THE boss of a housing association has apologised after dozens of vulnerable tenants were left to suffer from damp, mould and cold for months and even years.

An investigation by MARIO LAGHOS and THEA PHILLIPS of the Free Press can reveal that Selina White, the chief executive of Magna Housing, was repeatedly told about ‘shocking’ issues affecting customers living in sheltered housing as long as three years ago.

Responding to the Free Press investigation, Ms White admitted Magna’s service had been “unacceptable”.

The Free Press recently reported that Magna tenants in Timberscombe had been left without heating for as long as two months. Since then, the paper was approached by Magna tenants from across Exmoor, telling the same story of shivering in sub-zero temperatures after their central heating failed.  

Richard Atkins, 66, of Dulverton, had his air-source central heating fail on December 2. Mr Atkins, who suffers with Parkinson’s disease, was left wearing four layers of clothes and a woolly hat to sleep to try stave of the bitter cold as temperatures reached minus 6 overnight. He said:  “In the night-time I was wearing three t-shirts, a pair of long johns, two pairs of pyjama trousers, a dressing gown and my woolly hat. I slept on the sofa with a duvet, two or three throwovers, and another thick duvet on top. The temperature was down to 13 degrees even with an electric heater.

“Magna did deliver two heaters but my bathroom was like a freezer. I managed to have a wash in the kitchen because it was too cold in the bathroom. When the warden came out to check our smoke alarms she said ‘blimey it’s like a freezer in here!’”  

Mr Atkins said the episode aggravated his Parkinson’s symptoms, and left him feeling stressed and angry.  

Mr Atkins said he brought the issue to Magna’s attention on eight occasions. However, the issue was not fixed until the day after the Free Press published its report on Timberscombe residents suffering the same predicament. He said:  “I was left angry. I just can’t understand Magna at all, I haven’t got any faith in them at all.”  

Mr Atkins’ raised concerns with Magna over central heating as early as 2022, when he spoke at a tenant’s meeting, complaining that Magna had ended their annual servicing of resident’s air-source heating. He said:  “When I first moved here we used to get a letter every year saying they are sending an engineer for the heating. They would send two guys, one up in the loft and one seeing to the fan. But the year before Covid was the last time we had a service. I can’t get my head around it.”  

Mr Atkins’ central heating had not been serviced since 2020, before it broke down during the recent cold snap. Several Magna tenants who spoke to the Free Press whose heating had failed said they had not had their systems serviced for as long as five years.  

A spokesperson for Magna apologised that Mr Atkins had been left without central heating and blamed the delay on fixing his central heating on a problem sourcing the right parts.  

In Washford a young family were repeatedly left without central heating and hot water for at least three years. The Magna tenant, who did not want to be named, was forced to retreat to her mother’s house during cold spells to keep warm.  

Magna engineers visited the address on at least eight occasions, carrying out repairs which would allegedly last for ‘minutes’ before leaving. It is understood the tenant raised the issue with Magna dozens of times.  

A family member told the Free Press: “She had no hot water or heating and was visiting for hot food, warmth and showers because I live just down the road.    

“She brought the family during the recent cold spell. She was very down, there is nothing worse than being cold and not having water to bathe or wash up.  

“You would literally push the button on the boiler, they would go away and say it is working and it would break down minutes later. It was crazy.  

“I asked the engineer if she could get a new boiler and they said no because she wasn’t due to have one.  

“She contacted Magna dozens of times, I think it is disgraceful, to leave people without heating and hot water, especially when there are children involved. She goes to work so I have to go and wait in the freezing cold for the engineers to arrive.  

“Magna supplied her with two electric heaters for the first time about two weeks ago.”  

 After the Free Press raised the issue with Magna, a spokesperson said they will now be assessing whether a replacement boiler is needed.  The Free Press can reveal that Magna chief executive Selina White, who draws £150,000 in salary from the non-profit housing association, was repeatedly informed about serious issues across Magna’s housing stock.  

Mould and damp pictured in a number of Magna sheltered housing properties
Mould and damp pictured in a number of Magna sheltered housing properties (Tindle )

Dulverton resident Robert Jones brought the issue to her attention after he was alerted to severe damp problems in Magna properties in 2021 by his neighbour. Mr Jones, who was then campaigning to win a seat on Somerset Council, visited more than 200 Magna properties across Exmoor, where he spoke to tenants and compiled a report which he submitted to Magna.  

A female tenant in Dulverton, who wishes to remain anonymous, told Mr Jones that her house was full of condensation and that Magna had blocked her fireplace. She, like other residents, was advised to buy a dehumidifier.  

When the Free Press contacted the tenant she claimed to have been fighting damp for three years and that her bedroom had now become mouldy. She claimed to have developed asthma as a result of her exposure to the mould and was worried for the health of her young daughter. She added that a humidity tester returned a reading of 90%. She said:  “Nothing has been done, they just say it’s our fault for putting clothes on radiators, things on walls, the blame is always on us. I had to buy a dehumidifier out of my own money which hasn’t helped much.”

Another Magna tenant alerted Mr Jones to damp in his daughter’s bedroom – when the Free Press caught up with the individual concerned he said Magna agreed to redecorate the bedroom last year but failed to do so, and did not respond to him chasing them up.  

The tenant, who retains his anonymity, suffers from COPD, and his wife suffers from asthma – he said his family have been battling mould for 12 years since they moved into the property.  

These cases were among dozens that Mr Jones documented and referred to Magna – as well as compiling a report which was sent to Magna’s board of directors. Mr Jones repeatedly requested a meeting with Magna’s directors, and was refused.  

In a November 2022 email sent by Mr Jones to Magna’s chief executive he wrote:  “In Dulverton, 62% of Magna property tenants (that I managed to speak with) highlighted issues with damp and mould in their homes. Some were suffering health issues associated with mould. Many told me that damp and mould problems had continued for years, without a satisfactory resolution.

“The report is offered in the same spirit of cooperation as all of my work on this matter. For me, the key objective is to help Magna learn from its mistakes and improve its services. Nobody should be living in cold, damp, mould-infested properties in 2022.”  

Mr Jones included a report for Ms White’s attention, which included extensive photographic evidence of extreme mould in Magna sheltered housing, and he described the repeated attempts by some vulnerable customers to get help from Magna as “upsetting.”

Mr Jones also raised concern over Magna’s decision to install heat pumps in many of its properties, telling Ms White: “Magna’s decision to install air source heating and remove stoves, wood burners and fireplaces is questionable. Air source heating runs at a lower temperature than standard central heating. It can be very efficient, but it requires a very well insulated and dry environment to be maintained in the property.”

Robert Jones fought for change - Magna denied that he was ignored
Robert Jones fought for change - Magna denied that he was ignored (Tindle )

When the Free Press spoke to Mr Jones he said: “I visited most of Magna’s 250 households across Exmoor and either spoke to them or put something through their doors.  

“I explained who I was and that I had heard there were problems and they would often tell me about mould and damp.  

“Some of the cases were mild and then there were some which were just appalling, it was just dreadful. There are families with young children suffering from asthma, the parents often have problems and the problems are exacerbated by the mould.  

“I contacted Magna to help improve things for people. I was upfront about the whole thing and thought if they saw what was going on they would change their strategy.  

“They sent a letter out to their tenants saying ‘don’t talk to this person’ and sent me a letter as well saying ‘that’s enough we will look after it from here’.”

Magna denies telling tenants not to talk to Mr Jones.

But Mr Jones said: “I felt they were accusing me of having done something bad and of having bad intentions.

“It is dispiriting and shocking. The people are vulnerable who are living in these properties and they tend to be ignored. The task of fighting against authority, with no resources and no guidance is massive. So there was silence.  

“I offered to go and speak to them to about what I found out to discuss it and Selina White repeatedly refused me. I felt my warnings were ignored. She wanted me to go away.”

Magna denies ignoring the warnings.

Journalists from the Free Press visited Magna estates in Dulverton, Washford, Timberscombe, Carhampton and Brushford. Of the dozens of homes visited and residents spoken to, only two Magna tenants reported having no problems with mould or heating.  

The issues were particularly acute in Dulverton, where another Magna resident, who spoke to the Free Press on condition of anonymity, has had virtually no central heating for three months, and suffers from regular flooding of her garden which spills into the house. She said:  “I have had problems with my heating which is air source heating. It just wasn’t working very well and I have had a guy out to it twice.

“For about three months it hasn’t warmed up the place and either won’t switch on or won’t switch off.  

“I really haven’t been warm here, when it was really really cold I had a jumper, a fleece, two pairs of trousers, two pairs of socks and one time even a woolly hat and a scarf on indoors.  

“I have water on the brain, I need to be warm, I came into sheltered accommodation because of my health problems and the central heating should work.  

“An engineer told me many places hadn’t been serviced in five years. I am using a little electric heater.  

“Magna sent an engineer and all he did was fiddle with the thermostat on the wall. In my previous property I had problems with the heating not working in the winter and they were really on the ball but now it is so difficult to get things done.”  

Living in a nearby address is Stephen Hayes, 68, who has been fighting a three year battle against mould in his property which started from the day he moved in. He also complained that some of his radiators fail to get warm, even when fully turned on, further exacerbating the issue. He told the Free Press:  

“There is mould in my bedroom, I have got it around the windows as well and in the bathroom on the ceiling.  

“It is in the spare room – I keep wiping it off but all the plaster is coming away from the walls.  

“Some of my radiators don’t get very warm, some do, but the bathroom and the hallway don’t get hot even if I turn them right up.”  

Mr Hayes’ porch roof is leaking water, which is allowing rain into the house. When a journalist from the Free Press visited Mr Hayes’ home the roof was seen covered in a plastic sheet tied down with a piece of wooden baton. He said a fix had been promised in February, but that in the three years no Magna contractor or representative had helped with the mould, despite him raising the issue on a number of occasions.  

Mr Hayes was left fighting a leaking roof and mould
Mr Hayes was left fighting a leaking roof and mould (Tindle )

Residents repeatedly told the Free Press Magna representatives ‘blamed’ them for the mould. But Robert Jones believes the 1930s bungalows cannot be sufficiently damp-proofed without bringing them up to modern insulation standards.  

In his report to Magna – which the chief executive admitted she read - he said: “If we look a little deeper into the possible causes of excess moisture in these homes, we can quickly discover some potential root problems. Firstly, the properties – built somewhere between the 1930s and 1950s – do not have damp proof membranes. As a result, moisture may rise – as vapour – from beneath the foundations of the house, increasing the vapour load in the living space.

“If we look at the build quality, while cavity wall insulation may have been applied to these properties, there are often significant faults – such as gaps between the window frames and the walls of the building – that allow moisture in and out, along with cold air. I understand that often old windows have been replaced, but the fit seems to have been challenging and the work in some cases, seems to be of poor quality. So, we have moisture rising into the living space from beneath and cold air penetrating from around windows and other areas. In short, the houses are colder and damper than modern equivalents.”  

Eddie Wright, 80, who lives in a Magna property in Brushford, told the Free Press he had been forced to throw out his clothes and furniture as part of a long-running battle against damp which began when he and his wife moved into the address. As with other residents, Magna provided a humidity meter but did not take any further action to help combat the problem – despite being alerted it to it on more than 20 occasions.  

The Free Press also heard from Marcus Kravis, Somerset councillor for the Dunster division. He said he has been contacted by Magna tenants on a number of occasions, with complaints about delayed repairs. He said: “I have though been contacted on more than one occasion by tenants of Magna telling me that they have issues with their housing that have not been dealt with in a timely manner.

“I have also had another tenant tell me that an appointment kept getting pushed back and, in the end, they gave up waiting and did the work themselves.  I am also aware of delays to repairs outside of my division with people being given appointments of two months after they reported a problem.”  

MP for West Somerset, Ian Liddell-Grainger has branded Magna ‘disgraceful’ and requested an urgent meeting with its board of directors. A spokesperson for Magna confirmed they had now accepted Mr Liddell-Grainger’s request.  

Responding to the Free Press investigation, Magna chief executive Selina White issued an apology and vowed to make improvements. In a statement she said:  

“We are sorry for the unacceptable delays in repairing these customers’ heating, which has not met the standards we set for all our customers. 

“Our customers’ safety and wellbeing always come first. We have been working with our contractors and suppliers to urgently repair or, where necessary, replace heating systems as quickly as possible. We have offered additional temporary heating and associated costs, or alternative accommodation, and have been in regular contact to keep them informed and make sure they are comfortable.   

“We have addressed challenges with a shortage of parts and specialist labour, which are in high demand. We will shortly finish training our own teams to maintain air source heating, which will make us less reliant on external contractors. This will allow us to bring our annual servicing programme back to full capacity this year to identify and fix problems earlier. 

“Recognising the seriousness of damp and mould, in the last two years we have strengthened our internal processes to identify and resolve cases quickly. We are dedicated to working together with our customers to prevent damp and mould. To ensure we can respond promptly and effectively, we encourage our customers to report any concerns to us directly.”