BLOG: The two-tier system of housing safety standards
Published: 25 Jan, 2024

Authored by Holly Rooke, a PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield, this blog examines the implications of a two-tier system in housing safety standards, advocating for comprehensive reforms to ensure the well-being of residents from all backgrounds.

Last week, The Guardian reported that new legislation forcing landlords to address damp and mould issues in social housing will not be extended to asylum accommodation. Awaab’s Law, which is part of The Social Housing (Regulation) Act 2023 and follows the death of toddler Awaab Ishak from prolonged exposure to black mould in his home, sets out new requirements for landlords to address hazards – including damp and mould – within a fixed period.

As it applies only to social housing, the new legislation essentially creates a two-tier system of protection and standards that leaves other types of tenants at risk. This is significant given the often poor conditions in other parts of the housing system. For example, last year Shelter reported that one in five people in temporary accommodation – which is provided by councils to households who are homeless until a more permanent option becomes available – live with a safety hazard, such as fire risks or faulty wiring. The numbers in temporary accommodation reached a record high of 105,000 households – including more than 131,000 children – in 2023, meaning that significant numbers of families are living in unsafe conditions.

The same is true in the private rented sector, which has a far higher percentage of properties reaching the threshold for the most dangerous levels of damp and mould than other types of tenures (the most recent English Housing Survey found that whilst overall 4% of dwellings had a problem with damp, this rises to 9% in the private rented sector). This kind of data is not available for asylum accommodation, however problems with unsafe and unsanitary conditions have been widely reported on by charities and in the media for many years. As well as damp and mould, this reporting has highlighted problems including rodents and cockroaches, as well as a culture of abuse and intimidation towards asylum seekers living in hotels. Asylum seekers are offered accommodation on a no-choice basis, and even when in housing provided by private landlords they lack the same rights as other tenants, leaving little recourse when conditions are poor.

The latest government data shows that nearly 119,000 asylum seekers were receiving some kind of accommodation support at the end of September 2023. This is a mixture of dispersal and initial accommodation, which is largely multiple-occupancy houses owned by private landlords, as well as hotels and ‘accommodation centres’ such as the now infamous Bibby Stockholm barge. Asylum accommodation was privatised in the UK in 2012, and since the end of 2019 has been provided by three contractors – Clearsprings, Mears and Serco – under a £4 billion ten-year contract.

The huge profits made off the back of these Home Office contracts (for example, Clearsprings made £62.5 million in profit in 2022), as well as the poor conditions and lack of transparency, have been the subject of sustained criticism from charities supporting refugees and asylum seekers, who argue for a return to a not-for-profit model. Asylum accommodation has recently been on the news agenda for other reasons as well, as the Government introduced a policy in August last year which effectively reduced the amount of time newly-granted refugees had before they were evicted from 28 days to around a week, leading to a significant rise in homelessness. This has since been quietly reversed.

Currently three quarters of initial decisions on asylum claims result in a grant of protection, with another 51% successful at appeal stage. As the vast majority of people who make a claim will therefore go on to rebuild their lives in the UK, there is a good argument to say that the accommodation provided to asylum seekers should be conducive to their integration and well-being, helping them to start feeling at home in the UK. Regardless of where you stand on this point, ensuring that housing is not harmful to people’s health should be a minimum requirement.

Whilst the new legislation to protect social tenants cannot be anything but welcome, a true commitment to ensuring housing is safe for everyone would see it extended to landlords and residents in all sectors. Regardless of immigration status or type of tenure, no one should be forced to live in damp, mouldy and unsafe homes.

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