The government has stripped funding from a housing association after it failed to act on a black mould problem which contributed to the tragic death of a two-year old.
Awaab Ishak died in December 2020 from a respiratory condition caused by prolonged exposure to mould. His parents, Faisal Abdullah and Aisha Amin, had been making frequent complaints about the conditions in the one-bedroom housing association flat in Rochdale, Greater Manchester since 2017. The family asked to move home, and even pursued legal action, but the organisation responsible for the property still did not treat the mould.
Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH), the owner of the flat, has been stripped of its £1 million funding from the Affordable Homes Programme (AHP) by the government as a result. It will also not receive any new AHP contracts for new homes until the Regulator of Social Housing has finished its investigation and RBH can prove it is a responsible landlord.
Housing Secretary Michael Gove said: “Rochdale Boroughwide Housing failed its tenants so it will not receive a penny of additional taxpayers’ money for new housing until it gets its act together and does right by tenants. Let this be a warning to other housing providers who are ignoring complaints and failing in their obligations to tenants. We will not hesitate to act. Everyone deserves the right to live in a safe, decent home and this government will always act to protect tenants.”
The Tory MP, who has written to every English council leader and social housing provider to warn that deaths like that of Awaab must “never be allowed to happen again”, also told BBC Breakfast that “at least” tens of thousands of homes across the country are unsafe to inhabit. He said some of these are those which were built in the 60s and 70s and are in “poor condition”, while others are those which have simply been “poorly maintained”.
“How does this happen?”
The removal of funding comes just over a week after the damning inquest into Awaab’s death concluded, with the coroner stating that “action to treat and prevent the mould was not taken” and that the property “was not equipped for normal day-to-day living activities, which led to excess damp and condensation.” She also said it should be a “defining moment” for the UK’s housing sector.
“How does this happen?” Coroner Joanne Kearsley asked the court. “How in the UK in 2020 does a two-year-old child die due to exposure to mould?
“This issue is not simply a Rochdale problem, nor is damp and mould simply a social housing problem. It is a significant issue in the private sector too. There is little doubt that the tragic death of Awaab Ishak will and should be a defining moment for the housing sector.”
“We shouted out as loudly as we could”
After the hearing, Awaab’s family described how the toddler’s coughing fits would sometimes last up to three days and they felt “trapped, anxious and fearful of what the mould was doing” to him.
They said: “We cannot tell you how many health professionals we’ve cried in front of and Rochdale Boroughwide Housing staff we have pleaded to, expressing concern for the conditions ourselves and Awaab have been living in. We shouted out as loudly as we could, but despite making all of those efforts, every night we would be coming back to the same problem. We don’t feel Rochdale Boroughwide Housing actually cared about us.”
Parents Faisal and Aisha, who are originally from Sudan, also accused the housing association of racism - saying they believe they were treated in this way because they are not from the UK and are less aware of how the country’s systems in th work.
They said: “Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, we have a message for you: stop discriminating. Stop being racist. Stop providing unfair treatment to people coming from abroad who are refugees or asylum seekers. Stop housing people in homes you know are unfit for human habitation. We were left feeling absolutely worthless at the hands of RBH.”
How have RBH responded?
Gareth Swarbrick, chief executive of the housing association, said he is “truly devastated about Awaab’s death and the things we got wrong”, commenting: "We didn’t recognise the level of risk to a little boy’s health from the mould in the family’s home. We allowed a legal disrepair process, widely used in the housing sector, to get in the way of promptly tackling the mould. We must make sure this can never happen again."
Addressing racism accusations, he added: “As a community owned organisation we support the diverse communities of Rochdale. We are proud of the work we do with all our tenants.”
After initially refusing to step down, Swarbrick was removed as chief executive of RBH on Saturday (20 November). He had been in the position since 2008 and earnt £170,000 in the year of Awaab’s tragic death.
RBH said in a statement after the inquest concluded: “We want to start by saying again how sorry we are for the loss of Awaab. We know our words will not take away the pain felt by his family, nor will they immediately heal the hurt and the strength of feeling which is justifiably being felt in Rochdale and across the country.
“Our whole organisation, which is made up of caring and passionate colleagues, is completely focused on putting things right for our customers, the people of Rochdale and the wider community and sector. However, we know that we got things badly wrong.”
The organisation said it would “significantly accelerate” inspection of homes for damp and mould, and said its priorities included bringing in an experienced interim chief executive as soon as possible, meeting key stakeholders and sharing what it had learnt about the impact to health of damp, condensation and mould with the social housing sector.
The government has said it will continue to monitor housing standards of RBH tenancies closely. As part of a wider crackdown on poor standards, Gove will also block any housing provider that breaches the regulator’s consumer standards from new AHP funding until they make improvements and consider stripping providers of existing AHP funding, unless construction has already started on site.
In an interview with BBC Breakfast this morning (24 November), Gove added he would be visiting Rochdale later today to talk about the situation. When asked if the RBH should still be operating at all, he said: “If the penny has dropped, if the organisation is ready to learn appropriate lessons to improve and there are signs they fully appreciate the need to improve, we will work with them, and indeed with Rochdale Council, in order to make improvements.”
RBH originally received the £1 million funding when the Housing Secretary awarded it a share of a £14 million pot for seven areas with high numbers of poor, privately rented homes, including Greater Manchester, Leeds and Cornwall, in order to crack down on rogue landlords.