Reflections on my time at Rochdale Boroughwide Housing

Yvonne Arrowsmith, 15 September 2023

Most will recall watching the news unfold in November 2022. The tragic death of Awaab Ishak had been linked by the coroner to long-term damp and mould exposure in his home. There was an outpouring of emotion across the country that this could happen in modern Britain, and worse, that this could happen in social housing.

I too recall watching the news unfold, and the anger people were rightly feeling. Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) the landlord were being held accountable by the media, the government, the regulator and the public. There were many questions that needed to be answered. 

A month later I found myself walking into the offices of RBH, as Interim CEO charged with answering those questions, ensuring lessons were learned and nothing like this could happen again. RBH needed to change.

At first that change came from others – in just one week the regulator had downgraded RBH to a G3, with breaches of two consumer standards, the Ombudsman had initiated a Para 49 investigation, the Secretary of State had embargoed development funding, and the media kept RBH in the spotlight.

Then change came from within – RBH embarked on creating a recovery plan. My aim was to learn as much as I could quickly. I spoke with tenants, looked at our homes, met with staff and key stakeholders and asked them all the same question: tell me about the good and bad at RBH.

These early conversations, along with the grounds for the downgrading, formed our plan. It covered governance, the condition of homes, tenant voice, trust and confidence and lessons learned. It gave everyone a roadmap of what we needed to change, and how quickly we needed to work. It gave a clear message on what we had to do:

  • Improve the way we are governed and managed.
  • Deal with the condition of our homes.
  • Change the culture to put tenants back at the heart of all we do.
  • Listen.

Our priority had to be dealing with the damp and mould, and fast. To date we have been into just under 8,000 properties and have treated more than 2,000 homes. We have been looking at root causes to find the underlying reasons so many homes need treating. So far we’ve found that there isn’t a single cause, and it’s not because of tenants’ lifestyles. It’s because we hadn’t previously taken it seriously enough and we hadn’t invested enough in our homes.

We commissioned a lessons learned review, to ensure we captured all possible lessons - it highlighted other areas for us around record keeping, use of data and joining the dots,  making the best use of information to ensure we are always thinking ‘how do you know what you don’t know’. 

We have made progress in completing the recovery plan and RBH is in a very different place compared to November 2022. There are still things that need improving, continuous improvement needs to be part of every organisation, and we are not complacent about the importance of the task that still lies ahead.

Urgent change was needed, so we’ve worked at pace, but everyone is very clear on where we need to get to. Everyone is very clear that we can never allow another resident to experience the horror that Awaab and his family endured.

As I finish at RBH this week, with a new permanent CEO coming in to continue the journey, I do think there are some key things that other housing providers should be thinking about. Had you asked RBH before if it had a major problem with damp and mould the answer would have been ‘no’. But there was a major problem, and RBH should have been proactively looking for it. The coroner’s verdict was a defining moment in making us all see the threat of long-term exposure to damp and mould.

A threat that is being tackled across the sector through the Better Social Housing Review, and the significant amounts of work that have followed through the NHF-CIH action plan as well as changes to consumer regulation. I also know that given the scale of the challenge, we can’t do this alone – our sector needs government support not just to build the homes that we so desperately need, but to regenerate and improve existing homes.

We know the importance of a positive culture in the workplace, especially when working with residents, but do we always see that culture across our organisations? Are we concentrating on what we should be? And as leaders, are we ensuring it’s easy for our staff to do a good job? We need to keep asking ourselves these questions.

The death of Awaab Ishak is a tragedy that we cannot nor should ever forget, he has left a legacy of change in the sector that we must continue at pace.