Published: 00:01, 12 November 2018
| Updated: 09:48, 13 November 2018
Housing chiefs admit there are lessons to be learned following the death of a pensioner struck down with hypothermia at a freezing council home without central heating.
For 25 years, Susan Baines lived in St Augustine’s Crescent, Whitstable, in a property now managed by East Kent Housing (EKH) - which looks after council homes across the district.
But in January this year, the 70-year-old died hours after she was found hypothermic by paramedics - six months after EKH ruled electric storage heaters in the property needed replacing with radiators.
After an inspection at the house, the authority admitted the heaters had reached the end of their “economical life”.
Mrs Baines’s son, Mark, from Reculver, said: “They didn’t work. They were old, and the dials had snapped off. There was one working upstairs, just about, but it wouldn’t heat the house.
“In about October when it started getting cold, housing officers gave her two little fan heaters.
"We’re talking about the little cheap, tenner ones - they weren’t enough to make the house properly warm.
"She didn’t use them, because they weren’t allowed to be unsupervised and she was too disabled to get to them quickly if they set fire to something.
“It’s the night time when it got really cold, and leaving them on while she slept would have been a fire hazard.”
He explained how his mum, who struggled to climb the stairs to access the property’s two bedrooms and bathroom due to health problems, had been sleeping and bathing on the property’s ground floor.
In July last year, following several bouts of hypothermia, EKH established there might be an issue with heating and began inspecting the situation at Mrs Baines’s home.
Preparatory work to introduce central heating began in September, but the installation was postponed until after Christmas.
But on January 8, six months after EKH began surveying her home and before the installation work had begun, Mrs Baines was found hypothermic in the cold house by ambulance crews.
Their notes show she had a core temperature of 29.5C - well below the 35C benchmark at which people are at risk of hypothermia, according to the NHS.
Mrs Baines - who had a number of other health issues including vascular disease and kidney problems - died of multiple organ failure in hospital, in the early hours of the following morning.
Hypothermia was not recorded on her death certificate, but her son believes it played a contributory part in her death.
“My mother had severely damaged organs,” he said. “She died due to heart failure, but the lack of heating was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“It’s very hard to prove, as her death is consistent with her illness. But the bottom line is a severely ill 70-year-old woman shouldn’t have been allowed to be in that condition.
"She was found with a low body temperature, close to death. She was frozen, and had no heating - at that time of the year.”
Susan Baines was due to be buried on March 28 at St John the Baptist Church in Swalecliffe.
But her grieving family was faced with further heartache when they arrived for the funeral, only to be told her grave had not yet been dug and that her body must be kept in the church overnight.
An inquest into Mrs Baines’s death was not held, but EKH has since carried out an investigation into her property’s heating.
A spokesman said: “We were saddened to learn of the passing of Mrs Baines and appreciate that this was, and continues to be very distressing to her family.
“The electric storage heaters in Mrs Baines’s home were reaching the end of their life and were identified for replacement following a series of repairs which were carried out to them. When faults were reported, they were repaired as quickly as possible ensuring that heating facilities were available to Mrs Baines and we also provided Mrs Baines with temporary heaters to use if a fault occurred or when additional heating was required.
“We suggested to Mrs Baines that we install a gas-fired central heating and hot water system and a survey was carried out in July last year.
"Preparatory work started in September and during the course of this it was established that a gas supply was not available to the property. This was initially left with Mrs Baines’ family to progress, and was then subsequently supported by EKH.
"A gas supply was made available by November last year and this resulted in the preparatory work being recommenced. This identified the need for an asbestos survey which was carried out in December.
"We agreed with Mrs Baines that because the new heating work would be disruptive, we would not start this until after Christmas.
“We were notified by Mrs Baines’ family of her passing and took the decision to place all work on hold allowing the family time to address their affairs and resolve their housing needs.
"The bottom line is a severely ill 70-year-old woman shouldn’t have been allowed to be in that condition..." - Mark Baines
“We have made changes to our procedures to ensure that our contractors ask whether a gas supply is available and undertake an asbestos survey at an earlier stage, so that future installations will be quicker.”
In a letter to Mr Baines, EKH’s director of property services, Mark Anderson, said: “My review has concluded that there are lessons to be learned, particularly in relation to agreed points of contact, the checks that need to be carried out when a home is initially surveyed, the regularity of communication and what is communicated, and ensuring that where we are working with vulnerable residents that we engage with authorised family members and advocates in the process.”
Now, Mr Baines hopes the investigation findings will prevent similar events in future.
“At the end of the day, there’s nothing I can do to bring my poor mum back,” he said.
“But there are other people out there suffering, and by discussing this it could stop what happened to my mum happening to somebody else.”
More by this authorLydia Chantler-Hicks