, one-room, home to discover a mouse sat next to her two-year-old son, she knew something had to give.
“It was bleak. I’m a single mum and I felt completely helpless, I didn’t know where to turn and I got depressed and was prescribed anti-depressants. It was all very hard… but it was the mouse that was the final straw,” she said.
In July last year, the 26-year-old finally decided to contact solicitors who could force the council to help her. It was this complaint, along with one other, that launched an investigation into Westminster Council – the results of which were published this week and found “maladministration causing injustice” at City Hall.
She had been living in a bed and breakfast in Southall for five months, commuting for two-and-a-half hours every day to take her son Lex, now three, to his nursery in Lisson Green.
She became homeless in February last year when she was evicted from her flat in Pimlico and she appealed to the council for help.
But, because of a severe shortage of housing in the borough, there was nothing they could do for her immediately and, instead, she was shipped off to temporary accommodation 13 miles away from the life she had established in Westminster.
Government rules mean that families with children or pregnant women can only be housed in B&Bs as a last resort and they must not stay there for longer than six weeks.
However, after five months in one B&B – three times the legal maximum – and countless phone calls to council helplines, Alex felt increasingly helpless and no closer to finding a permanent home.
To make matters worse, the impact of living in cramped conditions had begun to take their toll on her son, who was already receiving speech therapy at a clinic in Pimlico.
She said: “Children need a routine – otherwise their behaviour gets bad and his speech was getting worse. He’s much better now but because we were in one room our routine was a bit skewed. Now, he has a certain bed time, a certain dinner time and bath time. Whereas when you live in a B&B and there’s five families with more than one child, it just messes up everything and there’s no routine. It was a nightmare.”
But, within days of contacting solicitors Osbornes, Westminster Council were spurred into action and she was offered temporary accommodation in Church Street. Now she has been given a secure tenancy in Lisson Green.
Edward Taylor, the solicitor who worked with Alex, said: “When Alex came to see me she had been in B&B accommodation for five months and as soon as she came to see me we sent a letter-before-claim to Westminster. And as soon as they received that they made an offer of accommodation.”
“People shouldn’t have to instruct solicitors to be given suitable accommodation. Local authorities should be complying with this legislation, that’s why it’s there.”
Alex, along with 39 other cases that were examined by the ombudsman, is now awaiting compensation from the council.
Mr Taylor said: “It’s not just the compensation that Alex will be getting shortly, or the compensation that the other 39 families will be getting; but for any families that are placed in a bed and breakfast for over six weeks, this will set a precedent. So this could have an impact for hundreds and potentially thousands of families.”
The ombudsman’s report says: “The council says that officers inspected the B&B in April and found it to be in a good condition. According to the council, pest control visited in April following a complaint and did a block treatment. It says someone reported a leak from the bathroom in May and a contractor repaired it on the same day.
“[She] complained about cockroaches in July and pest control did another block treatment that month. Pest control officers found the property to be clear of cockroaches in August. The wasp nest was reported in August and a pest control officer started a treatment immediately; the officer removed the nest four days later.”