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"You don't need this stress": Michael Gove speaks to tenant on Awaab Ishak's estate as he vows to 'make the penny drop' for landlords

On the same estate that tragic Awaab Ishak had lived, breathing in his killer, Michael Gove promised action. The housing secretary had just met Awaab's parents before visiting the Freehold estate, in Rochdale, where the family used to call home.

He was a stone's throw away from the one-bedroom flat where Awaab's parents felt 'absolutely trapped' while social landlord Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) failed to deal with the stubborn, thick black mould that would ultimately lead to Awaab's death. Mr Gove said: "It's difficult isn't it, when you've got a mum and dad who have lost a two-year-old son, to imagine what they have been going through.

"I just said to Awaab's parents that I was sorry for what had happened, but I admired their bravery. I was sad that no one had listened to them properly in RBH in order to make sure that they and their son were living in a decent home, and I discussed with them and with the legal team that had been helping them, what we can do in order to learn from this tragedy and ensure that something like this doesn't happen again in future."

READ MORE: After little Awaab's death the government is now promising change - it can't come soon enough

Mr Gove was in Rochdale on a day he had announced a £1 million funding hit for RBH, as the fall-out from Awaab's inquest goes on. He spoke to representatives from the landlord and Rochdale Council, as well as Awaab's parents and their legal team, before visiting a Freehold tenant who shared her own experience with damp and mould.

Her story was painfully familiar to the ones heard by the Manchester Evening News in the summer. The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, spoke of painting over the mould and being forced to sleep in her living room because the damp in her bedroom was so bad.

Mr Gove on the Freehold estate (Manchester Evening News)

She showed Mr Gove her bedroom and her bathroom. She showed him photographs she took on her phone when the mould was at its worst, and she had been making desperate pleas for help.

Then she broke down in tears. "What can I do?" the tenant asked Mr Gove. "I try my best... I warn them, I explain myself, I am fighting for myself."

It was a moment when Mr Gove saw the reality that too many tenants on the Freehold estate have been faced with for too long. He seemed dismayed at what he heard, telling the woman: "You have to rely on your landlord to do that sort of work... you don't need this stress and you certainly don't need this worry."

Awaab's death has sparked anger. RBH has been under huge scrutiny since Awaab's inquest, with its chief executive being ousted at the weekend, and more than 120,000 people backing an M.E.N. campaign for Awaab's Law.

It is a campaign that Mr Gove has given his support to - a key milestone in the battle to make sure Awaab's death is not in vain. Work is getting underway to see Awaab's Law become legislation 'as quickly as possible', Mr Gove said, with government officials checking the details of how the policy could work effectively.

The housing secretary also confirmed the Social Housing Regulation Bill, which the M.E.N. is urging MPs to get behind, is also being brought forward. "In the aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy it was clear that tenants were not having their concerns listened to," he told the M.E.N.

"This legislation follows on from that. I know that there are people including myself who would prefer this legislation to have come forward more quickly - we're acting now, the important thing is to make sure the penny drops with housing associations."

Mr Gove says the regulator will have 'new teeth' to hold social landlords to account, alongside work to make complaining to the housing ombudsman easier for tenants. But Shelter, which has supported the M.E.N. 's campaign, believes the bill needs strengthening - with Ofsted-style inspections for housing associations and increased professionalisation of housing management.

Michael Gove speaks to the M.E.N. in Rochdale (Manchester Evening News)

The housing secretary is also keen to see social landlords become more accountable. In an eye-catching step announced this morning, he stripped RBH of £1 million it was set to receive to help it build new homes.

Mr Gove said: "Today we've made it clear to RBH and to other social landlords that they have a responsibility to ensure that people are living in safe, decent, warm homes, and that they won't get the money they want for expansion until that happens - until the regulator is absolutely satisfied that conditions are up to scratch." It's a move that is not without controversy though.

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has questioned the decision at a time Rochdale is suffering from a housing crisis. The town's MP, Tony Lloyd, told the Northern Agenda podcast: "While I understand that looks like you're penalising the housing association, what you're penalising really, in the longer room are people who are desperate for reasonable quality housing in Rochdale."

But the decision is one Mr Gove is sticking with - suggesting the landlord needs to show it can be trusted to build new homes. "It's the people of Rochdale who are in my mind," he told the M.E.N.

"Absolutely, we need to make sure that first of all RBH sticks to its principal goal, which is to make sure that existing homes are well looked after. If they can't do that, then we can't be certain that new homes will be built in a standard and a way that is required."

Mr Gove hopes a report from the housing regulator into RBH will be available before Christmas. "I talked to the chair of RBH today," Mr Gove said. "I have to say they still have a lot of questions to answer, but it's the regulator who has to have confidence that they are doing the right thing."

The housing secretary also spoke to Rochdale councillors from across the political divide about the future of housing in the town. Last week, the council had wrote to Mr Gove, suggesting RBH should be stripped of its homes and the stock handed back to Rochdale Council.

Mr Gove admits that 'no option is off the table', although he feels that plan would be 'quite an expensive process'. Yet whatever happens next following Awaab's death, the housing secretary accepts that new investment is needed - for both repairs and sorely-needed new housing across Rochdale and Greater Manchester.

Awaab Ishak vigil outside Rochdale Council offices at Number One Riverside, Rochdale (Sean Hansford | Manchester Evening News)

Following Mr Gove's visit to Rochdale, a spokesperson for RBH said: "We welcomed the opportunity to meet with the Secretary of State. We acknowledged again that we got things wrong and how deeply sorry we are for the loss of Awaab and that we know that our words would not take away the pain that is being felt by his family.

"We explained to the Secretary of State that we welcomed the impartial scrutiny that the regulator will bring and we look forward to working more closely with all parties over the coming months. We are absolutely focussed on improving the quality of our existing homes and improving any operational areas where we have previously under performed.

"Our immediate priority is to maintain the stability of the organisation and to appoint a new interim chief executive which we are in the process of doing. The board is reflecting on the appropriate blend of skills and experience needed to lead the organisation going forward.

"The board will take the decision in dialogue with the regulator and RBH’s representative body to ensure that there is a well-managed succession plan for the future." Sign the petition for Awaab's Law here.

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