Britain's housing crisis: The tenants who complain and complain, but get nowhere

Mum Sherri Smith is constantly throwing out belongings due to the mould infestation in her home, ITV News Political Correspondent Dan Hewitt reports

For the past six weeks I have travelled around the country speaking to people living in damp, at-times dangerous, mould-infested homes.

We have received hundreds and hundreds of messages from desperate tenants detailing the damage and despair they have endured, often for several years.

From council house and housing association residents to those renting from private landlords, if one theme unites them all it is a feeling of powerlessness - of not being heard, and not being properly listened to.

There’s also the blame - being told the years of continuous mould and damp is their own fault; for not opening the windows or not having the heating on enough or washing too many clothes or not drying them outside.

Political Correspondent Dan Hewitt says despite years of problems, there has been no change in the housing complaints system:

Of course each case has its own unique complexities.

But when thick, black, furry mould is growing up the walls next to where young children are sleeping - I have witnessed parents trying everything to stop it - there's utter despair when they're told there is nothing their landlord can do about it.

That there is a housing crisis in Britain is indisputable - there are not enough alternative, affordable homes to rent for the majority of people living in poor quality housing.

There are currently 1.1 million people in England on the social housing waiting list.

That can’t be fixed quickly, but in the here and now a big part of the problem is the complaints system.

Daniel Hewitt explains the UK's complex housing complaints system:

Yes, tenants feel powerless and unheard, but crucially they don’t know where else to turn when their immediate problems aren’t getting fixed.

The process of getting issues reported and resolved is not only slow, but complicated and cumbersome.

If you have a problem with your energy supplier, you contact the energy ombudsman. If you have a problem with your bank, there’s the financial ombudsman.

For housing, there is no one-stop shop - there are several - and even getting them to look at your case is fraught with hurdles.

There is the Housing Ombudsman, but council and housing association tenants aren’t allowed to complain directly themselves.

They must first go through a ‘designated person’ - an MP or a local councillor - who lodge a complaint on their behalf.

They can also only do that once the complaints system with the council or housing association has been exhausted, but many tenants we’ve spoken to find it hard to even get their landlord to respond to their complaint, or take weeks to acknowledge it, and then offer to send someone over to look at the issue in several weeks time - and all the while the problem gets worse.

For tenants renting in the private sector, there is no legal obligation on their landlord to even sign up to the Housing Ombudsman scheme. It’s voluntary.

Then there’s another body - the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman - it also deals with housing complaints.

And there’s another - the Regulator for Social Housing, but it will only deal with complaints where there is "serious detriment" to residents. In the whole of 2019/20 it investigated just 143 cases.

The UK government accepts the current complaint system needs fixing, and has proposed making it simpler and quicker.

However, these reforms were first promised after the Grenfell Fire in 2017. Sajid Javid, then housing secretary, promised an overhaul of the complaints system in 2018.

In the four years since Grenfell there have been three different housing secretaries and five housing ministers - each lasting an average of just nine months in the post - constantly delaying any changes.

After finally publishing its Social Housing white paper in November 2020, outlining the reforms, there is still no date from the UK government for when they will become law.

It leaves hundreds of thousands of people navigating a system ministers admit isn’t really working, while housing associations and local councils tell us time and time again that despite attempts to solve problems raised by tenants, they don’t have the budgets to fix the fundamental problems or the housing stock to offer alternative accommodation.

Faced with so many hurdles, some tenants simply give up complaining, and try to bodge by themselves.

Those with children have no choice but to keep going - calling, emailing, writing and pleading to whoever may listen, in the hope the message gets through to someone, somewhere; that their home can become a little more liveable, for a while at least, and their lives a little more bearable.