Rochdale Boroughwide Housing breached consumer and governance standards, watchdog finds

Awaab Ishak died from prolonged exposure to mould in the flat he lived in with his family.

A housing association waited two years after Awaab Ishak died before visiting homes to assess for mould and damp - by which time hundreds were living in unfit conditions, a watchdog has concluded.

The Regulator of Social Housing (RSH) condemned Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH), finding it guilty of breaching consumer and governance standards.

Following an investigation sparked by Awaab's inquest, which ruled his death followed prolonged exposure to mould at his home in Rochdale, the RSH says it found "significant failings" in the way RBH deals with damp and mould - beyond the findings of coroner Joanne Kearsley.

The RSH said Awaab’s death should have alerted RBH to the safety risks for its tenants, but it failed to act quickly and protect more tenants from potential harm.

Instead, it found the housing association only began visiting properties to assess them for damp and mould after being notified by the coroner it was "a party of interest" - two years after he died in December 2020.

The regulator found, having waited for so long before checking other homes on the Freehold estate, hundreds of tenants were living with damp and mould.

Awaab Ishak was just two when he died in 2020. Credit: Family photo

Awaab died after being exposed to mould in the one-bedroom flat where he lived with his parents in the Ilminster tower block.

His parents, Faisal Abdullah and Aisha Amin had repeatedly complained to the landlord about their home but RBH failed to fix issues, with the housing association blaming them on the "family's lifestyle".

RBH made “incorrect assumptions” about the cause of damp and mould and did not treat his family with fairness and respect, the Regulator of Social Housing said.

The estate in Rochdale where Awaab lived.

"Wider failings within RBH" meant it gave the regulator inadequate information about damp and mould shortly after Awaab’s death, the RSH said.

It said the widespread issues which it later found "severely undermine RBH’s credibility and exposes significant failings in the way it treats damp and mould".

The regulator also found weaknesses in the landlord's IT and internal communications, which led to vital information being missed.

As heard during the inquest, members of the repairs team were unaware of the concerns raised by a healthcare worker in a letter to the housing association, which the RSH says may have enabled them to identify the risks earlier.

The RSH continued: "RBH made incorrect assumptions about the cause of damp and mould in Awaab Ishak’s home and failed to act to resolve the issues.

"RBH did not treat Awaab Ishak’s family with fairness and respect, and the regulator does not have confidence that RBH is treating other tenants with fairness and respect.

"The regulator expects RBH to take urgent action to address these failings and will take enforcement action if necessary.

"In particular, the regulator is pushing RBH to improve the way it is run and to fix its approach to managing damp and mould in tenants’ homes."

The mould which grew over Awaab Ishak's home in Rochdale.

Following the regulator's investigation, the RSH has published a Regulatory Notice for RBH following a breach of the consumer standards, which means there was "actual and potential serious detriment to RBH’s tenants".

Separately, it also published a Regulatory Judgement to downgrade RBH to a 'non-compliant' grade for governance.

Fiona MacGregor, RSH’s chief executive, said: “Our investigation reveals significant failures in the way RBH manages damp and mould in its homes, resulting in harm to tenants.

"The tragic death of Awaab Ishak should have led to action to establish wider risks, but RBH failed to respond quickly or effectively. This is unacceptable.

"RBH needs to address the issues we have found and we will take further action if it fails to do so.

"Our judgement sends a clear message to social landlords that they must deal with damp and mould as the serious hazards that they are, treat tenants with respect, and take their concerns seriously."

Awaab died from a respiratory condition caused by mould in the one-bedroom housing association flat where he lived with parents .

After the inquest into the two-year-old's death, the then-Chief Executive Gareth Swarbrick refused to resign, but was sacked by the board just days later.

Yvonne Arrowsmith has since been hired as an interim CEO to lead the organisation and ensure "we put in place the changes we need to make".

She promised to prioritise the safety of tenants and "begin the process of earning the trust and confidence of our residents".

In a statement, an RBH spokesperson said: "Everyone at RBH is driven by a desire to provide safe and comfortable homes we are proud of. Yet, mistakes have been made. We failed Awaab, his family and the community we serve.

"We would like to once again to express our deepest sympathies for the tragic loss of Awaab, and we will forever remain sorry to his family.

"Today’s announcement by the regulator recognises that failure and the mistakes we have made. We accept this judgement and we are already working closely alongside the regulator to address their concerns and meet their expectations.

"We now have a long road ahead of us to regain the trust and confidence of current and future tenants, Rochdale Council, the Rochdale community, and the regulator.

"This journey has already begun. Our new interim chief executive, Yvonne Arrowsmith, has a proven track-record of transforming housing providers, and has made it a priority to listen and respond to tenant feedback.

"A new Damp and Mould Taskforce has significantly accelerated remedial work. New translation tools are helping us better communicate with tenants. A £1.2m programme is underway to improve ventilation in every home on the Freehold estate.

"Changes to the membership of the board have also started, and we can confirm that recruitment for new members, including a new chair, will commence in January 2023.

"The board remain fully committed to RBH and to the safety and wellbeing of our tenants. Stability is crucial at this time, and therefore the current board will remain in post whilst recruitment is underway so that an orderly transition and handover can take place with the new appointees in due course.

"To further support the governance of the organisation in this interim period, we are currently recruiting special advisers on asset management and tenant services, as well as a new audit chair.

"All new appointees to the board will be approved by our representative body, and the body will also be directly involved in the interview process, ensuring tenant voice is at the heart of these decisions.

"Awaab’s death is a defining moment for RBH – but also for the wider housing sector. Whilst it should never have taken a tragedy for change to happen, Awaab’s Law must be introduced to ensure there is lasting change.

"There are hard lessons to learn: process must never get in the way of people; tenant voice must always be valued; maintenance and property renewal should be prioritised; tenant safety must always be the first and foremost consideration.

"As we move forward, our priority is to continue delivering on our improvement plan as quickly as possible so that our homes are safe and comfortable.

"Under renewed leadership, RBH is determined to rebuild as an effective, responsive, and tenant-focused organisation that has mutuality at its heart."

Other social landlords across the country have been asked to provide evidence by 19 December on how they are dealing with damp and mould appropriately, in the wake of Awaab's inquest.

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