I’m writing this column sharing a sofa and a blanket with my five-year-old. She’s been off school all week struggling to shift a basic cold, which – for her, like so many children in the UK who suffer with respiratory disease – has turned into an exhausting, breathless ordeal.
Every single day is a juggling act; not only between work and childcare but also between providing comfort and medical supervision. When she’s ill, things can deteriorate quickly. One in three ordinary viruses sends us to A&E to get her blood oxygen levels up.
It might not sound like it, but she’s very lucky. Her doctors have a good handle on this increasingly common condition. The strong drugs administered, when we need them, do work quickly. Like most children who suffer, she will most likely grow out of this condition. And because our family has the financial resources to offer her decent housing, she will have that chance to outgrow it.
Not so for poor Awaab Ishak, who died at the age of two due to severe mould exposure in his home. He was living in a property provided to his family by a landlord which then failed fundamentally in its responsibility to house him safely. Worse still, Awaab was growing up in social housing; in a home provided to his family by the state in recognition of their need of support.
Legal representatives fought to get the family rehoused so that the little boy’s health could be preserved but to no avail. His avoidable death is not only a personal tragedy for the family but a fundamental moral failure of the welfare state.
Tragically, this is no isolated case. Reporting on the young boy’s death has only served revealed countless similar situations. Just this week, reporter Taj Ali shared on Twitter the experience of a woman in Coventry who is suffering through repeated hospital admissions due to lung damage caused by severe mould and damp.
A friend of mine was in hospital in Coventry recently. She came across a woman who told her she'd been in hospital so many times because of the mould and damp in her council house. She can barely breathe, and has been on nebulisers in every instance. pic.twitter.com/2yTixWunev
— Taj Ali (@Taj_Ali1) November 15, 2022
Images he shared showed entire walls covered in black mould growth. Her doctors have reportedly written to the local authority sharing her medical history, the severity of her condition, and urging a move to protect her health. So far, there has been no offer of more appropriate housing.
Journalists at numerous media outlets have done exceptional work in recent months exposing the failings in both the social and private rented sectors, showing how tenants who have little or no choice in where they live are forced to suffer the effects of miserable, dangerous conditions to avoid homelessness. The problems they face aren’t just extreme damp and mould but infestations and freezing temperatures – these are homes without the basic amenities for modern life.
During the Blair years, the then Labour government set out a series of basic conditions that all social housing in Britain must meet. The current Conservative government is consulting on the terms of this standard, seeking to modernise them – and considering extending these expectations to all private landlords too.
Given that the government relies on the business of private landlords to house a large percentage of the poorest people, as well as it becoming the tenure of expectation (though rarely of choice) of millions of low- and middle-income families – this is welcome.
But this is a very late stage to finally take action. Why have ministers only just woken up? They’ve been allowing the demise of good housing for well over a decade.
The decent homes standard includes protection against any “category one hazard”, which is a fault or problem with a property that can result in death, disability or loss of a limb. Now we know about the tragic demise of little Awaab, severe black mould must be covered by that order.
Mould is one of the most widespread problems affecting British housing, thanks to our damp climate, poor building standards and substandard efforts are retrofitting older buildings.
To keep up to speed with all the latest opinions and comment sign up to our free weekly Voices Dispatches newsletter by clicking here
By the end of Blair’s tenure, 90 per cent of social homes met the original standard even though it had taken herculean efforts, including controversial council housing sell-offs, to finance the work to get there.
Now, one in seven social homes in London and almost a quarter (23 per cent) of all private rented homes nationally fail to meet that standard. Very few are ready to improve further. The government is rushing through a review of the decent homes standard but action, not discussion, is what is needed to keep tenants safe.
It’s always been the case that money buys better health. Nowhere is this more visible than in the gulf between those who can afford to buy and maintain their own home, and those who must rely on others to keep them from living in dangerous squalor.
The latter group now make up more than a third of the adult population – a hugely influential group of voters. Are we finally at a point when we are willing to hear their stories?