London Student

Student class-action lawsuit takes on “dismal” LSE accommodation

LSE students are preparing for a lawsuit against their university over construction noise and mould, which left one student requiring hospital treatment.

Residents of Sidney Webb House, on Great Dover Street, Southwark, have taken legal advice and started crowdfunding for a class-action lawsuit against LSE, after many suffered health problems, and their studies were disrupted by building work.

One student suffered recurrent skin infections causing painful abscesses, which at one point required surgical removal.

He said: “I was intrigued by the fact that I each time I completed the prescribed dose of antibiotics (usually Flucloxacillin), I was infected again. After the May 16, visit to the GP, the pharmacist suggested that I was living in a diseased environment”.

For five weeks he had to visit a hospital daily to have the wound dressed. “The pain and discomfort is better imagined than experienced,” he remarked.

“This period also coincided with when I had a group presentation and a written essay. Aside the fact that I missed nearly all the meetings for the group presentation and policy memo, I spent my limited financial resources on prescription drugs.”

Sidney Webb House was owned and managed by LSE until 2015, when it was taken over by Unite. However students continue to sign contracts with the university. Unite deny that the conditions in the halls were the cause of illness.

Another student said the stress of living there and attempting to get complaints resolved led her to develop chronic health problems, and she missed exams as she was too unwell to take them.

The class action lawsuit is being organised by a committee of eight students, and they began crowdfunding yesterday, on crowdjustice.com here.

In a statement, they said: “The Committee would like to express our extreme disappointment in the LSE complaint procedure.

“While students had no choice but to suffer the failures of Unite Students, the third party management company, we had hoped that our institution of higher learning, one that we have sacrificed so much to attend, would recognize their responsibility in the unacceptably poor living conditions at Sidney Webb House and make things right.”

Responding to the action, LSE said: “We are aware of a complaint about Sidney Webb House – a hall of residence run by Unite Students. We are currently investigating this.”

Leah Lucas is on the class action committee, and during the year she visited other students’ rooms to record the conditions there. She said: “Going into some different rooms, you could immediately tell the difference in air quality from room to room.

“In some rooms I would walk into and my voice would just stop. I wasn’t trying to do that, but the air quality was very, very dismal.”

Her own room was also affected by mould, she said. “There was this period where the mould was most severe. We couldn’t breathe in our rooms, couldn’t get to sleep because we couldn’t breathe. I personally had a lot of struggles.

“People had respiratory infections, people had coughs and sore throats, we’d wake up with our mouth very dry.”

Construction work to refurbish the halls and create a new reception area began at the end of March. Students say that they were not notified about possible work when they signed their contracts.

Work went on for nearly two months including during the exam period, and students reported that they were unable to work in their rooms. Videos filmed during the period captured the noise levels in bedrooms.

After students complained about the noise levels interrupting their revision and studies, Unite paused the construction works, though the committee maintain that after a week’s pause the noise disturbance resumed.

Lucas said, “If we hadn’t begun the protest, if we hadn’t begun this movement, if we hadn’t told them, I believe that construction would have continued until the day we left, through the entire exam period and I feel that this would have disproportionately impacted students.”

Unite offered a “goodwill gesture” of £100 to all residents. However this was rejected by the committee, who felt it wasn’t enough compared to their experiences.

Other students reported having items stolen. One resident, Ankita Kohirkar, returned to her room to find her wallet missing, which contained cash, cards and her Biometric Residence Permit, part of her visa.

And at the beginning of the year, some students had to queue in the morning to shower in a spare room, as the showers in their en-suite bedrooms were broken.

“We were given a key, I think there were about 10 of us every day queuing up for the spare room to shower there,” said Linda Lerbcova.

“It took three weeks for them to fix my shower, and later it broke down several times.”

London Student put the allegations to Unite, who responded saying:

Unite Students took over ownership of Sidney Webb House in the 2015/2016 academic year, and since then we have been working hard to improve and modernise the building. We can confirm that the residents living in Sidney Webb House have a direct contract with LSE.

We aim to provide the best possible accommodation and experience for our residents. However, we are aware that there were a few issues during the academic year 2016/2017 at Sidney Webb House.

  • We have a rigorous reporting system where-by if an issue is reported to us, we can then work to rectify it. We can only address the issues that have been reported directly to us.
  • We did experience some heating issues in this building and as a result we offered additional heaters to students for their rooms. These were freely available from the reception for those who requested them, and this offer was communicated to students.
  • We are always sorry to hear that any student is experiencing poor health. Unite Students does not accept any suggestion that the accommodation is the cause of any medical ill health.
  • With regards to the building works that took place, Unites Students aims to reduce any negative impact on residents and to keep disturbance to a minimum. The works were taking place to create an additional study space and to increase the communal space for students. When we received complaints that the noise was a problem, we rescheduled the work to try to better accommodate students from the feedback we were receiving.

In recognition that on this occasion at Sidney Webb House, student’s experience fell below perfect, Unite Students offered all 450 residents a payment of £100 each, as a gesture of good-will. This was offered to all residents regardless of whether they felt negatively affected or not, or reported issues during their stay.

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Emma Yeomans

emma.yeomans@londonstudent.coop

Classics student at UCL; news fangirl at London Student. Student Publication Association's Best Reporter 2016.