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Opinion: Should 'Awaab's law' be applied to private rented sector?

Tom Entwistle

The Government has now committed to delivering 'Awaab's Law' in a new amendment to the Social Housing Regulation Bill.

But does the Government intend to place the same onus on private landlords, and is this law totally fair?

I can't help feeling perplexed as to just how Housing Secretary Michael Gove can think this law is going to be a total solution, but it does give the impression of a Government taking action?

Awaab's Law is designed to force social landlords to promptly fix damp and mould when it appears in tenants' properties. The new law has come about as a result of two-year-old Awaab Ishak's death in December 2020 from a respiratory condition caused by "extensive" mould in a one-bedroom social housing flat, where he lived with his parents in Rochdale, Greater Manchester.

The new law is met with great enthusiasm by the housing charities and tenant organisations but is their faith in it well founded?

Now, housing charity Citizen's Advice is calling for the same 'Awaab's law' to apply in the Private Rented Sector (PRS), where the charity claims that around 2.7m households in England are contaminated by damp, mould or excessive cold.

The new law, the Government says will:

  • Crackdown on damp and mould under new legislation in memory of Awaab Ishak
  • [Social] Landlords must investigate and fix serious problems within strict time limits
  • [Give] New powers for Housing Ombudsman to help landlords improve performance, in amendments to the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill.

Applies to social landlords only

Once the new law is enacted social housing landlords will be obliged to investigate and fix damp and mould in their properties within strict new time limits, that's according to an announcement by Housing Secretary Michael Gove on Thursday 9 February.

Amendments have already been tabled to the Social Housing Regulation Bill which will bring about the introduction of 'Awaab's Law'�.

Swift action

Mr Gove acted speedily following the tragic death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak, which the coroner concluded was caused by the damp and mould that existed inside the family's home. The social housing flat's tenancy was managed by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, an organisation that has since had its funding blocked, preventing the company building new homes until it can prove it is a responsible landlord.

The Housing Secretary confirmed the Government's commitment to the new law in social housing when he visited Rochdale recently and met with Awaab's family and the Interim Chief Executive at Rochdale Boroughwide Housing.

So far the Government has not indicated that the new law will apply directly to the PRS but this has not stopped housing charities including Citizen's Advice calling for such a move.

However, we await the changes to the PRS to be introduced, probably this year, by The Renters Reform Bill. It is predicted to bring big changes for landlords and tenants in England in particular the abolition of Section 21 and the introduction for the Decent Homes Standard, previously applying only to social housing.

The bill is part of the government's white paper ' A Fairer Private Rented Sector. The paper provides the Government's commitment to 'delivering a fairer, more secure, and higher quality Private Rented Sector' and promises to be the 'biggest shake-up of the rented sector for 30 years'.

It is very likely therefore that the bill will contain some measures along the lines of Awaab's law when applied to the PRS.

Back to Awaab's Law and social housing

The Government has stated that a consultation is to be held later this year to establish time-frames within which social landlords will have to act to investigate hazards and carry out any necessary repairs.

The new rules are to form part of the tenancy agreement, so tenants can hold landlords to account through the courts if necessary, a measure which will also form part of the PRS's Renter's Reform Bill.

Housing campaigners are now calling for private landlords to be held to the same high standards as will be introduced by 'Awaab's Law' in the social sector. Citizen's Advice claim that there could be as many as 1.6 million children living in the PRS at risk of health issues due to damp, mould or excessive cold.

Head of energy policy at Citizens Advice, Gillian Cooper, has said:

'Every week we hear stories of people living in cold, damp and mouldy properties they can't afford to heat properly. Improving energy efficiency in privately rented homes has never been more urgent. It's the step needed to keep people's essential bills low, while also helping to protect their mental and physical health.'

The Government is acting but will it work?

When it comes to damp, mould or excessive cold I'm intrigued to know if Michael Gove really understands the issues involved? The are long-standing issues in all tenancies whether social or private, in which so far an effective universal solution has proven largely elusive.

Does Mr Gove really understand or is this a knee jerk reaction to a problem that could blow up in the Government's face: urgent action was need in the high profile Awaab case to divert public attention, but does placing the onus of finding a solution on to the landlords solve the problem completely?

Yes, it's good to carry out investigations to find the extent of the problem, but can the perennial problem of condensation and mould in rental homes really be solved by this law and the sole action of landlords - personally I doubt that.

We know that these problems are caused by poor heating and ventilation ' removing steam created by cooking, washing and clothes drying, at source. We also know that poor housing stock often has inefficient and costly heating systems.

Landlords in the PRS are most likely going to have to improve the energy efficiency of their units to EPC level 'C'� over the next few years. A good thing in itself, this still leaves a big question in my mind: how can any landlord ensure that every tenant applies enough heat, and ventilates steam at source, so as to keep their properties free from condensation and mould?

This is where we enter a contentious and controversial sphere: how can a landlord possibly force a tenant, one who is struggling with their finances, to maintain that minimum level of heat to fend off that dreaded black mould, the toxic growth that has the potential to destroy the health of anyone living in the property.

High cost of energy

Given the cost of fuel ' especially this winter in an energy crisis '� many tenants would rather economise on heating and get used to living in cold, than go without food. But the consequences are, as we know, damp and mould, it's inevitable. How come one tenant in an identical flat, with identical heating etc., can be free from this menace, while another tenant next door produces a property looking like the Black Hole of Calcutta?

Over the years I've racked my brain to solve this conundrum. It's very easy for Michael Gove to speedily bring in legislation which covers himself, gives the appearance of immediate effective action, enthusiastically received by all, placing the onus squarely on the shoulders of landlords.

It is almost certain the measures will eventually apply to private landlords, but is that fair? Yes it will encourage landlords to use their best endeavours to contain the problem, but they don't live with their tenants like Rigsby, they can't control everything.


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