Thousands of renters could be blamed for toxic black mould and other potentially deadly hazards under a government overhaul of the housing enforcement system.
Leaked documents seen by the Observer suggest councils inspecting rented properties will be formally instructed to examine residents’ behaviour when deciding whether to take action against landlords over dangerous conditions.
Under the updated housing health and safety rating system (HHSRS), environmental health inspectors will be told to consider detailed “behavioural factors”, such as whether residents are taking enough steps to ensure their property is heated and ventilated, including using heating, running extraction fans and opening windows. Other factors they will be required to consider include whether people are exposing themselves to excessively low temperatures due to ignorance, a “stoic and often embedded attitude” to cold or desire to “reduce carbon emissions”, adds the guidance, developed for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in September.
The government strongly denied that the revised guidance watered down protections for tenants. But experts said the new requirement for inspectors to consider “behavioural factors” risked opening the door to people’s lifestyles being blamed for “really serious problems”.
Details of the plans come days after an inquest found that toxic mould growth caused the death of a two-year-old boy, Awaab Ishak, who died in December 2020 following a cardiac arrest caused by respiratory problems. His father had repeatedly raised the issue with Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) but no action was taken.
Manchester North senior coroner Joanne Kearsley said ventilation in the one-bedroom flat was not effective and that the family’s landlord had placed too much emphasis “on the cause of the mould being due to parents’ lifestyle”.
The revised guidance for councils, which has not yet been made public and is expected to come into effect by April 2023, will primarily be used by environmental health officers to assess the need for enforcement action in the private rental sector. However, councils also have powers to take enforcement action against housing associations, such as the one that rented out the Ishak family’s mouldy flat.
Professor David Ormandy, who coordinated the project that developed the original rating system, which was rolled out in 2006, said the draft guidance excused “bad housing” and would lead to more people getting ill “and in some cases even dying”.
“As we’ve seen this week, unhealthy housing can kill. But instead of strengthening the enforcement system, this new guidance opens the door to blaming people’s lifestyles for really serious problems,” he said.
The 175-page document says homes must be heated and ventilated to remove the moisture produced by cooking, bathing and drying clothes, but notes residents “may choose not to use” heating, extraction fans and windows. “Occupiers may also dry clothes on radiators without taking action to remove moisture-laden air. Assessors must consider how these, and other occupier behaviours are contributing to any damp and high levels of humidity in the dwelling,” the revised guidance adds.
This contrasts with the current guidance, which says landlords have a responsibility to ensure dwellings are “capable of being occupied safely and healthily by a range of households with a spectrum of lifestyles”.
Stephen Battersby, vice president of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, which represents council officers enforcing the rating system, said the changes would put more families in the position of Awaab’s parents. “I worry that the draft guidance will provide an even greater opportunity for landlords to blame the tenants for dangerous housing conditions, such as dampness and mould,” he said.
The warnings come as new data reveals the scale of mould and damp problems across Britain’s housing stock. About 450,000 homes in England alone are believed to have problems with condensation and mould, and figures provided exclusively to the Observer last week reveal a dramatic rise in complaints about the social housing sector.
The figures show that in the year to April 2022, the housing ombudsman – which handles disputes relating to local authorities and social housing providers – received 3,530 complaints and enquiries about damp, mould and leaks compared with 1,993 in the year before. It formally investigated 456 cases, compared with 195 the year prior. In 2021-22, 42% of the ombudsman’s cases with severe maladministration findings – signifying a repeated failure by the landlord to deal with the issue – were damp and mould related.
In one case in June, a woman said she complained “hundreds” of times about damp, mould and bedbug infestations, and records show she’d been raising issues with her housing provider since 2017. The woman’s GP wrote to the housing provider because her “physical and mental health were being detrimentally affected by her housing situation”. It was referred to the ombudsman, which found maladministration by the landlord for its response to reports of repairs and an infestation, and severe maladministration for its complaint handling. It was ordered to pay £1,000 in compensation by the ombudsman.
A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities spokesperson said suggestions that the new rating system would lessen protections for tenants were a misrepresentation and that the draft guidance “makes clear damp and mould is due to problems with buildings and not with tenants”. “The secretary of state has been clear that landlords must be held to account if they do not provide safe and decent homes and the new rating system will ensure councils adequately assess risk and take appropriate action to protect tenants.”
As well as damp and mould, the system covers hazards including cold, falls and structural collapses. Inspectors will be required to consider whether residents are putting themselves at risk of falls by not using handrails or being distracted by their mobile phone or rushing around. Ceiling collapse, meanwhile, could be caused through the improper use of shower curtains and “lack of caution when bathing”, the guidance says.