Housing

Awaab Ishak: Toddler's death from mould leads to record social housing complaints

Complaints to the Housing Ombudsman have gone through the roof with a 323% increase in the most serious failings after the toddler’s tragic death due to damp and mould

Rochdale toddler Awaab Ishak died due to damp and mould in his social housing flat

The shocking details behind Awaab Ishak's tragic death have been described as a "wake up call" for the social housing sector. Image: Family handout

The spotlight on the state of social housing following the death of Rochdale toddler Awaab Ishak has seen a surge in residents speaking up to complain to the Housing Ombudsman.

The regulator’s annual complaints review revealed more than 5,000 complaints were investigated last year for the first time – up 28% in a year – with more than half of the findings upheld.

That has seen the number of cases where severe maladministration – the most serious failings – has surged by 323%, up from 31 cases to 131.  Overall, the Housing Ombudsman made 6,590 orders and recommendations to improve conditions for residents, including ordering landlords to pay tenants £1.1 million in compensation.

The surge comes in a year when scrutiny on social housing landlords intensified following media coverage and the death of Awaab Ishak.

The Rochdale toddler died in 2020, aged two, after his family’s landlord failed to deal with damp and mould in their flat. Awaab Ishak’s death led to a change in the law known as Awaab’s Law and saw housing secretary Michael Gove warn landlords that fail tenants will “face the full force of the law”.

Housing ombudsman Richard Blakeway said: “What our data shows is a fundamental gap between some of the services landlords deliver and the reasonable expectations of their residents.

“Too often residents with disabilities or mental health needs are falling between those gaps. Too often the basics not being done properly, with straightforward communication or record keeping being missed leading to problems becoming more severe. This is leading to residents being treated unfairly and experiencing financial detriment or losing the enjoyment of their home.

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“As part of the Social Housing Regulation Act our powers have increased as we will soon be issuing wider orders to help landlords improve their policy and practice in key areas where we see potential for repeated failings.”

Housing campaigner Kwajo Tweneboa has also intensified the scrutiny on social housing landlords. He said: “A 323% increase should be a wake-up call to the social housing sector. Tenants are still being failed.”

The ombudsman has written to chief executives of landlords who have a maladministration rate of over 50%. There are 91 landlords with a maladministration rate above 50%, with 25 landlords being above 75%.

Bigger landlords were more likely to fail when it came to handling complaints. The ombudsman issued 146 complaint handling failure orders last year with 75% for landlords managing over 10,000 homes.

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Suz Muna, who leads the Social Housing Action Campaign (SHAC), said: “Because this is about the conditions of peoples homes and their quality of life, when things go wrong, the impact can be devastating and even on occasion fatal, as the ombudsman points out in reference to Awab Ishaak.

“But the cases that make the headlines are only the tip of a very big iceberg of trauma that we witness on a daily basis.

“It is significant also that such a high proportion of cases are from the big landlords. Merger fever continues to grip the sector, and we know that the bigger they grow, the more disconnected they become from the local communities where many housing associations were founded.”

Social housing residents mostly complained about the condition of their property with the ombudsman finding almost 2,000 cases – around 54% of those investigated – where conditions were not up to standard.

Some of the most serious issues were found in London with 77 of the 130 severe maladministration findings occurring in the English capital.

Councillor Darren Rodwell, housing spokesperson for the Local Government Association, said: “Councils are working hard to deliver good outcomes for tenants – despite significant financial constraints – and are committed to improving housing conditions for all residents.

“Ultimately, councils do not want to let their tenants down and want to work with them, the Housing Ombudsman and the Regulator of Social Housing to deliver the best possible service.”

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