What better landlords than the people who live there themselves

In December 2020, Awaab Ishak died.  He was killed in his home.  Where he should have been safe.  He was two years old.  He was killed by mould.   

His story really hit the press two years later.  Rochdale Boroughwide Housing was criticised by the coroner.  His parents had raised the problem with them years earlier.  They kept being told to paint over the mould.  They made a whole series of complaints, but to no effect.  In the end their little boy died.  I can’t even begin to imagine how that feels. 

After the coroner’s report into little Awaab’s death, the government announced plans to introduce changes to the law on damp and mould in social housing – known as ‘Awaab’s law’. It will require landlords to fix reported ‘health hazards’ within a specified timeframe. 

But it only applies to social landlords.  Not to private landlords.  You might recall a Labour amendment to the 2016 Housing Bill to compel private landlords to maintain their properties in a state fit for human habitation.  309 Conservative MPs voted against it, and the amendment fell.  Many of those MPs were private landlords. 

Awaab’s Law won’t apply to private landlords.  Local authorities have some powers – their stretched and underfunded teams can issue specific notices where breaches are found.  Yet there is still no blanket regulation requiring housing to be fit for human habitation. 

Citizens Advice found that 1.6 million children live in privately rented homes with damp, mould or excessive cold.  With energy prices sky high, this is even more urgent. 

Homes are rated with an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) from A, the most efficient and well insulated, to G, the leakiest and most wasteful.  Tenants of private landlords are 73% more likely to be living with damp if they live in a property with an EPC rating of D-G rather than A-C.  On average a private tenant pays £350 a year more on heating because of poorly insulated homes.  Landlords are only required to bring properties to an E rating and don’t have to make any improvements costing over £3,500.

The private rented sector has doubled in the last 20 years. In 2021, rents outside of London increased at the fastest rate on record.  There are good landlords and not so good landlords.  Lovely landlords and criminal landlords. We can’t change human nature, but we can change the systems that reward bad landlords.  Sometimes it’s a simple as fining people who break the law. 

If you regularly read my column, you’ll know we’re working with government to secure a £4.27 billion devolution deal for the North East. As part of the trailblazer, we’re negotiating to get powers to regulate the private rented sector. If landlords had to meet a certain standard before they could rent, we’d see the 25% of private rented homes that are unfit brought up to standard very quickly. 

This would massively reduce the chances of a tragedy like Awaab’s death happening again.

We could combat the climate crisis too. We could demand that landlords’ properties not only meet health and safety standards but also a higher level of energy efficiency.

Let’s fix up people’s cold, damp houses. Install heat pumps. Solar panels. Better insulation. This not only improves people’s health and wellbeing – it saves money on healthcare spending. Every £1 we spend retrofitting homes saves the NHS 42p.  Add in the energy savings, the economic boost from the jobs created, and it pays for itself. 

Of course the simple answer is to allow councils to build homes, without being financially hamstrung when they get sold out from underneath them. 

At the North of Tyne, we’re using the Brownfield housing fund to open up sites across Newcastle Northumberland and North Tyneside.  And we block any sites that don’t have affordable housing – like the Strawberry Place development that hit the news recently. 

And what better landlords than the people who live there themselves? I’m talking about community-owned housing. We have plenty of existing buildings standing empty that would make great flats and apartments.  Why not turn them into housing co-operatives? And then asset-lock these so they can’t just be sold on, to the detriment of those living there.  I’m making the funding available and supporting communities who want to take these projects on. 

I want more homes. Where families are safe. Where children are safe. Which don’t cost the Earth.  Where they’re on good public transport routes so people can get to their work or education quickly and cheaply. 

And I don’t want there ever to be another case like Awaab Ishak.