The Salvation Army, one of the UK’s best known and well funded charities, has been accused of acting like “a rogue landlord” by leaving some of its private tenants exposed to “serious” hazards for at least seven years.
The Christian organisation, whose charitable objectives include “the relief of poverty … suffering, distress” and “the assistance of those in need of protection”, ignored repeated requests to improve conditions by its tenants in Hadleigh, Essex.
The town is the site where the group’s founder, William Booth, created his first farm colony in 1891 to help people escape the deprivation of London’s East End.
Tenants have complained of being subjected to years of living with hazards including fire risks, damp, and vermin infestations, an investigation by the Guardian and ITV News found.
Presented with the investigation’s findings the Salvation Army issued an “unreserved apology” and said it had now begun the process of surveying the properties and renovating vacant homes as part of an urgent action plan.
The local council, Castle Point, said it had now served improvement notices on a number of Salvation Army properties in Hadleigh, compelling the charity to act.
Tenants say the problems with the properties were first documented in late 2014. Later, in 2018, the charity left up to 40 tenants with the impression they were about to be evicted, instead of paying to correct the problems.
In 2019, a local environmental health officer at Castle Point council wrote to the Salvation Army and described the charity’s handling of the situation in Hadleigh as a “sordid mess”. The letter said he had identified “significant housing disrepair in Salvation Army properties” in the borough including “category one and two hazards”.
The Guardian and ITV News understands that conditions within tenants’ homes have not improved since the council’s warning three years ago.
The length of time the Salvation Army failed to deal with the complaints raises serious questions about the governance and conduct of one of the UK’s highest profile charities. The Salvation Army receives donations and legacies from the public of more than £100m a year and owns more than 1,700 residential properties, the majority of which are used by its own officers.
Last year the charity announced it was constructing a new headquarters for itself at a cost of £32m. In Hadleigh, it owns about 40 homes, with 26 concentrated on the two worst-affected streets, Mount Zion and Seaview Terrace.
Steve Mackenzie, an independent fire safety expert, who inspected one property for the Guardian and ITV News, said that building was a “fire trap” for a number of reasons. He said: “The inadequate fire detection. There are no CO2 detectors. There is no separation of the roof from one flat to the other … We’ve also got an electrical system that has been condemned at some point. And the list goes on.”
He called the Salvation Army’s conduct towards its Hadleigh tenants “delinquent, negligent, [a] breach of legislation, criminally negligent”. He added: “The defects we are seeing in statutory contraventions are unforgivable. It is not allowed and they are delinquent under law.”
A second expert, Jeff Charlton, managing director of the environmental health consultancy Building Forensics, inspected a different Salvation Army property in Hadleigh, and found mould on a wall next to the bed of an asthmatic child.
“All mould is a health risk,” he said. “There’s no real excuse. People are being made sick or their health is deteriorating living in this property. There is a responsibility under the landlord and tenant act that the landlord makes the home health and safety compliant … Of course [the landlord] is negligent.”
Peggy Jane Smith, a Salvation Army tenant in Hadleigh for 38 years, whose property was found to be a fire risk, said: “[The Salvation Army’s] behaviour [has been] of a rogue landlord. It’s very hard to try and tell people that because it’s not what people want to believe, but the unfortunate thing about the Salvation Army is, on the one side they have their spiritual side, but on the other side they’re behaving like hard-nose, unscrupulous, capitalists.”
Smith said she believed the charity intended to evict tenants in 2018. At a meeting with Hadleigh tenants that June, Alan Read, the Salvation Army’s managing director and its secretary for business administration, described the charity as “an accidental landlord”.
He added: “Being a commercial landlord is not an objective of the Salvation Army. We’ve come into it by accident really.”
At the meeting, Read repeatedly declined to guarantee that the Salvation Army – which is perhaps best known for its work with the homeless – would not evict its tenants.
Rebecca Harris, the MP for Castle Point, said she had been in meetings with the Salvation Army over a number of years to try to bring all the properties up to a good condition.
She said: “They kept making promises that failed to materialise. Ordinary members of the Salvation Army would be mortified to know how incompetent their properties department has been.
“The biggest fear for the tenants and myself was that they would claim the properties were beyond economic repair, knock them down and evict families. I kept pressing the Salvation Army to get on and do the work, but they’ve left the tenants waiting for them to get their act together, which has been incredibly stressful for them.”
The Salvation Army declined to offer any of its senior officials for an interview, nor did it explain why it had taken so long to start addressing the issues. It said it had planned to start work in 2020, but was delayed because of the pandemic.
The charity issued a statement in which Anthony Cotterill, the charity’s territorial commander, said: “The condition of these houses is unacceptable. It is clear that we let down the tenants of Seaview Terrace and Mount Zion and I am deeply sorry. As well as an unreserved apology, I would like to offer reassurance that for some months now we have been working on an urgent action plan to bring these properties up to the correct standard.
“Our tenants are right to be angry but with the help of our new property director, appointed in May 2021, we are confident that we are now taking urgent action to right these wrongs. Further senior appointments to manage planned works will also support the improvements process.”
The charity added that its new headquarters would be funded from proceeds of the sale of its old headquarters.