Turmoil at the TopThe Impact of Conservative Political Chaos On Housing
As concerns mount about dire living conditions in Britain, Max Colbert reports that there have been five different housing ministers this year alone
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A coroner ruled last week that the death the 2020 death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak by cardiac arrest had been caused by prolonged exposure to mould in his home, controlled by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH). The father, Faisal Abdullah, had complained multiple times without any action being taken.
While the Chief Executive of RBH, Gareth Swarbrick, initially refused to resign over the issue, a Government source soon stated that his position was “untenable” and that “it is staggering that Gareth Swarbrick is still in a job”. Swarbrick has now been fired from his role.
As the story broke, it was highlighted that around 450,000 homes in England have serious problems with condensation and mould. Michael Gove, the newly re-appointed Secretary for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), admitted recently that as well as the failings of Rochdale, the Government has been slow to introduce tougher regulation on social housing providers. Indeed, official figures show at least 120,000 households living in social housing suffer from mould and condensation problems.
A large reason for the sluggish pace of reform could be the scale of churn within the DLUHC and its predecessor departments. Analysis by this newspaper suggests that, since 2010, secretaries of state in this field have served for an average of just 18 months, with this average standing at just 15 months since 2015. These are some of the lowest figures of any government department.
Further down the ministerial ranks, there have been 14 different ministers for housing over the last 12 years, only three of which have lasted in post for more than two years. This year alone has seen five different housing ministers.
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The scale of mould and damp problems in England is estimated to cost the NHS £38 million per year, according to a recent ITV report, while a survey conducted by the charity Shelter estimates that 42% of private renters – equivalent to 4.7 million people – have experienced problems with mould during the last 12 months.
Similarly, the ‘Spotlight on Mould’ report from the housing Ombudsman has highlighted that, of the 410 complaints received about 147 landlords over the last two years regarding the handling of damp and mould, maladministration – in other words, a landlord failing to do something, or doing something they shouldn’t have – occurred in 56% of cases, rising to 64% for complaint handling.
A campaign for better social housing conditions has now been launched by the Manchester Evening News following the Ishak tragedy, the petition already receiving more than 81,000 signatures, with opposition MPs calling the death “a stain on our nation’s conscience”.
Speaking following the death of Ishak, Gove highlighted that five years on from the Grenfell tragedy, “we should have been legislating earlier” to deal with these problems through the much-delayed Social Housing Regulation Bill.
“Awaab’s case has thrown into sharp relief the need for renewed action to ensure that every landlord in the country makes certain that their tenants are housed in decent homes and they are treated with dignity and fairness,” Gove said.
The measures in the Bill were motivated by the experiences of tenants leading up to the tragic Grenfell Tower fire, which claimed the lives of 72 people.
The Bill had been initially proposed by Boris Johnson two years ago, following the 2020 publication of a social housing white paper. But, much like action on rental reform, it has been delayed by the demise of two prime ministers this year alone.
As a result, Stuart Andrew resigned from the post of housing minister after only 148 days in the role, replacing Dominic Raab as the shortest-serving since the role was established in 1997. Andrew’s resignation came a week after addressing the Housing 2022 conference, where he re-committed to the Government’s manifesto pledge of building 300,000 homes a year.
He was noted at the time as having little experience in the sector, aside from owning a buy-to-let property in Leeds, and has previously voted against making all rented homes “fit for human habitation”.
Andrew replaced Chris Pincher, whose removal from Government lit the touch paper on Boris Johnson’s fall from 10 Downing Street. Andrew’s successor, Marcus Jones, lasted just eight weeks in the role – though longer than Lee Rowley, who took over from Jones on 8 September and lasted until 26 October, when he was replaced by incumbent Housing Minister Lucy Frazer.
Frazer, one of several new faces in the department under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, has promised to reduce planning delays and costs for new house builders. Frazer is a landlord who earns more than £10,000 per year from a rental property in London.