Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Finlock Gutters

For many years there have been problems with dampness and mould in some of the houses in Silverstream and Tyndale.  It is an issue I have written to the Housing Executive about many times and they have generally come back with the answer that it was a problem of condensation.

I was convinced that this was not the case and kept pressing them on it.  In the worst cases they dry-lined some of the walls but in the end the dampness usually came back after a period of time.

Eventually they carried out some tests and then acknowledged that the problem was coming from the gutters, up at the roof.  Even though the damp and mould might be on the ground floor, well away from the gutters, it was coming in through the gutters and then penetrating down through the walls and around the building.

These houses were built with Finlock gutters, solid concrete gutters, which fit together as in the picture above.  This system was used in several estates in Northern Ireland back in the 1950s and 1960s and also in estates across the United Kingdom.  Over time they deteriorate and water starts to penetrate into the walls.  That is the source of the problem.

Finlock gutters, also known as concrete gutters, were built on most new-build properties in the 1950s and 1960s. Due to a lack of steel and surplus of concrete in post war Britain, the government started using Finlock gutters on houses. Finlock gutters are made of concrete blocks which can range from 8 inches to 12 inches and are joined using mortar. Finlock gutters were designed to be a maintenance free system; however Finlock gutters are now starting to deteriorate due to concrete being an unsuitable material for guttering.Main problems include
  • Interior damp (which can then lead to mould)
  • External or internal leaks
  • External mould patches
  • Water not flowing properly through the gutter
  • The gutters starting to fall apart
The only permanent solution is to have the external part of the concrete gutters cut away and replaced with a more suitable guttering system.

Having got the Housing Executive to admit the cause of the problem the next thing was to get them to address it and they carried out a pilot on two houses in Silverstream.  This involved sawing off the old concrete gutters and replacing them with ordinary gutters.  However the work involves more than that as the roof has to be extended down somewhat.

The work on the two houses was very successful and replicates the sort of work that has been done in estates elsewhere in Great Britain.  Now that they had the answer the next thing was to get them to carry out the work across the estate.

It would be simple if they owned all the houses but some houses are privately owned and some are privately rented.

I argued that they should just go in and do the work on all the houses because where you have two houses or a row of houses, you can't saw off the old gutters on one here and one there - you have to do the whole row.  So what are they to do where they own some some of the houses in the row but not all.  

I have had several meetings with them about this but the economists in the Housing Executive and the department are resistant and say that private owners should apply for a grant. to cover the cost of the work.  That seemed ridiculous to me as at the end of the day it was going to have to be paid for by the Housing Executive and the department.

I warned that this becomes very complicated as different people in the same block will be in different situations and some will be entitled to grants while others may not.  However time was pressing on and in order to get the work started they have broken it down into phases.

The first phase is where all the houses in a block or a pair of semis are owned by the Housing Executive and there is no issue.  Those houses will be in the first phase and while that work is going on the Housing Executive will find out who is entitled to a grant and who is not.  They will then consider how to deal with the situation that emerges.

It is certainly not an ideal situation and we will meet the Housing Executive in a few weeks to see what they have found and we will keep pressing the point that the only way to upgrade the stock properly is to do all the houses.

This much is clear:
  • They now admit what the problem is - that is progress.
  • They have a method of dealing with the problem - that is progress.
  • They have proved that it works - that is progress.
  • They are about to start work on the first phase of the houses - that is progress.
What remains is to convince them that should simply do the entire scheme with the remedial work offered to home owners as well as other residents, free of charge.

That would remove the need for processing grant forms and ensure that work can be done to all the Housing Executive houses.  I do not understand how they will be able to deal with the blocks that have some private owners unless they go in and do them all.

At the end of the day someone will hold out and refuse to pay for new gutters on their own house.  What will the Housing Executive do then?  Leave their tenant in the middle of the row with the old Finlock gutters - they can't do that - and yet they can't fix that house without fixing the houses beside it.

The work will start with phase one and in the meantime, while that is being done, we will continue to argue for all the residents that they should all have the work done without the need to apply for grants.

If the Housing Executive had admitted the cause of the problem some years ago, and put it right at that time, some at least of the home owners would have been buying a house that already had the work done.

Someone from the Housing Executive is going door to door about this to talk to residents but if you have a particular concern and want to speak to me about it please contact my office and make an appointment to see me.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Caral Ni Chuilin's 'smash and grab' raid (1)

Over the past few weeks there has been considerable controversy around the decision by the Culture, Arts and Leisure Minister, Caral Ni Chuilin, to remove money that had already been allocated by the Arts Council to thirty-two arts organisations and then direct much of that money to projects of her own choosing.

The fact that the money had been withdraw by the minister and then reallocated by her has been well publicised but I think that many people in the arts sector and beyond find it very hard to understand exactly what has happened, why it happened and how it happened.

Very often the minister puts the blame on 'austerity cuts' and 'Tory cuts' and she said it again this week in the North Belfast News (14 November) - 'As a result of Tory cuts I had to find £1.9 million of reductions within my department.'  However that is simply untrue.  It is a Sinn Fein smokescreen designed to divert attention away from the real facts and the real story.  They are Sinn Fein cuts, imposed by a Sinn Fein minister in one area to free up money that she can then reallocate to other things.  In fact she has already told us where the money has been reallocated.

The minister appeared before the Assembly's Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee on Thursday 5 November and then on Thursday 12 November the committee held an event in the Metropolitan Arts Centre at which the organisations affected by her most recent decision were able to set out for us the impact of what she has done.

Several of the participants highlighted the fact that this was not so much a cut to the arts as a reallocation or redistribution of money by the minister.  She has, in effect, overruled the Arts Council, which is the body officially tasked with distributing money to the sector.

However the finances of her department are very difficult to understand because of the way that she operates and so I propose to write a post or series of posts in which I set out the facts.  It is too long for my column in the Belfast Telegraph, which is limited to 650 words, and this blog is the easiest way to get the information out.