Nobody’s home should ever put their life at risk

Published: by Tarun Bhakta

A picture of some social housing

This week’s inquest into the death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak has shown once again, five years on from the Grenfell Tower Fire, just how dangerous substandard and poorly managed can be housing can be.

Every single day our services help people struggling with damp, mould, fire hazards, and dangerous disrepair. They can’t get their landlords to take any action. These issues are systemic, and only fundamental changes will prevent awful tragedies from happening again.

We look at the key steps the government must take if it truly intends to tackle housing issues for people living in substandard social housing. In a later blog, we’ll explore the changes needed in the private rental market.

Tougher measures to tackle unsafe conditions in social housing

It’s shocking that even after the tragedy at Grenfell Tower that claimed 72 lives, people are still living in badly managed homes that put their health and safety at risk. And when they complain, they’re often ignored and discriminated against.

The death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak was determined by the coroner to be entirely due to the prolonged exposure to mould in his family’s flat – owned by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing – while his family desperately fought to get it fixed.

Poorly managed and maintained housing can kill. Change is needed.

The long-promised, long-overdue Social Housing Regulation Bill presents a vital opportunity to improve standards for everyone living in social housing and prevent any more people from being killed by substandard housing. It must result in:

  • stronger and more wide-ranging consumer standards, covering all the matters most important to tenants, from disrepair and poor-quality workmanship, to unprofessional and discriminatory housing management

  • where there are systemic failures by landlords to meet these standards, strong enforcement action by the Regulator of Social Housing, such as large fines or replacement of senior staff and board members

The Bill is being scrutinised by MPs next week. You can read more about what the Bill means for social renters, and the improvements we want MPs to make to it during the debates next week.

In response to calls for urgent action in the wake of Awaab’s death, Secretary of State for housing Michael Gove announced yesterday a list of immediate steps the government are taking on social housing and private renting conditions.

In social housing, the government has withdrawn funding to build new homes from Rochdale Boroughwide Housing and announced that the same will apply to all providers of social housing found to be in breach of consumer standards.

That’s a big, big change in approach. The Regulator of Social Housing already has the power to restrict funding for providers, but it has been sparing in its use of the strongest measures to enforce against failing landlords.

For example, Journalist and Presenter Daniel Hewitt’s (ITV) coverage of appalling conditions in Croydon Borough Council’s homes sparked a regulator investigation in May last year. But despite the deep systemic problems uncovered, Croydon remained eligible for government funding.

There is a serious problem.

Without the use of tough enforcement measures to tackle serious mismanagement, the Regulator may struggle to deter failings by other landlords – so the problems continue. The deterrents to prioritise the wellbeing and safety of tenants don’t appear strong enough to prevent poor-performing landlords from neglecting their tenants.

So, a move towards tougher enforcement is right. But it’s only part of the answer. Urgent investment in social housing is desperately needed to solve our housing emergency.

Investment in new social housing is vital  

To take pressure off the shortage of social rented homes, the government must promise to invest in a new generation of good-quality social homes. This would allow tenants living (as Awaab’s family were) in homes that put their lives at risk to get an urgent move – either permanently or while improvement works are carried out.

New social homes are also needed for the tens of thousands of families, including 120,000 children who’ll be spending Christmas in often poor-quality, temporary accommodation, not to mention the tens of thousands of renters struggling in the private market.

The government’s proposal to deny Affordable Homes Programme funding to all social landlords breaching consumer standards makes sense. Why should the public fund a failing landlord to build more homes when they neglect tenants in the homes they’re already managing?

But the consequences should be acknowledged and addressed. The government must have a plan to ensure, that when providers are denied funding**, there are other local housing providers** willing, ready, and able to deliver desperately needed social homes in the area. It’s also important the government examine whether landlords with substandard homes have adequate funding available to urgently improve their homes, which may need major structural work (rather than mould-proof paint) to rectify problems. Tenants living in those homes may not see their conditions improve without new funding.  

Tough enforcement will only get us so far. Without investment in social housing**, we’ll never be able to solve the problems that tenants are facing in their homes.** We’ll never truly tackle poor conditions in the sector.

Where is the Renters’ Reform Bill?

As we’ve heard this week, issues like damp, mould and disrepair are even more prevalent in the private rented sector (PRS). 21% of private-rented homes are deemed non-decent, making it the worst-performing tenure.

Ministers have repeatedly promised a Renters’ Reform Bill to tackle this, but it still hasn’t seen the light of day.  Renters have been waiting too long for change. The government must stop dithering and change the law for both social and private tenants without further delay. We’ll publish another blog soon on changes needed for private tenants.

The state of this country’s homes is a disgrace: a turning point.

Last week, Housing Minister Michael Gove said, ‘tens of thousands of homes are unsafe’  and that there’s not been ‘enough change since Grenfell.’ These terrible events are due to a lack of government intervention and investment.

With millions of people struggling to pay rent, evictions increasing, and thousands being ignored in poor-quality housing, the government can’t continue to ignore the reforms and investment required in our housing.

We need hundreds of thousands of genuinely affordable, quality social homes. We need reforms to protect renters from eviction. And we need strong regulators to hold social housing landlords to account.

Together we can fight for more social housing

If you’d like to help push for these changes and help end the housing emergency, join our campaigns.

If you’re struggling with the conditions in your home, or you can’t make rent, or you’re facing homelessness, we have housing advice support available.