Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
Manchester Evening News
Manchester Evening News
Stephen Topping

'After Awaab, nobody can ignore damp and mould anymore... a lot of us did'

The boss tasked with turning Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) around says Awaab Ishak's legacy is the end of 'lifestyle' being blamed for damp and mould. Yvonne Arrowsmith was brought into RBH as interim chief executive last December with the housing association dealing with the aftermath of Awaab's inquest.

The toddler died aged two in December 2020 following prolonged exposure to mould at a property on RBH's Freehold estate, with coroner Joanne Kearsley describing the tragedy as a 'defining moment' for the social housing sector. A Manchester Evening News investigation last summer found other tenants were suffering in similar conditions, including children with breathing difficulties.

RBH inspected the Freehold flats following the M.E.N.'s work and found a staggering 80% of homes affected by damp and mould - more than 18 months after Awaab had died. Ms Arrowsmith said: "It wasn't until [the M.E.N.] went to Freehold that RBH went to Freehold.

Try MEN Premium for FREE by clicking here for no ads, fun puzzles and brilliant new features

"I think the M.E.N. led on this and I think that's been great. It has been that catalyst for change. Awaab's Law, for me... it means that no one can ignore it anymore.

"And I think that as a sector, not everyone, but a lot of us did. We just said, oh it's lifestyle, open your window - it was that kind of [attitude], and nobody thinks that anymore."

Yvonne Arrowsmith, interim chief executive at Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (Manchester Evening News)

The idea that damp and mould was the fault of tenants is one that the Housing Ombudsman had already been urging social landlords to abandon. But it sat at the heart of Awaab's story.

His inquest heard how assumptions were made by RBH workers about the bathing habits of Awaab's family, ultimately leading to damp and mould, based on their religion. Yet the family were never asked about it by RBH, and Awaab's dad told the court how they took showers instead.

The housing association was urged to 'stop being racist' by the family following the inquest, and a damning report by the Housing Ombudsman earlier this year outlined further shocking attitudes held by some in the organisation. "We can never forget what happened and we shouldn't," Ms Arrowsmith told the M.E.N.

"But we need to look forward to make sure that we carry on improving things for people. That shift of getting people out of the way they used to work, to the way they need to work, and we just keep plugging away at that every day."

Awaab Ishak's death sparked a campaign for change in the law (Manchester Evening News)

Ms Arrowsmith says progress has been made in changing the culture at RBH since she took the helm, but there is 'still a way to go'. A worker who is leading on equality and diversity has been meeting with faith communities, while all RBH staff will have to take on a customer excellence training programme over the next year, with 20% of workers having completed it so far.

In September, Ms Arrowsmith will be replaced by RBH's new permanent chief executive, Amanda Newton. Ms Arrowsmith says she didn't expect to be at RBH as long as nine months, but it has probably been 'the biggest challenge' of her career.

"We are in such a different place," she said. "There's no doubt - when I walked in, in December, it was crisis.

"The organisation was in crisis, it was shocked, it was just in a place that needed so much doing and I think over the last six months everyone is really clear on what we're doing."

The Freehold estate in Rochdale (MEN Media)

There has been a reshuffle at the top of RBH and an entirely new board appointed.

The social landlord has also shifted its focus from new developments onto refurbishing existing stock - including, Ms Arrowsmith hopes, College Bank. RBH's board has committed an extra £45 million towards renovating existing properties over the next five years.

"We were pushed, as a sector, to build new homes over the last two decades," said Ms Arrowsmith. "That was right on one hand because we need more homes, and we definitely need more homes in Rochdale.

"But that balance of new and what you've already got, I think had just tipped the other way, and people were very focused on that and the funding was very focused on that - and that meant they weren't really looking at what was going on with their existing homes." Ms Arrowsmith also feels the opportunity for tenants to meet staff diminished in the pandemic.

She says neighbourhood officers are now out on RBH estates, resident groups have returned and the number of staff at the landlord's contact centre has grown from nine to 26. It's part of a process of RBH tenants 'starting to get their voices back'.

Join our WhatsApp Top Stories and Breaking News group by clicking this link

Understandably following what happened to Awaab, a key focus for the landlord has been on resolving issues of damp and mould. Work has been carried out at more than 2,500 properties, and from a position where 80% of properties on Freehold were affected by damp or mould, RBH says only four jobs remain outstanding at the estate.

Around 300 ventilation fans have been replaced - with this being one of the main issues leading to condensation at 60% of the properties affected by damp or mould. Elsewhere, failing damp courses and water ingress from ageing balconies have caused problems.

"We have got high levels of damp and mould," said Ms Arrowsmith. "Part of it is we've got some very old properties - 3,000 of our properties are almost 100 years old - and it's a damp climate, so there's always going to be that risk."

Ms Arrowsmith says damp and mould is something the housing sector can take ownership of - and it is not an issue of 'lifestyle'. "That word is banned from the vocabulary here," she added.

Mould in the kitchen of Awaab's home, shortly after his death (Greater Manchester Police)

"It isn't because of people's lifestyle at all. We had to look at what is causing the levels of damp and mould that we've got."

A more proactive approach to damp and mould at RBH is 'very different' to how the issue was previously dealt with, Ms Arrowsmith says. Behind the scenes, work has taken place to simplify the IT systems used by workers, after major failures were highlighted by the regulator and during Awaab's inquest.

The outgoing interim chief has met regularly with the Regulator of Social Housing, and she hopes RBH can be upgraded as soon as possible. Ms Arrowsmith agrees with coroner Joanne Kearsley that Awaab's death has been a 'defining moment' for social housing, but she admits 'it's just sad' it had to follow such a harrowing tragedy.

"It's one of those moments that you don't want to have to have, obviously," she said. "But it's just made a real difference in people's attitudes to their existing properties and just shifting that balance again - from growth to, actually we've got all of these [properties], we need to make sure they're OK."

Rebecca Long-Bailey MP; Honor Barber from; Awaab's father Faisal Abdullah; M.E.N. reporter Stephen Topping; Kelly Darlington from Farleys Solicitors; and lawyer Christian Weaver, who has represented the family (Ian Vogler)

Once Royal Assent is granted for the Bill containing Awaab's Law, a consultation will take place to set the timeframes social landlords will need to inspect and repair damp and mould - a process Ms Arrowsmith says will be 'interesting'. But she feels a key lesson for housing providers across the country is that they can be 'resilient' in tackling the issue.

"Actually we can deal with these things," she said. "We can get on top of them, we can change.

"It's that reflection of being honest about what went wrong, not trying to blame other people, just accepting that this was within our control and we got it wrong. Of course nobody would have wanted this to happen.

"Nobody did anything deliberately so that this would happen. But I think in the ombudsman's report, in the regulator's stuff and the things that we've learned, people have kind of recognised bits in it and thought - actually we shouldn't have been doing that."

Ms Arrowsmith added: "A lot has happened but we've still got a lot to do. We're not saying we've solved everything yet but we're going in the right direction, we're listening to our tenants, we will continue that open dialogue and Amanda will do the same."

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.