The health impacts of poor-quality social housing have been in the spotlight after a coroner ruled two year-old Awaab Ishak died after prolonged exposure to mould in his flat, which was maintained by a housing association in Rochdale.
The Housing Ombudsman investigates complaints made about social housing providers, such as housing associations, local authorities and housing co-operatives. A freedom of information request by Radar revealed 5,838 complaints about leaks, damp and mould were made to the ombudsman in the three years to March 2022.
Of these, 3,915 were about properties managed by housing associations, and 1,861 were for housing provided by or on behalf of local authorities. Alex Diner, a senior researcher on housing at the New Economics Foundation, called it a “national disgrace” that millions of families across England are living in “dangerous” homes.
“The shocking death of Awaab Ishak shows the government must accept responsibility and do much more to drive up standards in the social housing sector, to empower tenants and to improve the rotten culture that still exists in those failing councils and housing associations,” he said.
The number of complaints has risen more than 17-fold in recent years – there were 3,741 complaints about leaks, damp and mould in 2021/22, while there were just 212 in 2019/20, alongside a further 400 complaints about ‘leaks and floods’ that year. The Ombudsman said this may be due to improved recording practices and greater media attention on the issue in the past year.
In response to the findings, the National Housing Federation said work “has already begun to improve the quality any homes and services that have fallen short”. It said every housing association property will be checked for issues such as damp and mould and any problems fixed, following recommendations in a review it commissioned along with the Chartered Institute of Housing.
Nationally, there were also 2,579 complaints about heating and hot water in social housing from 2019/20 to 2021/22. Complaints may fall into multiple categories – so a single complaint could be about issues with both hot water and mould, for instance.
The Local Government Association, which represents local authorities, said councils “fully support” efforts to improve standards in the rental sector. David Renard, the organisation’s housing spokesman, said any new responsibilities for local authorities will need to be “adequately funded”.
While the majority of complaints from the last financial year are yet to be given a final outcome, in 2020/21 there were 334 complaints across England regarding leaks, damp and mould where the housing provider was ultimately found to be in the wrong.
Housing Ombudsman Richard Blakeway said landlords should take a “zero-tolerance approach” to tackling damp and mould. He said landlords should avoid blaming the “lifestyle choices” of their tenants for issues with their properties and instead take a proactive approach to dealing with them.
Housing charity Shelter said the Social Housing Regulation Bill, which is currently going through parliament, is “long overdue”. Polly Neate, the charity’s chief executive, said: “As well as much tighter regulation, we also need to see greater government investment in social housing, both to improve the homes we already have and to build high quality new ones.”
A spokesman for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said the Bill would improve the quality of social housing. They said the Housing Secretary Michael Gove would block government funding to any housing provider breaching consumer standards. NationalWorld recently revealed that more than a million homes in England and Wales are overcrowded.
Condemned: Britain’s Housing Crisis
The NationalWorld team is investigating the housing crisis blighting Britain, and you can read more of our stories here. The current plight is years in the making, from renters stuck in mouldy homes to families unable to afford cladding repairs to make their flats safe. You can read more of our stories on the housing crisis here and if you have a story to tell email [email protected].