Sun, 19 February 2023 at 6:00 pm GMT
“The tragic death of Awaab Ishak should never have happened,” Michael Gove said recently during a visit to Rochdale. Despite repeated complaints from Awaab’s father about the black mould that ultimately caused the death of his two-year-old son, Rochdale Borough Housing failed to act. The problems in England’s social housing extend far beyond this single tragedy. Formal complaints to the housing ombudsman about damp and mould doubled this year. The TV programme “Help! My Home is Disgusting!” tells of insect infestations, overflowing plumbing and leaks. In January, the housing ombudsman found Clarion, the UK’s largest social landlord, responsible for “severe maladministration” for the third time in three months.
Mr Gove has now pledged to introduce “Awaab’s law”, an amendment to the social housing regulation bill that will require landlords to fix health hazards within strict timeframes. The bill, which is awaiting its third reading in the Commons, reverses over a decade of Conservative reforms and gives new powers to England’s housing regulator to conduct inspections, issue unlimited fines, and charge landlords for emergency repairs. The former social housing regulator was abolished by Grant Shapps in 2012 as part of a bonfire of quangos, and replaced with a body that focused on financial stability alone. The job of ensuring the quality of homes was left to landlords, effectively allowing housing associations to mark their own homework.
Many still provide decent homes, but the sector has been cut adrift from its original social purpose, a fact recently acknowledged in a self-critical report from the National Housing Federation (NHF) trade body. This is partly the result of funding pressures. In 2011, the government slashed funding for subsidised housing and redirected remaining funds away from social rent and towards more expensive “affordable” housing. This forced housing associations to borrow in order to build, using tenants’ rent to pay off borrowing costs instead of investing in existing homes. As housing associations have merged and grown, local offices have been centralised. Complaints become easier to ignore when registered in a distant call centre. “Tenants’ voices can too easily be drowned out,” the NHF admitted.
The housing bill shows the government is taking poor conditions seriously, but more needs to happen to ensure tenants are treated as empowered citizens who have democratic influence. The government has pledged £500,000 to help train tenants in how to make their voices heard. Giving lessons in how to complain better is a condescending response to a systemic issue. Many tenants are already all too familiar with complaints procedures but have seen their complaints ignored, while services that would allow them to bring claims against their landlords, such as legal aid, have been eviscerated by cuts.
The death of Awaab Ishak and the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 both illustrated the grave risks of ignoring tenants. The social housing regulation bill will introduce a new advisory panel allowing tenants to inform the regulator of problems. In her new role as housing minister, Rachel Maclean should go further. A democratic national tenants’ body would give social housing tenants a say in shaping policy and greater power to raise complaints. Under Gordon Brown, Labour established the National Tenant Voice organisation in 2010, but the coalition government abolished it less than a year later. Reviving a similar initiative is key to ensuring that tenants are listened to – and tragedies are prevented.