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The Slum Housing Scandal

True justice for Awaab Ishak, the baby who died as a result of prolonged exposure to mould, doesn’t just mean making slum landlords pay for their crimes — but actually confronting the housing crisis that creates them.

Awaab Ishak died as a result of prolonged exposure to mould in a home environment.

This week, the government opened new plans intended to protect social housing tenants from unsafe homes to consultation. The plans consist of strict timeframes to which housing association landlords will have to adhere when investigating and repairing hazards, or face court. This proposed legislation is being called Awaab’s Law, in reference to the death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak after exposure to mould in a housing association flat in 2020.

Many see Awaab’s Law as a vital step forward, particularly as the headlines about negligent social landlords multiply. But others have pointed out that more needs to be done to protect the millions who suffer damp and mouldy homes in the private sector — and to fight the housing crisis more broadly, which has been spurred by the sell-off and demolition of good-quality council housing stock and the proliferation of housing association landlords in its place.

Against this backdrop, MPs in the Council Housing All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) are currently investigating the present state and future need for council housing in Britain. The investigation, supported by the Defend Council Housing campaign and a group of academics, is a follow-up to a similar investigation and subsequent report published in 2010. That report found that direct investment in council housing was a far better use of public money than the various forms of privatisation being promoted, at that time, by the New Labour government.

Sadly, the evidence of the APPG in 2010 was largely ignored. Instead, UK governments of all stripes blindly persisted with policies that have deepened and prolonged the housing crisis. We remain trapped in a market fixation that uses public money to subsidise private property developers who have failed to build the homes we need while making huge profits.

In 2013, for example, instead of listening to the APPG on council housing, the coalition government launched the Help to Buy scheme, which had consumed £29 billion by 2023 and made homes even more expensive, according to a House of Lords report. In the context of these false economies and policy failures, we have now arrived at the astonishing point that numerous local authorities face being pushed over the edge of bankruptcy by the financial demands of providing temporary accommodation.

The current inquiry, led by APPG chair Matt Western MP, is now taking evidence from people around the country. These people include council housing tenants and those on waiting lists, as well as politicians, trade unions, campaigners, lobbyists, and policymakers. Some of the most vivid testimony so far came from a meeting in Rochdale, the Lancashire town in which Awaab Ishak lived.

A Country Without Council Housing

Rochdale is a test case for what happens in a place without council housing. In March 2012, its 13,664 council homes were hold to social landlord Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH). RBH embarked on what has become a familiar post-privatisation pattern: planned demolition of former council estates and their replacement with homes for private sale, which, combined with poor service for social tenants, inflated salaries for senior managers, and unaccountability, represented failings horribly exposed in Ishak’s death.

Speaking at the Rochdale meeting, Councillor Danny Meredith, Rochdale’s executive member for housing, reported waiting list applications doubling in the time since the council housing was sold off, while the supply of social rented homes has halved. Temporary accommodation is now costing the council £2 million a year, its share of the £1.7 billion being spent by English councils. Andy Roache, an RBH tenant, pointed out that nonetheless, there are more empty homes on his estate than the number of families compelled to live in bed and breakfasts.

At the same session, which was organised by Greater Manchester Tenants Union (GMTU), a hospital worker described homeless people coming to A&E to sleep because there’s nowhere else to go. His dad, a pensioner on a fixed income, is struggling to pay his rent to a private landlord: it has risen from £450 a month in 2014 to £950 today. A local UNISON rep recalled: ‘I was brought up in a council home. We knew, so long as we paid the rent, we could stay there for life. We felt safe and secure. Awaab’s death showed what happens when we don’t invest in council housing.’

The inquiry is hearing similar stories from all over the country. In the neighbouring town of Middleton, a three-year old was recently hospitalised with breathing problems his mother believes resulted from similar damp and mould conditions to those that killed Awaab Ishak. According to Mark Fraser of GMTU, many homes in the area are ‘not fit for habitation’. Instead of addressing this, he says landlord Riverside, supposedly a community benefit organisation, and one in receipt of millions of pounds of public money, are ‘building homes for private sale, like any other private developer.’

In Lancaster, meanwhile, the Mainway council estate is threatened under spurious grounds, leading to scores of tenants being removed and empty blocks sold to a private developer for an undisclosed amount. At a campaign meeting organised by the local Tenants and Community Union (TACU), a councillor talked about ‘a tsunami of homelessness coming towards us.’

The situation in the South is similar. At the APPG session in Islington, council tenant Molly Doyle said:

‘It makes me mad that we’ve had council housing for such a short period of time, but they’re taking it away from us. I live in a beautiful two-bedroom flat and it costs me about £600 per month. That makes so much difference to people’s lives. A private landlord is charging three times that amount, for the same kind of home. The money that’s being spent on housing is being spent in the wrong way. I’m sick of seeing luxury flats. They’re not what we need. It’s breaking up communities and families.’

At the latest evidence session in Crawley on 4 January, council leader Michael James described the current housing situation as ‘like a sink filling up, but you can’t turn off the tap, or pull out the plug.’ Temporary accommodation is costing his council £5 million a year.

A Clear Solution

The APPG aims to publish a second report before the next general election and will continue to gather evidence into Spring 2024 — but the testimonies collected so far show just how many people know a decisive change of direction in Britain’s housing is desperately needed. As Rochdale UNISON member, Sam O’Brien, put it:

‘The wrong people are making decisions about housing. MPs and ministers who don’t just have two homes, but sometimes a portfolio. They’re seeing housing in a completely different way to how most people see their homes. We don’t want multiple homes. We just want one that isn’t damp and the rent and service charges are affordable. Housing should be for public good, not a private commodity.’

The APPG’s position is the same: that restoring council housing, a public good, to the mainstream is a vital part of a more sustainable and equitable housing policy. Councillor Meredith, who is considering declaring a housing emergency in Rochdale, as Glasgow and Edinburgh councils have, put this solution in simple terms:

‘We’ve got a lot of land here. We could build on it. We don’t want private developers doing it. Then we can re-open our housing revenue account and reestablish our housing department. We need to invest in council housing, but [that will take] a big shift.’

This week’s public outrage about the Post Office scandal proves how quickly politicians can be moved to enact those big shifts, if they’re put under enough pressure. The state of housing in Britain is a scandal worthy of just as much outrage. Before Awaab Ishak’s death, we already had decades of evidence that our current approach was failing, inflicting insecurity, ill-health, and misery on millions. It is essential that we make safe, secure homes an election issue in 2024, and beyond that, take our council housing back.