The Regulator of Social Housing’s investigation against Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, has found significant failings beyond the coroner’s verdict on the death of Awaab Ishak.
It found that:
“RBH waited nearly two years after Awaab Ishak’s death to check for damp and mould in other homes on the estate. When they did eventually check, they found hundreds of tenants living with damp and mould. Awaab Ishak’s death should have alerted RBH to the safety risks for its tenants, but it failed to act quickly and protect more tenants from potential harm.”
It further found that:
“RBH made incorrect assumptions about the cause of damp and mould in Awaab Ishak’s home and failed to act to resolve the issues. RBH did not treat Awaab Ishak’s family with fairness and respect, and the regulator does not have confidence that RBH is treating other tenants with fairness and respect.”
The regulator offers “a clear message to all social landlords” that:
The English Housing Survey, which has just been published, has found that ten per cent of dwellings in the social rented sector failed to meet the Decent Homes Standard, with four per cent affected by damp.
Michael Gove, the Housing Secretary, said in a statement:
“Our Social Housing Bill will strengthen the powers of the Regulator so they can issue unlimited fines to rogue landlords, enter properties with only 48 hours’ notice and make emergency repairs where there is a serious risk to tenants – with landlords footing the bill. And next year we will deliver a fairer deal for tenants in the private rented sector too.
“We must honour Awaab’s memory, so I am looking at new measures – including legislation – that will go further to deliver urgent action when people complain about damp and mould and make sure the rights of tenants are respected.
“There is consensus across the country that landlords must do better. Let RBH be a warning, I will use every power at my disposal to make sure people have good quality homes and are treated with dignity and respect.”
How much difference will these changes make? There are 4.4 million homes in the “social housing sector” in England. Anyone who has been canvassing on a council estate or housing association estate will know that complaints about repairs and maintenance are widespread. How many of those properties will actually be entered “with only 48 hours’ notice” and receive “emergency repairs where there is a serious risk to tenants”?
The Regulator of Social Housing has 169 staff. But I doubt many of them will show much inclination for anything so practical as entering properties to supervise emergency repairs. Nine of their staff are earning over £100,000 a year. According to the Regulator’s annual report there are five full time equivalents employed to carry out trade union activity. (Though the organisation’s “Head of Communications” assures me “the total time they spend on trade union activities is less than one full time equivalent.”)
What do they all do?
“We carry out an extensive programme of stakeholder engagement,” says the Regulator’s annual report. Its “Sounding Board is comprised of the key representative bodies in the sector.” Lots of boards, committees and panels. There is “a strong foundation for us to develop an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Strategy and action plan.” All very grand. I doubt they will spend much time knocking on doors to inspect mould.
So what might be more effective? Rather than trust in a top-down approach, it should be to empower individual tenants. Those paying a market rent in the private sector do at least have some choice. There is a shortage of property available and rents are very high (especially in London) – so the restriction in supply prevents a proper market from functioning. But, at least, that option is ultimately available to escape a rogue landlord.
In social housing, the rent is subsidised and eviction very unlikely. So there is great demand for such properties. But it means surrendering to municipal serfdom – putting up with long delays, bodged repairs, and an unresponsive and grossly inefficient service.
Enoch Powell reflected on council housing:
“While every other element of the standard of living has streaked ahead, housing for millions has obstinately lagged behind. It is the paradox and the parable of the slum with the television set inside and the motor car outside.”
The ultimate liberation, of course, is ownership. The right-to-buy scheme has been a great success. But even with the discounts, it is out of financial reach for most tenants. There should be a right to shared ownership. It should apply to housing associations as well as councils. Housing associations effectively operate as part of the state. They make a spurious claim to be independent charities but if they take Government subsidies must expect to follow the obligations required in return.
Shared ownership should include a slice of that equity made available for free to tenants who undertake responsibility for minor repairs.
Failing that, the right to repair scheme should be strengthened. The present scheme gives a deadline for minor repairs – such as a blocked sink – which are estimated to cost under £250 to repair. But the compensation if the repair is not carried out is very modest (£10 compensation with a further £2 a day for every extra day the repair is not fixed, up to a maximum of £50.) The Council or housing association has control over who does the work. What if the work costs more than £250? For instance, if there is mould spread all over the property? Tenants should have greater power to get the work done and then be reimbursed for the cost. There would have to be safeguards – only firms who were reputable with professional credentials could be used. Evidence of payment and that the work had been carried out would be required.
No doubt it would not work perfectly. Getting the builders in can often prove problematic. But compare it to the current arrangements. While social housing providers typically do an awful job they manage to spend a lot of money in the process. One of the great frustrations tenants have is the number of times different staff come to visit but fail to fix the problem.
Tenants have every motive to ensure that they live – as Gove has put it – “somewhere warm, decent, safe and secure.” They will want to get the work done quickly and effectively. They should be given the chance to do so.