In 2020, Awaab Ishak, a two-year-old boy from Rochdale, died due to prolonged exposure to black mould in the flat he lived in with his parents. In November this year, the coroner ruled that exposure to the mould had caused his death. She said the ruling should be a “defining moment”, officially recognising that poor living conditions can be a serious health risk.
And this case is not a one-off. According to the latest government figures, 3 per cent of households in England have damp in at least one room (roughly 780,000 homes), while 2 per cent of homes have issues with condensation and mould (roughly 480,000). These issues are more prevalent in the private rented sector than in social housing.
Richard Blakeway, the housing ombudsman for England, told Spotlight that for too long, indecent housing has not been treated with the seriousness it deserves. According to the English Housing Survey 2021, one in ten social homes and more than two in ten private homes do not meet the basic requirements set out by the government’s Decent Homes Standard.
“Housing conditions are a really serious issue in England,” said Blakeway. “Damp and mould are one of the areas that have been taken for granted. Too often, there’s been a dismissive attitude towards [them] as a fact of life, when in reality [they] can cause significant issues for residents. The coroner’s decision last month is a really profound moment because they have rightly made a direct link between damp and mould and the risk to someone’s life.”
Damp and mould can have severe consequences on physical health, causing or exacerbating respiratory problems, infections, allergies and asthma, and impacting the immune system. They can also affect mental health, said Blakeway, causing distress, anxiety, embarrassment, social isolation and inconvenience, as certain rooms in someone’s home might be made unusable. “All of that has an impact on someone’s quality of life and well-being,” he said. “It eats away at [their] confidence.”
But why are so many homes in England deemed unliveable? Standards have deteriorated over recent decades due to a “perfect storm” in the housing sector, he said, including the age of the housing stock, landlords being pulled in different directions financially to undertake routine repairs and meet building safety requirements, and a dismissive culture that has developed where damp and mould are considered unimportant or the fault of residents.
It is common for landlords to place the onus on their tenants, advising them to keep the heating on, open windows to increase ventilation, dry clothes outdoors and use a dehumidifier. These makeshift solutions are problematic due to soaring energy costs, and they do not get to the heart of the problem. Damp and mould are caused by excess moisture and condensation, often due to structural issues rather than residents’ behaviour. Poor insulation, leaking pipes, damaged roofs or window frames, and a lack of damp-proofing are often beyond the control of tenants.
This also amounts to victim-blaming, said Blakeway, with landlords attributing problems to tenants’ “lifestyle” choices. This is not unique to damp and mould, and also happens with other issues such as pest problems. “There’s something really concerning about the resident-landlord relationship,” he said. “The slightly parent-child attitude that has emerged. The way in which ‘lifestyle’ is being used as a term seems entirely inappropriate.”
This “pervasive” language is a “systemic issue” that dates back decades to the treatment of social housing tenants in the 1980s, and indicates discrimination towards those on lower incomes and from certain backgrounds. “I’ve had residents say to me that this is stigmatising,” he said. “That if [they] lived in a different tenure, [they] wouldn’t be told this, [they] wouldn’t be treated like this.”
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Such attitudes could be exacerbating existing health inequalities. According to the government, people from mixed-race, Bangladeshi, black African and Pakistani households are more likely to have damp problems than white British households. In Ishak’s case, his parents believe they were discriminated against for being immigrants, and their concerns were ignored because they were “not from this country and less aware of how the systems in the UK work”. People on lower incomes experiencing fuel poverty are also more likely to be impacted by damp and mould, as mould growth can be exacerbated by the cold.
Major legislative and cultural changes are needed to address this chasm in housing inequality. Led by Blakeway, the Housing Ombudsman Service produced a report into the dangers of damp and mould last year, which lays out 26 recommendations, and seeks to push landlords from being “reactive” to “proactive” about the problem.
Some of its core tenets include revising government policy on decent housing, and encouraging landlords to undertake more pre-emptive work, such as regular inspections of older properties. It also places an emphasis on improving the landlord-tenant relationship through more empathic, regular communication, and changing the tone and language that blames residents and absolves landlords of responsibility.
In terms of policy, the Decent Homes Standard was introduced in the early 2000s to set the minimum standards that social homes should meet. It does not currently apply to private tenancies, despite private properties being statistically more likely to be unliveable than social housing. The government is currently reviewing the standard and is considering bringing the private rented sector into scope, which Blakeway believes is a step in the right direction.
When revising the standard, the government needs to be “much more explicit” about damp and mould, and housing as a health issue in general, he said. The Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, which applies to the entire housing sector, also needs to go into more detail on this problem. It currently only mentions “freedom from damp” briefly in its introducing section on fitness for human habitation.
Laying this out clearly in policy would be the “catalyst” needed to incite cultural change, said Blakeway, and would raise awareness of damp and mould as a major health issue similar to others that have been strongly regulated, such as gas safety or Legionnaires’ disease.
Private tenants are also currently relatively powerless to challenge poor housing conditions. The Housing Ombudsman Service offers dispute resolution for landlords and tenants, but currently only social housing landlords are obligated to sign up to this. “If you’re a private tenant, your routes to redress are far more limited,” said Blakeway. “It’s important that someone has got a place to go for independent dispute resolution that isn’t the courts.”
Alongside tightening up legislation, there needs to be a wider societal acceptance that damp and mould is a systemic health issue. “I get frustrated when I hear landlords tell me that it was a one-off, it was historic, it was isolated,” said Blakeway. “That idea is simply wrong, and it’s too defensive from landlords. They need to change that to really drive learning and improvement through their services.”
And as people face soaring energy costs this winter, health inequalities will only be worsened. Drastic intervention across both social and private housing is necessary. “This is the moment to reflect on what we expect from the housing sector,” believes Richard Blakeway. “What you’re seeing is very vulnerable houses sometimes in the private rented sector. The idea that you just need to get it right in social housing would be wrong – it’s much wider than that.”
This article is part of an ongoing series on major health crises, from health inequalities to anti-microbial resistance. Read them all here.