The housing chief responsible for the rotting home that killed two-year-old Awab Ishaq is facing mounting pressure to resign, as the social housing watchdog has launched an investigation into possible “systemic” failures in the landlord who run it.
Housing Secretary Michael Gove was preparing to address Parliament after saying ‘beggars faith’ Gareth Swarbrick was still in office.
Swarbrick, chief executive of Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH), said he was “really saddened about Oab’s death and the things we did wrong” after the coroner found persistent black mold exposure on the walls of the family’s rental home in Rochdale as the cause of the infant’s death in December 2020.
But Goff called Swarbrick into a meeting to “explain to me why this tragedy was allowed to happen”, a move Supported By Shadow Settlement, Minister for Housing and Communities, Lisa Nandy.
Richard Blakeway, the Housing Ombudsman for England, on Wednesday invoked powers to allow inspectors to interview staff and board members at RBH after discovering three more complaints about damp and mold in landlord homes that were assessed as high or medium risk. He told Swarbrick in a letter that he was investigating whether one of the complaints “indicated a broader failure within the owner”.
When asked if he agreed with Gove that Swarbrick, who earns £157,000 a year, should go, Blakeway told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I have a personal view on that…all I can say is I am looking very carefully at the cases we have with this owner, and I will be in contact with him very soon.”
He added, “What you need is leadership that really promotes learning, not defensiveness, and tries to identify how services can be improved when things go wrong.”
“I think he needs to take responsibility and there needs to be some accountability from Rochdale Boroughwide Housing in general,” said Kelly Darlington, the OAB family solicitor.
Awab’s parents, she said, “want there to be positive changes in the social housing sector to make sure this does not happen to anyone else. Because the fact that this happened in this day and age is absolutely shocking, really.”
Justice Joanne Kearsley said on Tuesday the death of the “attractive, lively and endearing” Awab must have been a “defining moment” for the UK housing sector. Nandi said on Wednesday it was time to “end this stain on the conscience of our nation and bring our housing stock back to record once and for all.”
After mold was reported in 2017, Awab’s father, Faisal Abdullah, who had arrived from Sudan, was asked to paint on it. A health visitor twice wrote to RBH in 2020 expressing concern about mold and the negative health effects it can have.
But Kearsley took no action, and from July 2020 through December 2020, Awaab continued to have chronic exposure to harmful mold.
Christian Weaver, the family’s lawyer at the inquest, told ITV’s Good Morning Britain that the family had sought help to tackle a mold problem in their flat.
“There is absolutely no excuse… The overriding thing the family would say was, ‘We were helpless, we were screaming, we were screaming for help, but nothing was done. As you can imagine, they are dumbfounded.
Asked if Swarbrick should resign, Weaver said: “Serious questions need to be asked. The reality is, Grenfell Tower was in 2017 and we often see these things happen but… very little accountability.”
RBH has been contacted for comment.
The mold that blighted the Awab family’s apartment is far from uncommon in social or private rented accommodation. Blakeway, which only regulates social housing, said on Wednesday: “I’ve seen a significant increase in working conditions that are damp or moldy.
“Owners haven’t always prioritized or focused on issues like damp and mold, and there has been a kind of dismissive attitude by some, a kind of fatalism by some,” he said. “And that’s what you can see now, the consequences of that.”
Official figures show that 120,000 households living in social housing in England have condensation and mold problems, three times the proportion in privately owned homes. Around 176,000 private tenant households live with mold, although a survey by housing charity Shelter puts the number higher, with mold affecting nearly 653,000 private tenant households. Blakeway is calling for a change in the law to create an ombudsman for private tenants.
“If you’re a private tenant, you can’t necessarily get compensation from the Ombudsman,” he said, “we need to change the law so we can do that.”
Nandi Wrote To Gove on Wednesday urging him to introduce a new standard for decent homes immediately, saying the government’s failure to set a timetable for doing so was “now unacceptable”. She said Awab’s death should be a “wake-up call for the government”.
She also urged him to investigate the treatment of refugees in the housing system and the role racism may have played in the treatment of Awab and his family. She said government figures show the households with the highest rates of overcrowding were in ethnic minorities.
The Social housing activist Kwaju Toynboa He said the mold issue was not seen as a priority. “This case is a damning indictment of poor housing in the UK, of poor social housing,” he said.
He said Awab’s case was one of thousands of examples of young people growing up in dampness and mold. “Over the past 18 months of my campaigning, I have been approached by over 300 families complaining of living in damp, stale conditions and being ignored by their landlord.”