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Trouble at the Oxo Tower

It's regarded as a model of inner-city social housing, but residents of Oxo Tower Wharf could lose their homes in a dispute over the administration of the co-op which runs the properties.

The independent Housing Ombudsman has found some members of the Redwood housing co-operative guilty of maladministration over the way applications from tenants to transfer to more desirable flats were handled.

Oxo Tower Wharf, part of the Coin Street complex, was the subject of a fierce battle by community activists to prevent the site being sold off for office developments and luxury housing.

The wharf is administered by Redwood, one of Coin Street's four sub co-ops, each of which leases properties from the parent body, the Coin Street Secondary Housing Cooperative (known as CSS).

All 78 households in the desirable riverside building have been warned that they could lose their homes over the controversy.

According to The Guardian, the problems stem from a meeting in August 2001 when Judith Cornish, a Redwood member and CSS director, and Robin Wright, then Redwood's membership officer, departed from the usual policy of deciding internal transfers on the basis of need and instead decided who would get the best flats on the basis of certain tenants' preference.

Clive Streatfield, another Coin Street director, who was chair of Redwood's management committee when the ombudsman reported, was later informed about the allocations.

In his report, the ombudsman said the new criteria were "inconsistent, irrelevant and irrational" as well as an "abuse of position".

He said he was not satisfied that all the tenants who were awarded the flats had "any actual need to move", and added: "It has become apparent that in this case there have been serious problems with ensuring consistency and impartiality in decision making, which has caused both the allocations and the complaints processes to fail."

He ordered Redwood to improve its procedures and accountability and to pay the tenants 500 each in compensation. As a result of the inquiry, Redwood is subject to official supervision by the Housing Corporation, the quango which monitors social housing.

The row has taken a new twist since CSS's directors revealed that they were considering whether to renew Redwood's lease when it expires in November next year. Tenants were told that if the problems were not resolved, the co-op's lease would be not be renewed and it could face eviction.

"A new co-op would be formed and current members of Redwood would be invited to apply for homes in the Oxo Tower. The new co-op would make a decision about whether to admit individuals in the light of their track records," Christine Czechowski, CSS's director of housing told The Guardian.

"There is a specific problem at Redwood with existing members competing for transfers to very desirable flats. There were flaws identified and I think Redwood has accepted that and is taking action to put matters right."

Rafael Bunco, the deputy housing ombudsman, said he was concerned about the eviction threat: "Hearing that this turn of events has taken place, there's clearly potential for further maladministration and severe injustice."

An independent report shown to The Guardian, commissioned by Redwood on the instructions of the Housing Corporation, found "innumerable flaws" in the way those involved made decisions about who to accept into the co-op and who to reject.

These decisions disadvantaged certain groups. "This is especially true for external applicants from poor and marginalised social strata", the report said. The report suggests that applicants from ethnic minorities were discriminated against.

One resident told The Guardian: "The ideals which once underpinned the whole project are being betrayed. I think the people who campaigned to get Coin St set up 30 years ago would be turning in their graves if they could see what was happening now."

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