By Alistair McIntosh, Chief Executive, Housing Quality Network
“I find as a matter of fact that the development of Awaab’s severe respiratory condition which led to him going into respiratory arrest was entirely due to the prolonged exposure he had to mould in his home environment,” Ms Joanne Kearsley, HM Senior Coroner North Manchester
We’ve had Lakanal, Grenfell and now the tragic death of Awaab Ishak. How can we put a stop to this?
As the leading solicitor Giles Peaker says: “The problems are certainly more widespread and deep-rooted than just at Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, and go further than the CEO’s leadership…”
Where do I begin?
Well, there are grounds for optimism. First and foremost, we have in Richard Blakeway a vigilant Ombudsman. He is holding landlords to account on damp and mould as well as other failings. Single-handedly he has stopped landlords blaming damp and mould on tenants’ lifestyles. Richard gave evidence to the Coroner at the hearing about Awaab. Following the Ombudsman’s advice will save lives.
And the return of Michael Gove bodes well. The Coalition ditched inspection but he is bringing it back. Thank goodness for that. The quality of housing management fell off a cliff when too many boards thought no one was looking.
On top of that George Osborne’s four-year rent cut from 2016 made matters worse. There was a lot less cash for repairs. Computer says no – was all that tenants heard.
This time around Michael Gove’s 7% rent cap is the best deal anyone could have expected given everything. So, it’s another positive step from the Minister.
His removal of the CEO at Rochdale was straight out of the New Labour play book. Ed Balls called for the sacking of the director at Haringey Council after Baby P and Michael Gove has done much the same here. That will send shock waves around board rooms.
In the face of a conveyor belt of exposés from Kwajo, ITV and the Ombudsman I have to ask myself what is the point of governance? Is there something inherently flawed with our approach? Everything seems to come as a great surprise to boards – even those top rated by the regulator.
Michael Gove is asking for us to come clean on damp and mould. At the same time the regulator is starting to gather data on safety. This will trigger a flurry of self-referrals to the regulator. Which again is proof positive of being asleep at the wheel.
We all make mistakes, so only a fool gets on a high horse in the modern world. The basic answer is to check our homes carefully and listen to what front line staff and residents are telling us. It won’t catch everything but it is a start. Why don’t we do more of this? I’m anxious that managers put in so much effort servicing boards these days that it squeezes out the time for more important work. Do we ever stop to think how many hours we would save if we weren’t grinding out 500-page board papers? We could get a lot done.
I welcome much of what Michael Gove and Richard Blakeway are doing. Will it bring change? I’ve got a few lingering doubts.
Worryingly, everyone is telling me that staff are leaving and it’s tough to find replacements. That means we need to find a way to make the jobs a lot more attractive. The Ombudsman is calling for a strong local presence. I agree but where will we get the people to do this?
When you walk around estates from the 1960s and ‘70s and even the ‘80s – it is obvious that they need regenerating. Who will pay for this? The era of cheap money is over. And the get out of jail cards from New Labour of stock transfer, ALMO and PFI for funds are long gone. Michael Gove will need to come up with a Plan B to bring about real change. If he doesn’t, we will be chasing our tail with one-off repairs.
In the meantime, what will happen to Rochdale? The regulator’s usual remedy is to use mergers to make troubled associations disappear. Does that always bring about improvements? I’m not so sure. Moreover, who will want to take over a service that could be a risk at any future inspection?
Last point, never forget there are many fine people working at landlords in difficulty. Act quickly, or they too will leave.