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19 November 2022

A child has died from Britain’s failed housing system. Will the government finally act?

Incidents like the death of Awaab Ishak are thankfully rare; the conditions that lead to them are all too common.

By Jonn Elledge

Faisal Abdullah reported the black mould on the walls of his one-bedroom flat to his landlord in 2017. The landlord, Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, told him to paint over it. He did so, more than once, but it continued to appear, in the bathroom and kitchen. Neither room was properly ventilated.

In December 2018 Faisal’s wife, Aisha Amin, gave birth to their first child, a boy. As he grew up, his parents said, Awaab Ishak was “full of smiles. He used to enjoy playing on his bike and with his ball. He always wanted to be with us.” By June 2020 Aisha was pregnant for a second time and, perhaps thanks to the intervention of a claims company, Faisal instructed solicitors in an attempt to get his landlord to address the mould. A health visitor also contacted the landlords about the risks it presented; when no action was taken, she did so a second time. But it was RBH policy not to tackle disrepair until there was an agreement with a claimant’s solicitors. Nothing was done.

In December 2020 Awaab developed flu-like symptoms and began having difficulties breathing. He was taken first to an urgent care centre, and later to hospital, but on 21 December, eight days after his second birthday, he died. An inquest later found that his throat had swollen, preventing him from breathing. The most likely cause was exposure to fungi.

In the wake of the inquest, the chief executive of Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, Gareth Swarbrick, said that he was “truly devastated about Awaab’s death”. “It needs to be a wake-up call for everyone in housing, social care and health,” he said. In the year of Awaab’s death he was paid £170,000. At time of writing, he has not resigned.

In October 2021 the housing ombudsman, the public body charged with investigating complaints against landlords, published a report titled “Spotlight on: Damp and mould”. Its subtitle was “It’s not lifestyle” – a reference to the explanation some housing providers have given for the presence of damp, as if poorly ventilated rooms or a habit of drying clothes on radiators are the result of a personal moral failing, not of lack of access to a tumble dryer or an outside washing line.

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Around 450,000 homes in England have problems with condensation or mould. That is roughly the same as the number of homes in Birmingham. Some landlords, the report said, automatically use language “inferring blame on the resident… The term ‘lifestyle’ suggests that it is a resident’s choice to live in that way”. But a million people, including god knows how many children, are not choosing to live in inadequately ventilated homes. They are living in the homes available to them in a country that doesn’t build enough, or spend enough on properly maintaining the social housing stock it has.

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[See also: “It could’ve been a lot worse”: Martin Lewis on the Autumn Statement]

Nor does this country do enough to make sure its landlords, social and private sector alike, make even the most minimal of efforts to ensure their homes meet basic standards. In January 2016 Labour proposed an amendment to the Housing and Planning Bill that would have required landlords to make homes fit for human habitation before they could charge people extortionate rents to live in them; Conservative MPs voted it down. A version of this amendment did later make it into law, but it contains, as the government website tells us, in bold, “no new obligations for landlords”: it is for tenants to take their own landlords to court. How many will feel secure enough to do so, while the government has yet to deliver on its promise to ban revenge evictions, is not entirely clear.

Awaab’s story isn’t the first time a social landlord’s lack of action has resulted in death. In July 2017 Grenfell Tower in North Kensington caught fire, killing 72 people. Many of those residents had spent months communicating their concerns about fire safety – the lack of exits, the out of date firefighting equipment, the way rubbish had been allowed to pile up in the corridors – to the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation. The richest borough in Britain had not yet got round to addressing their concerns.

Incidents like these are thankfully rare; the conditions that lead to them are all too common. ITV News’s Daniel Hewitt has spent months running a series of reports of appalling quality housing in both the private and social sectors: children playing in bedrooms laced with mould, or sleeping in tents to reduce their risk of breathing in spores; mushrooms growing up walls; ceilings collapsing, and raw sewage flooding in. Most renters can provide tales on a smaller scale: the broken boiler that went unfixed for months in the middle of winter; the leaking pipe; the mice or slugs. Perhaps, before blaming their landlord, they might consider their lifestyle.

The many people who have served, briefly, as housing ministers under this government have frequently said that such conditions are unacceptable. They could have prioritised their prevention – by properly funding social housing providers, or ensuring councils had the resources to investigate and take action against cowboy landlords – but they didn’t.

In Thursday’s Autumn Statement Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, announced that social housing rents next year will be allowed to rise by up to 7 per cent, the highest of three possible caps included in a consultation this year. The reasoning is clear – inflation is soaring and the housing quality crisis will not be solved by eating away at providers’ incomes, leaving social housing landlords unable to pay their own bills. Both the increase and its timing look a lot like an insult, all the same.

[See also: Covid-stretched NHS has led to deadly consequences for heart care]