Awaab’s Law: Political posturing, or change in the making?

Image credit: Peter Rhys Williams/Shutterstock

The government is consulting on tough new rules for social landlords as part of Awaab’s Law to enforce safer homes, but will they be tough enough, and can they really make a difference? Tim Clark reports

Michael Gove is a minister who isn’t shy of making bold statements.

When it came to the cladding scandal he threatened to drag the UK’s major developers and housebuilders to court, and use the full power of the state to ban them from the housing market.

They duly signed up to a pledge to help pay for cladding remediation.

Last month, Gove turned his attention to the social housing sector, and in particular the scourge of damp and mould, vowing to root out “rogue” social landlords who won’t invest in fixing their properties.

The secretary of state said that housing associations should aim to fix emergency hazards within 24 hours – or face penalties.

“[This] is about stronger and more robust action against social landlords who have refused to take their basic responsibilities seriously for far too long,” Gove said. “We will force them to fix their homes within strict new time limits and take immediate action to tackle dangerous damp and mould to help prevent future tragedies.”

Gove’s comments came as part of the government announcement that it had launched a long-awaited consultation on new regulations to provide safer homes as part of Awaab’s Law.

Three years ago, in December 2020, two-year-old Awaab Ishak died after living for a prolonged period in a flat where he was exposed to mould. The flat was managed by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, which had received complaints about the condition of the property for a number of years.

A new consultation from the government means that situations like those described above could finally be consigned to the past.

Eye off the ball

Former Chartered Institute of Housing president, and current board member for Saffron Housing, Alison Inman says that the top level of management at many housing providers has only recently began to take interest in issues that are seen as crucial for tenants.

“I’ve been a board member of various housing organisations for a very long time. It is only in the last couple of years that it has become easier to talk about things like damp and mould around the board table, because it was very much seen as operational,” she says. “It was not seen as the purview of the board.”

The new regulations follow six months on from the passing of the Social Housing (regulation) Act in the summer of 2023, and are the first of what could be a string of new rules and regs aimed at solving the persistent disrepair problems.

The question for housing associations and tenants is whether the plans can be delivered.

“Fundamentally I think the measures will be a net positive for tenants, but not necessarily in the short term,” says Neil Goodrich, head of customer performance and improvement at Sovereign Network Group.

“I expect to see some HAs caught out by the changes. Repairs and record keeping within the sector have not always been natural bedfellows. This will make that even more apparent.”

Accurate record keeping is a key failing for the sector. Goodrich highlights a report from the Housing Ombudsman from May last year, which showed how complaints act as a warning sign to HAs over gaps in their data or analysis, and should be given appropriate attention sooner.

The Ombudsman stated that at Catalyst, which has now merged with Peabody, amongst the record failings were missing repairs logs and jobs closed in error. This resulted in delays, confusion and uncertainty for residents.

Investigations into Birmingham City Council found there was no framework in place for the record keeping, nor expectations for data entry placed on staff and contractors.

Housing Ombudsman Richard Blakeway said: “Yet it is sometimes only with the Ombudsman’s intervention that data failings are being acknowledged and addressed, months or years after the landlord was made aware. This is alarming […]

“I repeatedly see cases where the landlord’s repair logs are missing or incomplete, and if they do exist are not informative because it records an operative’s visit but not what they did, or indeed decided not to do.”

According to Inman, since grant funding was whittled away after 2010, housing associations – keen to keep building and encouraged to do so – looked at other areas of their budgets, which could be rationalised to help. This rationalisation led to issues of disrepair.

“Since the grant funding was removed [by government] people have tried to continue to build but have had to look at other areas and budget in order to do that,” she says.

“They think ‘what’s the easiest thing to cut’, and it’s often the major works investment, and then you get organisations who are responding to problems [rather than pre-empting them] and dealing with issues in a piecemeal way. That is the most expensive way of managing maintenance on properties.”

Inman’s thoughts are echoed by others in the sector.

“Some now admit that the pursuit of growth and development at all cost, at the expense of existing services, meant that associations took their eye off the ball,” says Tom Murtha, former chief executive of Midland Heart.

“It has taken a report and a change of regulations to remind housing associations that they should deliver their core purpose. What an indictment.”

Housing association’s in England spent approximately 5.5bn on repairs in 2019/20. The figure for 2017/18 was closer to £3.5bn. The overall spending pattern is mixed, however, as many HAs reinvested in their repairs and maintenance following the Grenfell fire, with fire safety forming a key part of HAs spending plans.

An issue remains, however, that even with signs that HAs are now investing more into their repairs regime, the sector is lacking in funding to close the gap that Gove has ordered – especially with the oldest housing stock in Europe.

Political posturing

In a year when an election is due, ministerial statements have to be double checked for political posturing. It is fair to expect Gove to act on his intentions, needless to say many see the announcement as a vote winner, but harder to implement in practice.

“As I think many in the sector will say, this is political posturing by Gove. It ignores the fact that the lack of government funding has created the situation where services are failing and many homes are in disrepair,” Murtha says.

“I would argue that these comments, although true, ignore the reality that many leaders have been in denial about these issues, and have been complicit in allowing such poor service and conditions to develop.”

Murtha points out that alongside the tragic death of Awaab Ishak, it took high-profile campaigns from ITV journalist Dan Hewitt to make many HA boardrooms take heed of the problems with repairs and maintenance.

According to the government, while the majority of social housing residents do live in safe and decent homes, around 164,000 (4%) of social rented homes are estimated to have a category 1 hazard.

The housing health and safety rating system (HHSRS) was published under the Labour government in 2006 and lists 29 standards, which social landlords should adhere to to keep their properties in order.

These include damp and mould, excess cold, excess heat, carbon monoxide and fuel combustion products, exposure to lead, asbestos, radiation and volatile compounds such as formaldehyde.

As housing blog, Nearly Legal’s Giles Peaker states, by encapsulating all 29 standards, the new regulations don’t allow for landlords to bypass serious issues. It does however ask landlords to “use their judgement” when assessing how to respond to repairs.

”Leaving it to landlords to assess what is a significant risk will likely lead to disputed claims, but hopefully settle down after the first tranche of cases,” Peaker states.

Landlords then have 14 calendar days to investigate the defect from first being alerted to it, and a further seven to begin works.

“Having a legally required turnaround time, even if for very specific repairs, is a big change,” Goodrich says. “When it is going to happen in an environment where costs and volumes of repairs are heading in the wrong direction, it is not something that will fill the hearts of property services directors, let alone their counterparts in finance, with joy.”

Landlords that fail to abide by these requirements can be taken to court under the plans, where they may be ordered to pay compensation to tenants.

Penalty peanuts

The level of such compensation, however, will be an interesting measure of how serious the government is at solving the issue. The levels of compensation that the Housing Ombudsman is able to level on providers is often much lower than the rental costs of living in unsuitable housing. Higher compensation levels could mean HAs take their repairs issues more seriously.

“The penalties are peanuts and are paid for by the tenant’s rents,” Murtha adds. “Naming and shaming letters from the minister seem to have no effect. Some large HAs now have a wall full of them. Neither does severe maladministration letters appear to work. Only direct regulatory intervention will bring about change for some. But there appears to be a reluctance to do this. Are some simply too big to fail?”

Regulatory intervention – via the Regulator for Social Housing – is a possibility, but would need to be well thought out. Another area which the government could explore is local authority notices, which would allow for different ranges of action against persistent problems.

Even here issues could persist if local authorities deem issues not to be a priority. On 2 February, The Guardian reported that one young child in south London had been taken to hospital six times due to damp and mould in their flat. The family however questioned why the council refused to give them priority status as it deemed the home wasn’t overcrowded despite seven occupants living there.

It could be claimed that the issue was one of the 29 mentioned by the government as needing urgent investigation, however because the authority could “use their judgement” no action was taken. It is noteworthy that once the media became involved the family were given a higher priority than before. Ultimately, the problem stems from a lack of social homes to place people, as is acknowledged in the report.

Giving tenants more empowerment is also at the heart of the government’s agenda. A previous consultation launched by the government in October looked at forcing social landlords to provide tenants with information about their own rights, and how the complaint process works.

The old cliche that “time will tell” if real change can be delivered feels apt in response to Gove’s announcement; tenants however may feel more confident than they have for years that their problems will, eventually, get heard .

“In the long run, this should force organisations to confront processes, systems and IT challenges that have been stuck on the ‘too difficult/expensive’ pile,” Goodrich adds. “In the meantime, tenants will have another string to their bow in being able to hold their landlords to account. That can only be a good thing.”

Image credit: Peter Rhys Williams/Shutterstock

Read next: Ombudsman’s call for Royal Commission surely shames us all

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