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Rats, rotten cupboards and collapsed ceilings in a north-east England rental flat

It is rare these days for housing officers to be lost for words. But on an inspection of a rented flat in north-east England this month, one experienced officer struggled to articulate her disgust – not at the state of the property, but at the obvious dereliction of its landlord.

“Incredulous,” she says, when she finally finds the right word. “Like, how dare they take rent [for this]?”

It is difficult to know where to start with the disrepair of Peter Thompson’s ground-floor flat – but it hits you like a cold shower when you knock on his front door. An icy blast of rainwater pours from a hole in the guttering, drenching visitors and covering the front step with ice in the colder months.

Thompson, 72, has lived in this one-bedroom flat for 30 years. His £98-a-week housing allowance is sent directly to a landlord he has never met.

A former joiner, Thompson has made the place his own, decorating practically every inch of the living room in trinkets and memorabilia, and never once complained about the conditions.

A brick on the floor under a radiator
In the hallway of Peter Thompson’s house, a brick covers a hole in the floor where rats have gained entry. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Housing officers say it is common for tenants whose housing allowance is paid directly to the landlord to put up with ruin because they do not feel they have the right to complain since, in their eyes, the government is paying for their home.

Thompson’s problems only came to light when his stepdaughter contacted the council’s housing standards team. They were horrified by what they saw.

“It’s one of the worst I’ve seen and I’ve been in housing for a long time,” said one of the inspectors, peering behind rotting cupboards.

A galley kitchen with tiles missing from the wall
A housing officer said damp and mould had turned the MDF cupboards in Thompson’s kitchen ‘effectively to compost’. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

In the dull language of housing standards, the flat has a category 1 hazard of excess cold, meaning there is a serious and immediate risk to Thompson’s health and safety. It has a category 2 hazard of damp and mould: water is visible on the walls. A nine-page improvement notice lists 97 serious defects that require urgent work.

In the hallway, half a brick covers a hole in the floor where rats have gained entry. The bathroom, which should be the warmest room in the house, does not have a working radiator and its extractor fan has no cover, meaning it is effectively a hole to the outside world.

The bathroom ceiling has partially collapsed into a bathtub judged to be unfit for use (the intermittent hot water means Thompson is unable to take a bath anyway). And in the kitchen, the MDF cupboards under the sink have “effectively turned to compost” due to the damp and mould, an inspector says.

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A cluttered and stained bathroom, with black mould in the ceiling
In the bathroom, the ceiling has partially collapsed into the bath and the radiator does not work. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

The entire flat is potentially a death trap because there is no door separating the kitchen from the rest of the flat – a building regulation requirement. “There’s no ability for him to shut bedroom doors at night-time so that smoke can’t spread in the event of a fire,” says one officer.

Thompson has a litany of health conditions including asthma that mean he spends a large amount of his day at home.

The day before the Guardian’s visit, a man knocked on Thompson’s door saying he was the new landlord. Thompson said he showed the man the bathroom ceiling and that his only response was: “Wow.” The repairs are expected to cost about £15,000.

Even with all the problems, Thompson says he does not want to leave his home of 30 years. “People say: ‘You’ll get carried out of this house,’” he says. “I say: ‘Aye, I will.’”


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