Housing secretary Michael Gove has withdrawn £1m of funds from Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) as the outcry continues over the of death two-year-old Awaab Ishak in a mould-infected flat.
The funding was part of the Affordable Housing Programme to build new housing. Gove said there would no extra funds for RBH until it “gets its act together” and warned other providers would face similar sanction if they breach standards.
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham questioned the decision, telling a BBC Radio Manchester interviewer: “The organisation needs to make improvements, but it’s not going to be helped in that if it’s doing that on a reduced budget.
“I would probably want to see the conditions. If Michael Gove is saying, ‘until you do x, y and z, we will hold this money back,’ that might be a fair enough move.”
A coroner’s inquest into Awaab’s death in 2020 has left the mutual in crisis, with the mutual’s board dismissing chief executive Gareth Swarbrick.
Swarbrick had declared his intention to stay in the post but as protestors gathered outside Rochdale Council offices, the board withdrew its initial support for him.
“Our original instincts were for Gareth to stay on to see the organisation through this difficult period and to make the necessary changes,” said the board in a statement on the RBH website, “but we all recognise that this is no longer tenable.”
It has said it will appoint an interim CEO but Cllr Neil Emmott, leader of Rochdale Council, has written to housing secretary Michael Gove asking that “the housing stock managed by RBH is returned to the control of the local authority alongside the required funding”.
The barrister representing Awaab’s family, Christian Weaver, read a statement at the vigil, which said: “The family were deeply saddened that following this inquest, RBH did nothing but express their confidence in their chief executive Gareth Swarbrick, despite in the court room doing everything to indicate that significant changes would be made.
“The fact that RBH’s chief executive had to be sacked as opposed to resigning, for the family speaks volumes. However, they find it wholly unacceptable that the board expressed confidence in him the first place. The family still feels that much more needs to be done and a further statement will be released in due course.”
Awaab’s death has seen the tenant and employee co-owned mutual, which runs over 12,000 homes throughout the Rochdale area, mired in allegations of racism after it emerged it had blamed the mould on on the family’s “lifestyle”.
And the Manchester Evening News criticised the increase in Swarbrick’s pay package, including pension contributions, from £144,000 a year to £185,000 from the end of March 2019 to April 2021 – the period surrounding Awaab’s death – and noted his failure to attend the inquest.
Joanne Kearsley, senior coroner at Rochdale Coroner’s Court, recorded a narrative conclusion, stating that the mould, most likely the result of poor ventilation, was present in the bathroom and kitchen of the flat Awaab shared with his parents, Faisal Abdullah and Aisha Amin, and was first reported to RBH in 2017.
“Awaab Ishak died as a result of a severe respiratory condition caused due to prolonged exposure to mould in his home environment,” said Kearsley. “Action to treat and prevent the mould was not taken. His condition led to respiratory arrest.”
Kearsley noted that there was no evidence of complaints by the family to RBH about the mould between the initial complaint in 2017 and 2020.
And she said that in June 2020, the family had instructed solicitors over the issue.
“Due to policy the impact of the commencement of a claim meant that any disrepairs found would not be undertaken until there had been an agreement from the claimant’s solicitors,” she wrote. “I heard evidence that this policy was not unique to RBH and was adopted by them following similar organisations who have this policy.”
She also acknowledged that RBH had “learned many lessons” since the tragedy but added that the case should become “a defining moment for the housing sector in terms of increasing knowledge, increasing awareness and a deepening of understanding surrounding the issue of damp and mould”.
After the hearing, lawyers for Awaab’s parents read a statement in which they accused RBH of failing for several years to treat the mould.
“We cannot tell you how many health professionals we have cried in front of and Rochdale borough housing staff we have pleaded to expressing concern,” they said.
They accused RBH of racial discrimination in the case, adding: “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.”
Following the case, the ombudsman has written to RBH with regard to “three complaints … which have also been assessed as high or medium risk”.
The ombudsman’s team has been instructed to speed its investigations of these cases, using paragraph 12 of the Housing Ombudsman Scheme to “enable us to effectively gather any information required”. It will also investigate further “to establish if this complaint is indicative of wider failure within the landlord”.
In its statement, the RBH board added: “The coroner noted that RBH had made changes as a result of the tragic death of Awaab. Under new leadership RBH will continue to embed these changes and to continue to drive further improvements to our homes and to our communications with tenants. We are committed to sharing what we have learnt about the impact to health of damp, condensation and mould with the social housing sector, and to supporting sector wide changes. We will work with other agencies local and national and with central government in implementing the wider changes recommended to them by the coroner.
“As an organisation we are deeply sorry for the death of Awaab and devastated that it happened in one of our homes. We must ensure this can never happen again.”
Fallout for the co-op movement
The news is a blow to the UK co-op movement, with RBH hailed as the UK’s first tenant and employee co-owned mutual housing society.
It was launched with fanfare in 2011, with the time and date of the tenant vote for mutualisation organised for 8pm on 21 December, to coincide exactly with anniversary the opening of the Rochdale Pioneers’ Toad Lane co-op store.
The council leader at the time, Colin Lambert, welcomed the move, saying it “continues the ambitious, pioneering spirit of the 28 workers who set up the Toad Lane store and it’s an exciting development that will quite rightly take its place in our co-operative history”.
RBH put itself forward as an example of co-operation, with Swarbrick telling Co-op News in 2020 – the year of Awaab’s death – that its initiatives on Covid-19 stemmed from “tenants and employees as co-owners, giving people a sense of responsibility and working together”.
Instead it now finds itself at the heart of a scandal, with the media seizing on reports by other tenants of mould in their flats. Asked by Sky, RBH said it had received 106 formal complaints about damp or mould in their properties over the last year.
Responding to the inquest, Rose Marley, CEO of sector apex Co-operatives UK, said: “The death of Awaab Ishak is incredibly sad and shocking – and the subsequent inquest findings distressed us all. We’ve written to RBH requesting – as a matter of urgency – detail in terms of how they’re addressing the findings of the inquest, with specific regard to governance and internal processes. The responses we receive will help us understand RBH’s support needs and next steps.
“All co-ops are different, operating with different constitutions and governing rules – and of differing sizes across all sectors within the economy. Something was clearly broken in the case of RBH. Tenants were not being heard over a fundamental issue; of safe and habitable homes. Those failings have resulted in the most horrific of outcomes. That is why we have directly approached RBH over its governance and also why we’re reaching out to all our housing members to remind them of the steps required to ensure their governance is fit for purpose. The social housing sector, in particular, requires wholesale reform. But for co-operatives, the values and principles must be front and centre when it comes to change.”
Blase Lambert, CEO of the Confederation of Co-operative Housing (CCH), said: “I am saddened by the tragic death of Awaab Ishak. CCH sends its condolences to his family. CCH supports fundamental change in the social housing sector to raise standards and protect the health and safety of all residents in their homes.”
There has been ongoing debate in the co-op movement over the mutualisation of local authority services, with those on the left arguing it amounts to privatisation by the back door.
And within the housing co-op sector there has been discussion – not specific to RBH – of the need for improvement on representation. There were side sessions at the recent CCH conference looking for ways to improve the representation of BAME and other minorities in the sector, and how to increase tenant participation at board level, with some co-ops struggling to attract candidates.
Action urged on UK social housing
The tragedy has put the spotlight on the country’s wider council and housing association stock, with the government demanding improvements to ensure there are no further mould-related deaths.
In her Reglation 28 Report to Prevent Future Deaths, coroner Kearsley said the problem of mould is not specific to this case or to the social housing sector, with private renters also affected. She warned that the 2006 guideline on decent housing “does not give any consideration to the issues of damp and mould. Nor does it provide guidance as to the need of a property to be adequately ventilated”.
She added that the government’s housing health and safety rating system (HHSRS) data sheet “is not reflective of the current known risks of damp and mould and harm to health”, and orders housing minister Michael Gove and health secretary Steve Barclay to take action to remedy this.
RBH told the inquest of the difficulty of dealing with ageing housing stock, a common problem in the social housing sector which has faced several years of austerity measures.
Last week, Fiona MacGregor CEO of the Regulator of Social Housing, wrote to all UK social housing providers reminding them of “the responsibility of all registered providers to ensure that the homes they provide are well maintained and of a decent standard”.
RBH says it has been taking action to identify and remedy problems in its own stock. These include a visits to “every home in Freehold to carry out a survey of each flat to check for damp or mould issues”, which is being followed up with a £1.2m programme to install positive input ventilation units and extractor fans. The work is set to take 12 months, starting on 5 December.
The mutual says it has also improved its IT systems and processes, which the inquest heard had contributed to the problem, keeping some staff unaware of the state of the property.
Employees are being given mandatory training and video tech is being rolled out to enhance communication with people who do not speak English as a first language.
It added that is trialling tech including humidity smart meters and different types of ventilation to see what is most effective in different homes, and “will share these findings with the sector going forward”.