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Nearly two thirds of social workers say children live in homes with “excessive levels of mould”

A survey from the Social Workers Union reveals the extent of poor housing conditions in the UK.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

At the milder end, damp and mould can cause regular sneezing, a runny nose, rashes and eye irritation. But more severe consequences include triggering or worsening respiratory problems and infections, allergies and asthma, and causing mental health issues – even increasing the risk of death. Children are especially vulnerable, due to their developing immune systems. Yet nearly two thirds (61 per cent) of children’s social workers have witnessed young people living in conditions with “excessive levels of mould”, a members’ survey from the Social Workers Union (SWU) reveals.

According to the government’s own figures, roughly 4 per cent of households in England are dealing with damp (equivalent to around one million homes), and the issue has become more common since 2019. While damp is apparent across all types of dwellings, it is most prevalent in private renting: 9 per cent of private renters reported the problem in 2022, compared with over 4 per cent of social renters and 2 per cent of owner-occupiers.

The SWU survey found that the cost-of-living crisis and high energy bills continued to impact people last winter, with nearly three quarters (71 per cent) of social workers reporting that the people they supported had stopped turning on their heating to save money. In England, the north-east was most heavily impacted, with nine in ten (94 per cent) social workers in this region reporting that people had stopped heating their homes. The SWU conducted its survey in January and February 2024 across the UK, and 716 social workers responded.

“All too often social workers are reporting seeing people living in substandard and dangerous housing,” said John McGowan, general secretary of the SWU. “This happens in all parts of the country, but we know that people living in the private rented sector can be among the worst affected.” According to the English Housing Survey 2022, 15 per cent of dwellings failed to meet the basic requirements set out by the government's Decent Homes Standard.

Richard Blakeway, the housing ombudsman for England, told Spotlight last year that indecent housing conditions have not been taken seriously enough, and that “damp and mould are one of the areas that have been taken for granted”.

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In 2022, a coroner ruled that the death of the two-year-old Awaab Ishak in a Rochdale social home in 2020 was caused by exposure to black mould, officially recognising the impact of poor living conditions on health. Following this, Michael Gove, the Levelling Up Secretary, led on passing Awaab’s law as part of the Social Housing (Regulation) Act. The new law will require social housing landlords to investigate and fix damp and mould in their properties within strict new time limits. A consultation on these time scales took place in January. 

“Adverse childhood experiences are known to have [a] long-term negative impact on all aspects of people’s lives. This involves significant increased risk to physical health as well as further risks to mental health and achievement in school,” said Dr Cath Lowther, general secretary of the Association of Educational Psychologists, responding to the SWU's recent survey.

She added: “If the government is serious about improving the lives of our children and young people, starting with safe, adequate housing needs to be a priority.”

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