Although the media interest surrounding the Awaab Ishak inquest focussed on the presence of damp and mould, there were other matters arising in evidence in that case which have not been touched upon as extensively by the press. That is not to minimise the possible risks that may be associated with extensive exposure to mould, but rather to put in context that there are many other hazards and concerns which can be associated with domestic premises, all of which may require investment and attention from the property owner.
The Social Housing (Regulation) Act 2023, which was already in draft form prior to the Awaab Ishak inquest, was amended in light of the Coroner’s conclusion in that case to include a specific obligation on social housing landlords to investigate and repair, within a specified timescale, “prescribed hazards,“ which were reported from their housing stock
These additional obligations were proposed to form part of tenancy agreements, and were intended to provide tenants with an enhanced course of redress against landlords who were considered to be failing in their maintenance duties.
The Government has now launched a consultation which considers proposals for the full implementation of Awaab’s Law.
What are the proposals?
The consultation offers seven proposals for comment, being:
- If a registered provider is made aware of a potential hazard in a social home, they must investigate within 14 calendar days to ascertain if there is a hazard.
- Within 14 calendar days of being made aware that there is a potential hazard in a social home, the registered provider must provide a written summary of findings to the resident that includes details of any hazard identified and (if applicable) next steps, including an anticipated timeline for repair and a schedule of works.
Whilst the consultation makes clear that physical visits to properties may not always be necessary, where remote viewing/ information sharing is possible, this requirement does imply and require a certain level of knowledge by the investigator to understand the potential hazards, and make a determination as to their severity.
- If the investigation indicates that a reported hazard poses a significant risk to the health or safety of the resident, the registered provider must begin repair works within 7 calendar days of the written summary being issued.
In determining whether a hazard poses a risk to health and safety, the consultation encourages landlords to consider any specific vulnerabilities of residents of which they are aware, with the overall approach being one of proactivity. Supportive medical evidence will not be required to determine the risk.
- The registered provider must satisfactorily complete repair works within a reasonable time period. The resident should be informed of this time period and their needs should be considered.
The explanatory notes which accompany the consultation detail that specific timescales for completion of works should reflect the nature of the problem, as well as being proportionate to the scale of repair as well as taking into account the needs of the residents.
- The registered provider must action emergency repairs as soon as practicable and, in any event, within 24 hours.
The explanatory notes confirm that ‘emergency repairs’ are those which present a significant and imminent risk of harm.
- In the event that the investigation finds a hazard that poses a significant, or a significant and imminent, risk of harm or danger, and the property cannot be made safe within the specified timescales for Awaab’s Law, the registered provider must offer to arrange for the occupant(s) to stay in suitable alternative accommodation until it is safe to return.
- The registered provider will be expected to keep clear records of all attempts to comply with the proposals, including records of all correspondence with the resident(s) and any contractors. If the registered provider makes all reasonable attempts to comply with the timescales but is unable to for reasons genuinely beyond their control, they will be expected to provide a record of the reasons that prevented them from doing so.
Overview of costs
The Government is unable to estimate the net additional costs of the proposals however they are considered likely to be small, on the basis that aside from specifying the response time, Awaab’s Law goes no further than re-stating landlords existing obligations.
The consultation itself states:
Social landlords already have a responsibility to maintain their homes to meet the Decent Homes Standard… to remedy disrepair, and to maintain homes so that they are fit for human habitation. To be fit for human habitation a home must be safe, healthy and free from things that could cause you or anyone else in your household serious harm. Therefore, the duty to make repairs to reported hazards is not a new burden on landlords, and the costs associated with the investigation and repair timescales are likely to be minimal, as the additional burden is the speed at which repairs need to be responded to, not the repairs themselves.
Familiarisation costs for year one are estimated in the region of £1.6 million, with the costs associated with the provision of a written summary of hazard findings anticipated in the region of £154 million.
The key driver behind the consultation is for social housing landlords to take faster action in responding to hazards within a home that are significantly impacting a resident’s health and safety. The consultation goes on to consider that the remediation of hazards will serve to stop the deterioration of these issues and may even improve mental health and wellbeing, on the basis that, “remedying disrepair in a timely fashion means residents feel their complaints are taken seriously, their pride of place is heightened, and they will feel happier to be at home. These health improvements are likely to result in a reduced burden on the NHS, with fewer housing relating issues resulting in residents requiring medical attention. There are also likely to be wider societal benefits of reducing health and safety hazards in homes, such as reduced instances of lost productivity due to ill health.”
Awaab’s Law, and the proposals currently open for consultation, were introduced following the media frenzy flowing from the November 2022 inquest. However, without more long-term investment and increased funding streams, social housing providers are likely to continue to be placed in an impossible position. In the absence of a blank cheque, it is a difficulty that is not easily resolved.
Whilst the objectives are laudable, as the consultation itself accepts, the proposals are not novel in themselves and re-state existing obligations. What is liable to change however is the time within which those activities need to be put in hand. This may present an immediate logistical problem for many, especially smaller organisations which may have fewer/ more limited resources, and fewer bodies on the ground to put in hand the required attendances when required.
On the resources issue, although the government does not anticipate significant costs, those funds still need to be sourced, and any monies incurred as part of the expected ‘familiarisation’ period will not be available for other projects, such as the construction of new build homes, or upgrade of existing stock. Without downplaying the seriousness of health and safety risks, the remediation of issues in one property may result in a net loss for the stock as a whole if funds are not otherwise available – for example, to fund replacement fittings or new build projects.
Awaab’s Law is also restricted to the social housing sector and does not affect private sector landlords. The occurrence of mould – and other residential hazards – is not exclusive to the social housing sector, yet the proposals are likely to result in an imbalance between the private and the social housing sector, with the latter benefitting from generally faster remediation.
Additionally, tenants owe a duty to behave in a ‘tenant-like manner’ during the life of their lease. However, the current proposals risk severing that responsibility and shifting the responsible burden onto already over-stretched and under-funded social landlords and may, at their extreme, require a landlord to repair a hazard regardless of their genesis or the manner in which they have arisen.
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