The Guardian view on unsafe housing: underinvestment costs lives

The mould that caused the death of Awaab Ishak is widespread in substandard social homes

The details revealed at the inquest of Awaab Ishak, who died aged two in December 2020 due to respiratory problems caused by mould growing in his family’s flat, were shocking. His father had repeatedly complained to their landlord, Rochdale Boroughwide Housing. A health visitor had sent two letters warning of the risks. But nothing was done.

After last week’s verdict blamed the toddler’s death on mould, with the coroner saying that the tragedy should be a “defining moment”, the housing mutual initially held on to its chief executive, Gareth Swarbrick, but then fired him at the weekend. While his public disgrace may afford some satisfaction to Awaab’s grieving relatives, and to other tenants anxious to see housing bosses held accountable, the serious problems in England’s social housing stock go far beyond one man and one organisation.

In 2020, 2.2m homes in England had at least one category 1 hazard – those with the highest risks – and 941,000 had serious damp. In the year to April 2022, complaints to the social housing ombudsman about damp, mould and leaks almost doubled. This situation is expected to deteriorate further as a result of rising energy bills, which will lead to some tenants keeping their heating off. The situation in the private rented sector – where tenants have no recourse to the ombudsman – is significantly worse.

New laws promised after the Grenfell Tower disaster have been too long in coming, as Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, has admitted. The social housing regulation bill is yet to go through its committee stage in the Commons. But once passed, it should make it easier to identify social landlords who are failing their tenants. Inspections will also become more robust. But the bill does not go far enough, and should be amended to ensure that housing managers are qualified. Currently, there is no requirement for any professional training, which is wrong given the power that landlords wield over people’s lives, including their health.

Tougher inspections and strengthened tenants’ rights will raise the pressure on landlords, and could lead to improvements. But they cannot fix the underlying problem of underinvestment. Much of England’s housing stock is hopelessly out of date, and standards on new-builds have not been high enough. The assault on regulation initiated by David Cameron, as part of the coalition’s austerity programme, meant that constraints on developers were weakened at the same time as local authority housing budgets were slashed. Public investment in housing has never returned to its pre-2010 level.

Around 1.2 million people are on waiting lists, while some housing associations, in their rush to expand, seem to have abandoned their social purpose. Budgets for building new homes and fixing old ones are far too low, and unlikely to rise in the foreseeable future. If anything, they are more likely to shrink, since the 7% cap on rent rises is lower than inflation. Mr Gove wrote to housing providers at the weekend to say that he was putting them “on notice”. Given the government’s role in running down the nation’s housing stock, the same message could be sent to Mr Gove and his cabinet colleagues.



The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Awaab Ishak’s death shed light on a social housing scandal. Now we have a brief chance to fix it | Christian Weaver
A two-year-old died after exposure to mould in his house in Rochdale. We must ensure no other family suffers like this, says Christian Weaver of Garden Court North Chambers

Christian Weaver

23, Nov, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
The Guardian view on social housing: we need a cultural shift | Editorial
Editorial: The failure to provide adequate public sector rented housing in England is acknowledged across party lines as a catastrophe. A commission has put forward practical proposals


13, Jan, 2019 @6:54 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on social housing: warm words are not enough | Editorial
Editorial: Theresa May’s claim to care passionately about the shortage of homes is belied by a weak new government policy prospectus


15, Aug, 2018 @4:49 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on housing associations: tenants must be listened to | Editorial
Editorial: Preventing further tragedies like Awaab Ishak’s will depend on redressing the power imbalance between landlords and renters


19, Feb, 2023 @6:00 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Boris Johnson and housing: old and failed answers | Editorial
Editorial: The prime minister’s attempt to relaunch his leadership after the confidence vote only exhibited the same old failings


09, Jun, 2022 @5:53 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on housing costs: a grave and growing injustice | Editorial
Editorial: Levelling up will be impossible as long as rents and house prices are allowed to keep on climbing


31, Jul, 2022 @5:30 PM

Article image
Poor social housing kills, as the death of Awaab Ishak shows | Letters
Letters: The link between poor housing conditions and ill health was proven decades ago, so why are tenants still being blamed, ask Stephen Platt, Dr Claudia Martin and Dr Sonja Hunt. Plus letters from Nik Wood, Steven Chown and Norman Miller

21, Nov, 2022 @5:17 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on the cladding scandal: don’t punish the innocent | Editorial
Editorial: Leaseholders didn’t build these high-rises and they didn’t certify them as safe. So why are they being landed with the giant bills to fix them?


28, Apr, 2021 @5:50 PM

Article image
Awaab Ishak’s death must lead to new law to protect tenants | Letter
Letters: Dr Tom Woolley calls for housing managers to be held liable and legislation to end the danger of mould growth

16, Nov, 2022 @5:41 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Grenfell secrets: regeneration shame | Editorial
Editorial: Evidence of ‘offline’ negotiations and altered priorities is exposing the attitude of the authorities to the tower and its residents


18, Oct, 2020 @5:30 PM