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Dampness in Scottish social housing

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This blog looks at the issue of dampness in social housing in Scotland.

Two-year old Awaab Ishak tragically died in 2020 as a result of a severe respiratory condition due to prolonged exposure to mould in his home.  Awaab lived in a housing association home in England. The coroner investigating the case was reported as saying:

“The tragic death of Awaab will and should be a defining moment for the housing sector in terms of increasing knowledge, increasing awareness and a deepening of understanding surrounding the issue of damp and mould.”

Although there is a different regulatory framework for social housing in Scotland, Awaab’s death is a stark reminder of the harmful health impacts of dampness and mould and the need for social landlords (councils and housing associations), and equally private landlords, throughout the UK to tackle the problem. 

What causes dampness and what are its health impacts?

The type and causes of dampness in the home are varied. For example:

  • Penetrating damp can happen when water outside penetrates the building. This is most likely to happen from building faults such as broken pipes and gutters, missing roof tiles or poorly installed windows and doors.
  • Rising damp can happen when water rises up from the ground into the structure of the building. This can happen where there is no damp proof course, or an existing damp proof course has failed.
  • Condensation can happen when warm moist air comes into contact with cold surfaces and leaves drops of water on the surface. Poorly heated or ventilated homes can experience condensation. How a resident uses their home can affect condensation levels. But in a report, It’s not lifestyle, the English Housing Ombudsman warned English social landlords to avoid inferring blame on residents due to ‘lifestyle’ when it is not often solely their issue.

Whatever the cause of dampness in homes the impact may be harmful to residents.  Living in damp and mouldy housing can lead to poor health. As the NHS states:

“Residents living in homes with damp and mould may be more likely to have respiratory problems, allergies, asthma, and other conditions that impact on their immune system…There are also other broader impacts on the mental health, education and career prospects of residents living with damp and mould, highlighting why there is a real urgency for change.”

The scale of dampness in Scotland’s homes

The latest Scottish House Condition Survey, published in 2019, estimated that relatively few of Scotland’s homes suffered from dampness and condensation. Ninety-one per cent of all homes in all tenures (social, private rented and owner occupied) were free from damp or condensation. This rate has been stable in recent years but represents an overall improvement from 86% in 2012.

During a recent portfolio question time, the Cabinet Secretary for Social Housing, Justice and Local Government said that the survey showed that 99% of social homes were free from damp and 86% were free from any signs of mould.

What are social landlords’ responsibilities to deal with damp homes?

Social landlords have a legal duty to ensure that the properties they let are wind and watertight and in all other respects ‘reasonably fit for human habitation’.

In addition, social landlords must ensure that the properties they let meet the Scottish Housing Quality Standard (SHQS), one aspect of which is that homes must be substantially free from rising and penetrating damp

Social landlords have also been working to improve the energy efficiency of their homes.

As the Cabinet Secretary said during the portfolio question time:

“Although housing conditions in Scotland have been gradually improving, we recognise that there is more work to do, which is why we have committed to developing a new housing standard.”

Plans for a new housing standard were set out in Housing to 2040.

In general terms, social landlords are responsible for major repairs to the structure and installations of a property while residents are responsible for minor interior repairs and decoration.

Social landlords should have their own policy for carrying out repairs in line with the legislative and policy framework.

What if a resident is not satisfied with the social landlord’s response to complaints about dampness in their homes?

Sometimes it can be difficult to identify the problems causing dampness and rectifying the problem may take some time.   

If a resident is living in a damp property and thinks that their landlord is not taking appropriate action to deal with the problem, they could consider a formal complaint via their landlords’ formal complaints process.

If they are not satisfied with how any complaint is addressed, then they could complain to the Scottish Public Sector Ombudsman.  The Ombudsman would consider, for example, whether the landlord followed their own procedures and whether their actions were reasonable. The Ombudsman will report on the case and could also make a recommendation to redress a financial loss or cost.

Residents could also take a case to the Sheriff court.  The court can order the landlord to fix the repairs within a certain amount of time and, if the landlord does not comply, they may order that compensation is payable.  Anyone thinking about taking this approach would be best to speak to a specialist housing adviser (such as Shelter Scotland) or a solicitor first. 

The Scottish Housing Regulator has responsibility for monitoring social landlords’ compliance with the Scottish Housing Quality Standard. It does not have a role in dealing with individual complaints from tenants but will investigate if there is a potential ‘significant performance failure’, such as where the social landlord has failed to take action in a way that puts tenants’ interests at risk and this significantly affects a number of the landlord’s tenants.  It has a range of regulatory powers to intervene where a landlord’s performance is poor. 

On 1 December 2022, the Scottish Housing Regulator wrote to social landlords  emphasising the need for them to have appropriate and proactive systems to deal with dampness:

“I am writing to ask all governing bodies and committees to consider the systems they have in place to ensure their tenants’ homes are not affected by mould and dampness and that they have appropriate, proactive systems to identify and deal with any reported cases of mould and damp timeously and effectively.

The current cost of living crisis, and in particular rising energy costs, will mean that many tenants face difficulties in heating their homes. So it is now more important than ever that all social landlords have robust procedures for managing reports and instances of mould and dampness.”

The Regulator stated that it was also working with the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations and the Association of Local Authority Chief Housing Officer to identify and promote good practice in the management of mould and dampness.

Kate Berry

SPICe, Senior Researcher

Blog image: Rehousing tenements c1935, by Tony164 is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)