When Erica’s daughter wants to go out to meet her friends at the cinema, she can’t just walk out of their front door like a normal 14-year-old would.
Erica Figueiredo, 42, has to escort her down the five floors of their council estate tower, ready to fend off any threats they might encounter in the stairwell. Her fears are justified, she explains, because last month eight people got into the building in balaclavas carrying knives in search of someone on their floor.
This is life on one of London’s most dilapidated and dangerous estates. A 276-flat complex, Milford Towers in Catford, was earmarked for demolition in 2012. But over a decade later, the towers are still standing with signs of deterioration everywhere.
Six out of eight of the lifts are not working, graffiti is plastered across the hallway walls, the outside doors cannot be locked and one flat has been left completely burnt out by a fire. Residents say there have been at least three stabbings on the estate in the past year, with gangs reported to attack rivals inside the complex because it’s less exposed than on the streets outside.
Housing association Notting Hill Genesis are in charge of the upkeep of the vast majority of the flats, while Lewisham council are responsible for the communal areas, but residents complain that their concerns get ignored. For each of the past three years, Notting Hill Genesis Group, the not-for-profit social housing provider, has had a surplus before tax of over £100m, with the highest-paid employee on a salary of £296,000.
In the last financial year, the housing association, which manages more than 60,000 properties in London, made an operating surplus of £97.2m from their social housing lettings. While the housing association plugs money into new-build affordable and market rent homes in Hackney Wick and Newham, residents of Milford Tower say they are being left behind.
Lewisham Council has contracted out the management of some 200 of the flats to Notting Hill Genesis, but they retain responsibility for the rest of the flats and for the communal areas.
Ms Figueiredo was forced to move out of her Notting Hill Genesis flat last summer when a leak on the eighth-floor spread and started an electrical fire. She explains: “I was living on the sixth floor and there was a leak on the eighth floor that was reported several times but was not fixed. As a result of the leak, the water got into the electrical boards, where the fuses for several apartments were. That led to a fire and as a result of that, they had to turn off the water. So there was no electricity and no water.”
Maintenance workers who came to fix the problem found that it was not possible to just shut off the water for a few flats. Instead, water had to be cut off to around 70 flats, she says. Without water or electricity, Ms Figueiredo found herself being decanted into a hotel in Morden.
She decided that it would be best for her daughter to stay with a friend temporarily and it was two weeks before they were moved back into a different flat on the estate. Her new flat has problems with mould, but that’s a common issue, she explained.
“I had to clean the mould in the bedroom myself over Christmas because I couldn’t let it stay like that and I can’t wait for them to do something about it.”
When asked if mould had affected her or her child’s breathing, she says it was a constant issue.
“My child had to be on a course of antibiotics in December and January for respiratory issues. I constantly have some sort of allergy symptoms. It’s always hard to say 100 per cent that it is related with this but it definitely contributes to worsening our health symptoms.”
In another Notting Hill Genesis flat on the fifth floor, a young family showed The Independent how the sink in their bathroom had a long crack running through it that they said had not been fixed for some five years. Black mould was starting to grow in the corner of the shower and, when they flushed the toilet, water came out the bottom.
“It smells really bad,” Jose Antonio says. “We have been in this flat for six years and the sink has been broken for five. We complained to the housing manager about the problems but they have not been fixed. The water that comes out from under the toilet smells bad.”
Safety is also a concern, especially for his six-year-old son. He says: “I don’t let the children out alone because it is dangerous, especially at night time. Sometimes there are knives and stabbings here and people come in here because the doors can be yanked open. The council has said that they will fix the doors and the lifts, so we hope they will do that. The lift that is nearest to this flat has been broken for three years.”
Tenants at Milford Towers pay below-market rent levels, for what are meant to be short-term lets. However, some residents have been living on the estate for more than a decade.
Simmone Ahiaku, from the London Renters Union, explained that Lewisham Council and Notting Hill Genesis sometimes disagree over who should pay for renovations in the estate.
“The council says security is for Notting Hill Genesis, Notting Hill Genesis says it’s Lewisham Council – and things are left for years in disrepair because both of them are fighting over who maintains the communal areas especially.”
The broken lifts are a big problem. Ingrid, a single mum of a four-year-old son with albinism, explains how the disrepair had impacted her. “Recently there was an emergency, I was sick and I had to call an ambulance and it was not easy for the ambulance workers to come and help. A few days ago I saw more paramedics, it was really awful to see them struggling to bring up all their stuff up the stairs.”
Her son is also vision impaired and when the stairs are not clean he struggles to navigate around the discarded cans of drinks, left-over food, and other rubbish. This, added to the lack of security, means she is scared to take her son outside the flat, she explains. “Anything can happen. I keep him inside because I’m scared and I like to keep him by my side.”
Kellie McKone, 45, says paramedics struggled to help her husband when he had a medical emergency last year. Health workers couldn’t contact her initially because their intercom wasn’t working, which added delays, she said. Ambulance workers then had to find a way of helping her husband to the other side of the tower block so they could use one of the working lifts. “It took much longer and he was having breathing difficulties,” she says.
Her husband later passed away after picking up an infection in hospital. Ms McKone says there had recently been another death of a resident, who had encountered similar problems.
Climbing up the stairs to her flat is “frightening”, she says, adding: “It affects my mentality because we have the druggies and the drunks on the staircases. You don’t know what you’re going to find on the stairs. We fought to get mirrors on the stairs so we could see round the corners, but the addicts and drunks keep breaking them.”
She had to move into her current flat on the estate after her first flat got flooded due to a leak, she says.
Viviana, who lives on the fifth floor, explained that the nearest working lift to her flat goes only to the seventh or third floors so she has to go down or up the stairs to the fifth while carrying shopping and a buggy.
She has a one-year-old son and explained that two months ago he developed bronchitis, she believes because of the mould in their flat. She says: “Crackheads gather near the entrance to my flat because there’s no other flats nearby and so it’s a bit out of the way. I’ve also got mould and I have to clean it all the time because of my son. We never know what we are going to find on the stairs, sometimes we find the needles that they do drugs with.”
Milford Towers has had a history of violent crime happening inside the estate. In July last year, a man in his 40s was found with stab injuries on the stairwell. Days later police were called again when a man in his 20s was found with a stab wound on the estate.
In November 2019, two men chased a man through the block of flats, cornered him in a bathroom, and attacked him with a machete.
In 2005, a 15-year-old girl was discovered dead and dismembered in sacks near the rubbish chute. She had been kidnapped and brought to a flat on the eighth floor, with a convicted sex attacker going to jail for life for her murder.
In 2007, a 24-year-old man was chased up two flights of stairs before being shot in the chest with a sawn-off shotgun by his assailants.
A spokesperson for Lewisham Council said that they “recognise that the management of the estate has not been up to the standards we expect”. They said that Milford Towers residents were “understandably frustrated with some of the current and historic issues on the estate”.
They added: “We are fully committed to working with residents to address these issues and are carrying out extensive improvements works across the estate, investing over £14m to support this work.”
Security patrols have recently been put in place to deter anti-social behaviour, they said.
Notting Hill Genesis said that they had an on-site repairs service for residents so problems with the flats can be dealt with quickly. Since November 2022, they have completed 441 jobs, including 52 for damp and mould.
A spokesperson said: “We are only responsible for repairs within individual flats and not for lifts, communal areas or external doors and to ensure we carry out our responsibility as best we can.” They urged any concerned families to contact their repairs team, adding: “We work closely with Lewisham Council, as well as London Renters Union, to push for further improvements throughout the building. We know the council is committed to making Milford Towers safer and more comfortable for everyone living there and will support them in that goal.”
Some residents believe that the council’s ultimate intention is to demolish the whole building and that’s why they are unwilling to spend more money on it. Works have been done recently to repaint the towers and fix the roof, to the tune of over £8m, but the broken lifts and the outside doors have been left.
Lewisham Council has said that the faulty lifts will be replaced, as will the security doors, and the communal areas will be redecorated. They also promised to listen to the residents’ concerns and work with Notting Hill Genesis to ensure they are carrying out repairs.
However, the residents are cynical about whether this will happen. Ms Figueiredo says: “They like to say they are spending loads of money, but the basic things they haven’t done – like changing the doors or having working lifts. We keep raising these situations but no real impactful action is ever taken.”