Rochdale Boroughwide Housing under fire after death of two-year-old

Gareth Swarbrick, CEO of the housing co-op, faces calls to resign after an inquest found exposure to mould caused Awaab Ishak’s severe respiratory condition

The chief executive of mutually owned Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) is under pressure to resign after a damning investigation into the death of a two-year-old child living in a mould-infested flat.

On Tuesday, a coroner found that the death in 2020 of Awaab Ishak was caused by exposure to persistent black mould on the walls of the home the family rented from the mutual. The coroner also said that RBH had failed repeatedly to fix the problem, blaming the mould on “family lifestyle”.

The news has drawn huge criticism of RBH – the UK’s first tenant and employee co-owned mutual housing society, which has over 12,000 homes throughout the Rochdale area – with several calls on CEO Gareth Swarbrick to resign.

The inquest saw Joanne Kearsley, senior coroner at Rochdale Coroner’s Court, record a narrative conclusion stating that several things had gone wrong, some of which had contributed to the child’s death.

The mould 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 respiratory condition led to respiratory arrest.”

Asking the court how such a thing could happen in the UK in 2020, she said 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 … We shouted out as loudly as we could,” they said.

They accused RBH of racial dscrimination 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”.

The ombudman’s letter added: “This may entail interviews with staff of the landlord, the landlord providing information from third parties or former members of staff, and attending meetings with the Ombudsman as requested.

“Additionally … I have agreed that we will be exercising our powers under paragraph 49 of our Scheme to conduct further investigation to establish if this complaint is indicative of wider failure within the landlord.

“I would welcome a meeting with you to set out our approach in more detail and respond to any initial questions you or your team may have.”

RBH has issued several statements since the inquest, with Swarbrick saying: “I am truly devastated about Awaab’s death and the things we got wrong.

“We know that nothing we can say will bring Awaab back or be of any consolation to his family. We have and will continue to learn hard lessons from this.

“We didn’t recognise the level of risk to a little boy’s life from the mould in the family’s home. We allowed a legal disrepair process to get in the way of promptly tackling the mould.

“We must make sure this can never happen again. Awaab’s death needs to be a wake-up call for everyone in housing, social care and health.”

Swarbrick said RBH would share the lessons of the tragedy with other housing providers and listed the changes RBH has made since Awaab’s death.

“We support the coroner and housing ombudsman’s call for the government’s Decent Homes Standard to be strengthened to include damp and mould, and the coroner’s decision to write to the ministers of housing and health on this.

“We note the coroner’s words that she was impressed with the learning RBH has taken and desire to share with others. As a result, she will not be issuing us with a Prevention of Future of Deaths Report.

“We agree with the Coroner that the tragic death of Awaab will be and should be a defining moment for the housing sector.

“As a community owned organisation we support the diverse communities of Rochdale. We are proud of the work we do with all our tenants.”

Actions listed by RBH 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 will 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.

It said it is also working with tenants to highlight the risks of damp and mould. Employees are being given mandatory training on the issue 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”.

But critics have rounded on Swarbrick, with the Manchester Evening News attacking “the housing bosses who failed Awaab Ishak”, reporting that his pay package, including pension contributions, rose from £144,000 a year to £185,000 from the end of March 2019 to April 2021, and criticising his failure to attend the inquest.

The Greater Manchester Tenants’ Union is hosting a vigil tomorrow (19 November) outside the Rochdale Borough Council’s offices at No. Riverside, calling on Swarbrick to resign.

Housing secretary Michael Gove has also questioned Swarbrick’s fitness to continue as CEO and summoned him to a meeting to discuss the situation.

“The apparent attempts by RBH to attribute the existence of mould to the actions of Awaab’s parents was beyond insensitive and deeply unprofessional,” said Gove.

“As the housing ombudsman has made clear, damp and mould in rented housing is not a lifestyle issue and we all have a duty to call out any behaviour rooted in ignorance or prejudice.”

But in his most recent statement, Swarbrick said: “Having spoken to the board, I can confirm that I will not be resigning. They have given me their full backing and trust to continue to oversee the improvements and changes needed within RBH.”

RBH chair Alison Tumilty added: “As an organisation, we would again like to extend our deepest sympathies and say sorry to Faisal and Aisha. We let them down. 

“This is a tragedy of the highest order, and we are devastated that it happened in one of our homes. We have made mistakes and we are endeavouring to correct them.”

In terms of reaction from the wider co-operative movement, Co-operatives UK and the Confederation of Co-operative Housing have been contacted for comment.