The inquest findings into the death of Awaab Ishak sparked an understandable outpouring of sympathy for his parents and widespread criticism of their landlord, for the appalling condition of the family’s damp and mould-ridden flat.
The coroner Joanne Kearsley summed up the feelings of many when she said: “The tragic death of Awaab will and should be a defining moment for the housing sector.”
Sadly the Ishak’s grimy flat in Rochdale is not a one-off. Rather it is the tip of an iceberg, for we have among the coldest, draughtiest and dampest homes in Europe and yet insulation levels in 2021 were 20 times lower than in 2010.
Nothing can excuse the failings of Rochdale Boroughwide Homes, but we must also recognise that collectively the country has a huge problem on its hands with large numbers of unfit properties within our housing stock.
When wider societal costs are included, the costs rise to a staggering £18.5bn a year.
A chronic problem
This is a systemic problem affecting both the social and private sectors, causing chronic ill-health among large sections of the population arising from exposure to damp and mouldy housing, which puts unnecessary pressures on the NHS.
In total 2.2 million homes have what is called a Category 1 hazard, meaning they present the highest risk of serious harm or death to the occupants.
And according to the English Housing Survey (EHS) in 2020, some 839,000 homes have problems with damp.
This is not a problem that developed overnight.
Following the inquest Housing Secretary Michael Gove wrote to every English council leader and all social housing providers saying they had to improve conditions.
He has demanded details of what action is being taken to resolve problems with sub-standard homes in the private rented sector.
He also sent a separate letter to housing providers saying the country needed to "raise the bar dramatically" on the quality of social housing and "empower tenants" to ensure "their voices are truly heard".
Gove demanded that housing providers should carry out assessments of damp and mould in their properties, as well as any action that may need to be taken to tackle the issue.
While nearly 200,000 social rented homes are recorded as being damp in the EHS, a much bigger problem exists within the private rented sector where more than 400,000 homes are damp.
The remainder of the damp homes recorded in the EHS figures are owner-occupied.
With so many properties across all sectors below acceptable standards, it is clear the Government needs to take a leadership role in developing and delivering a solution.
Simply criticising organisations or individuals will not solve the problem, nor will repeatedly kicking the home insulation can down the road.
But the Housing Secretary also needs to be realistic and accept his Government’s role over the past 12 years which has seen local authority budgets repeatedly cut and the regulation of private rentals reduced in most councils, as it fell down the list of priorities.
Huge costs highlighted
Numbers of environmental health officers employed to tackle poor housing conditions have been cut back and budgets for property improvement work and prosecutions of rogue landlords have also been reduced, as council finances were squeezed.
Councils that took tougher action against private landlords, often on the back of establishing local licensing schemes, regularly found themselves criticised.
It now seems the minority of councils who took tough enforcement action were actually doing the right things after all!
There is no doubting that action is necessary for both health and financial reasons.
Given the scale of the housing disrepair problem and its links to other parts of the economy, it is obvious that Government needs to step up and help landlords and councils to find the resources (money, labour and materials) and deliver the fixes.
According to research published by the Building Research Establishment in 2021, poor housing conditions such as damp and mould is costing the NHS about £1.4bn a year in medical treatment costs alone.
When wider societal costs are included, such as lower productivity levels, employment absences, poor educational attainment and social care, the costs rise to a staggering £18.5bn a year.
It estimated it would cost £3,590 on average to deal with the damp problem in each affected property.
Impact on tenants
In the same year, the housing charity Shelter conducted a YouGov poll that found the health of one in five renters (22%) in England, or 1.9 million households, was being harmed by poor housing.
The most common problems plaguing renters’ mental and physical health were revealed to include damp and mould, which affects 26% of all renters; being unable to heat their home (also 26%); constantly struggling to pay rent (21%) and fear of eviction (19%).
We need to recognise that correcting the problem, particularly at this time of economic stress will be extraordinarily difficult. Solutions cannot be delivered overnight, but equally actions such as improving the energy efficiency of our homes cannot be delayed any further. A start needs to be made straightaway.
In the Autumn financial statement Jeremy Hunt pledged an additional £6bn to making Britain’s housing stock more energy efficient – but the money will not be available until 2025 to 2028.
Not surprisingly critics described this as far too little and far too late. Landlords need the money for works now, not in three years’ time!
Not just a heating issue
As the coroner Joanne Kearsley pointed out, Awaab’s difficulties were also caused by a lack of ventilation and the absence of extractor fans in the family’s kitchen and bathroom.
Passive fans can provide some ventilation, but it usually requires powered extractor fans to make a real difference in tackling damp and condensation and preventing the buildup of mould.
The rising cost of energy is making it more difficult for low income tenants to heat their homes adequately, while keeping damp and mould out of unheated properties is nigh on impossible.
Tenants on prepayment meters are particularly disadvantaged due to higher charges and an inability to spread their energy costs over the course of the year.
The Chancellor’s decision to raise the cap on average energy prices from £2,500 to £3,000 a year from next April and end the universal £400 rebate will cost households an extra £900 in energy costs and deter many low income residents from using their heating, which could exacerbate problems with damp and mould.
Mr Gove and his civil servants need to work with landlords and tenant groups to see the full picture and come up with workable solutions that complement each other, rather than act in a confrontational way.
He also needs to work across Government with departments like the Treasury and DWP to ensure any intervention is joined-up.
It is understood that the remit of the Housing Ombudsman which is currently restricted to the social housing sector, is likely to be extended to cover private tenants’ complaints as well. The Ombudsman service is funded by fees from landlords, which has raised questions about its independence.
In the year to April 2022, the Ombudsman received 3,530 complaints and enquiries about damp, mould and leaks compared with 1,993 in the year before.
It formally investigated 456 cases and 42% of its severe maladministration findings – signifying a repeated failure by the landlord to deal with the issue – were damp and mould related. This could grow exponentially.
But the changes are unlikely to stop there. Ross Matthewman, Head of Policy and Campaigns at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, said: “Awaab’s death is deeply saddening and highlights the need for action to be taken.
“We are calling for the whole regulatory system to be simplified so that tenants are aware of their rights under the system of laws that are supposed to be protecting them. Further laws with no money for local authorities to enforce them are not the solution.”
Lets hope that Mr Gove can persuade his cabinet colleagues to relax the funding strings to allow a comprehensive solution to be implemented.