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Meet the man trying to improve Britain's social housing

The state of social housing in the UK has been dominating headlines for all the wrong reasons. Is change afoot? We speak to the man charged with holding negligent landlords to account, the housing ombudsman Richard Blakeway

Has there ever been more awareness of the systemic problems with Britain’s social housing than there is today?

What was once the reserve of residents’ associations and local journalists is now leading the evening news, going viral on social media and is front and centre in the minds of the political elite.

From the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the fallout from it, to high-profile exposures of squalid living conditions and the devastating death of toddler Awaab Ishak, this is a crisis that can no longer be ignored.

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One person welcoming the increased scrutiny is Richard Blakeway who, as the housing ombudsman, pores over thousands of complaints each year from tenants at the end of their tether. It could be damp or mould, a pest infestation, repairs taking too long, the boiler packing in – you get the idea. When someone complains about something to their landlord and isn’t satisfied with the response, they can turn to the ombudsman.

In November Blakeway gave evidence at Awaab’s inquest. The two-year-old died in December 2020 from environmental mould exposure in his one-bed flat in Rochdale. His family had complained several times about the issue to their landlord, Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, but it wasn’t sorted. Coroner Joanne Kearsley said the case “should be a defining moment for the housing sector”. Blakeway calls it a “watershed moment”. But has the penny dropped for landlords?

“I think it’s a mixed bag,” he says. “You’ve got some landlords that have been quite thorough and not defensive, and have recognised they need to do more, and that there are shortcomings. And you’ve got other landlords who are too dismissive and too defensive and too focused on the organisation’s reputation rather than redress and learning.”

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We’re speaking in the canteen of a government building in Canary Wharf, where the Housing Ombudsman team is based. The lifts here are as big as a kitchen in a tower block two-bed, the canteen an estate. It doesn’t do wonders for the view held by many tenants that justice is unlikely to be served by a pen-pusher in a fancy office. There’s also the fact that, often, by the time the ombudsman gets involved the issue has been rumbling on for months, if not years, shattering the tenant’s faith.

On that note, the government has this week announced plans to introduce Awaab’s Law in its Social Housing (Regulation) Bill, ​​which will require landlords to fix damp and mould issues within specific timeframes. It’s something Blakeway says can’t come soon enough.

“I’m constantly searching for evidence that landlords have been proactive, urgent and have a grip on these issues,” he says. “I started here just after the green paper on social housing was published after Grenfell, and there were conversations with social tenants and what they thought about their relationship with the landlords. What came up really clearly was the sense that it sometimes just wasn’t worth complaining. Why bother? We won’t be heard, it’s a waste of time or worse, there will be some retribution.”

Blakeway says, as Awaab’s death highlighted, landlords have for too long been neglecting issues with damp and mould in social housing properties.

“I think there are some things specific to damp and mould, a complacency around it, a dismissiveness, it becomes too easy to rationalise the response by saying it’s the resident,” he says.

“I think it was invidious. [It’s a] practice that has been around for 40 years. I’ve seen archive footage of residents in the early 1980s saying identical stuff about their landlords blaming their lifestyle.”

Awaab’s family also accused their landlord of racism, alleging they were discriminated against because they were originally from Sudan.

“This is an area of increasing focus,” says Blakeway. “I want us to consider human rights when we’re assessing cases and while it’s the role of the court to consider damages in relation to discrimination, I think there is a role for an ombudsman to consider whether practices were discriminatory. Communication is not only about frequency and effectiveness, it’s also about tone and empathy. Where a landlord is being unsympathetic, particularly where vulnerabilities may be involved, I find that troubling.”

He does stress that things have got better since he started in the role in summer 2019.

“I’ve definitely seen the tone shift. I can definitely see landlords taking the complaints process more seriously and the residents seeing the value in the complaints process. Now that there is an unprecedented focus on landlords.”

The work of campaigner Kwajo Tweneboa, and the investigative work by ITV News and others in the media, means the horrific conditions of social housing are being seen by millions of people. Landlords are being publicly shamed. It’s a gamechanger.

“Kwajo’s work has been hugely important,” says Blakeway, who appeared on the Channel 4 documentary about Tweneboa’s work. “That’s an example of how transparency can change actions and behaviours.

“When we published a report on damp and mould [in October 2021], obviously it followed several months of ITV, Kwajo and other media highlighting cases, and I’ve often reflected on what the sector’s response to the report would have been without that context.

“We did a report on cladding earlier that year and there wasn’t the same focus. I think a lot of landlords have had to re-evaluate their commitment to repairs.”

A perfect storm

But why are things so bad? The UK has the oldest housing stock in Europe, but more money than ever is being spent on repairs and maintenance. Despite that, the ombudsman has seen a 77 per cent increase in the number of enquiries and complaints around damp, mould and leaks – from 1,993 in 2020/21 to 3,530 in 2021/22. So far in 2022/23 there have been 3,969. It’s not all down to a renewed faith in the complaints process.

“You’ve seen a perfect storm emerging,” explains Blakeway. “Three issues come into sharp focus. Obviously the building safety crisis, which for some landlords has created a significant requirement, and has caused deep distress for residents. Then you have the housing conditions and the age and design of some social housing. What is becoming really apparent is that the [government’s] Decent Homes Standard gets you so far, but it doesn’t completely address disrepair. And then you have the emerging challenge which is net zero – we’ve seen serious issues with power outages in heat networks. Most landlords are only in an embryonic stage of responding to it.”

The ombudsman’s role is essentially to highlight where a landlord has gone wrong and ensure it learns from it. It’s methodical and process-driven, and Blakeway is keen to talk about policies. Some landlords simply don’t have them.

“We’re going to do a report looking at record keeping because I think it is a systemic failure in the sector,” he says. “Any landlord that says they haven’t got a problem with record keeping probably has some of the biggest failures because they’re just not even alert to it.”

He gives an example. “In the space of 12 months we had two severe maladministration cases with the same landlord both concerning repairs. In the first case we said: ‘You do not have a repairs policy. How can you consistently respond to residents?’ Second case comes along, same issues. That landlord now has a repairs policy in place. It’s a starting point.”

Richard Blakeway, the housing ombudsman.

Blakeway is also chair of the Ombudsman Association, made up of all the ombudsman services across the UK. They don’t all have the same powers. Only one has the powers of arrest – the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. In fact, there’s a large degree of discretion in how you go about your role as an ombudsman.

Blakeway explains: “Unlike a court of law where you are making quite binary decisions on specific points of law, an ombudsman has a layer of discretion about what is fair, what is reasonable, what is best practice.

“An ombudsman takes a really active role in evidence gathering. We’re inquisitorial, and I think it helps address this inherent imbalance of power between the resident and the landlord. They might not have the resources to get a big lawyer involved.”

In October the government removed a “democratic filter” that required social tenants to contact their MP or councillor before raising an issue with an ombudsman. It’ll speed up the process and do wonders for the reputation of the service.

“That existed for about 10 years and that was a real barrier to access,” explains Blakeway. “It reinforced that view of the ombudsman as the last resort. Overcoming that will take time.”

Another way Blakeway has modernised things is by taking inspiration from his Dutch counterparts, who “rock up in a supermarket and folk come and meet them”.

“I go round the country,” he says. “How am I welcomed? It’s a real mixed bag. Some say: ‘What the hell do you do?’, others say: ‘You made a crap decision’.”

He should soon have the tools that will see people tell him: “You made a good decision”.

The ombudsman is set to be granted wider powers to make orders and introduce a new complaint handling code, which landlords will have to adhere to, as part of the government’s Social Housing (Regulations) Bill.

“That is so important. Because it shouldn’t be a postcode lottery around complaints,” he says. “Some landlords have a single-stage process, which is really unfair. And then other landlords have a 16-stage process, which means you’re just in purgatory. The orders will have real teeth to them.”

Profound consequences

But not prosecution powers, which were widely called for in the wake of Awaab’s inquest. In the end housing secretary Michael Gove cut all government funding to Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, but chief executive Gareth Swarbrick refused to resign. He was eventually sacked, but a lack of criminal justice in the case has caused outrage. It’s not something Blakeway has any say over, though. Instead he’s focusing on ensuring landlords take matters seriously and have the policies to back it up. It’s work he believes in.

“What can sound dry and administrative can have profound human and organisational consequences,” he says.

The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future. 

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