Several councils have been singled out for criticism by Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove over their apparent failure to respond to complaints from residents, ranging from damp and mould to anti-social behaviour.
In public letters to six councils – the majority of which are Labour-controlled – Mr Gove accused the various authorities of neglecting their residents’ needs.
In a letter to Southwark Council in London, the cabinet minister said he was “appalled” to learn of a case involving a pregnant resident who was left with no heating for six months during the winter.
In a separate case, the council is alleged to have accused a tenant of vandalising his own kitchen after the council’s contractors had removed kitchen units to carry out works. Mr Gove claimed the council accused the resident of a criminal act and ordered him to pay for the repairs.
“I was appalled to hear about these cases,” he wrote.
“Your response to these complaints fell well below the standard your residents should expect. To have four separate judgements published about your service failures gives cause for concern about the quality of service that you are providing.
“I have been clear that social housing residents must be able to put their trust in their landlords to provide a decent home and deal with complaints effectively.
“I will be taking a personal interest in how your organisation delivers its responsibilities.”
In another letter, he accused Barking and Dagenham Council of having “failed” residents after it did not address reports of damp and mould, affecting a family of six with a one-year-old child for over two and a half years and forcing them to share a single bedroom.
“The delays in carrying out the necessary repairs caused by your mishandling of their complaint, understandably caused the family distress, inconvenience, and put their health at risk,” he said.
“Even when it was known that the family was living in one room and having had medical advice, there was no evidence that you had given consideration of a decant to temporary accommodation while the repairs were undertaken.”
Meanwhile, he accused Sandwell Council in the West Midlands of failing to adequately respond to an anti-social behaviour complaint from a resident with “complex mental health needs” in a possible breach of the Equalities Act 2010.
Mr Gove’s naming and shaming of councils comes as he looks to bolster rights and standards for tenants as part of his levelling up agenda.
In July his Social Housing (Regulation) Bill became law and will see regular inspections of the largest social housing providers carried out as well as the power to issue unlimited fines to rogue social landlords.
The bill followed the case of two-year-old Awaab Ishak, who died in December 2020 from a respiratory condition caused by mould in the flat where he lived with his parents in Greater Manchester.
Mr Gove also introduced the Act in a bid to address systemic issues identified following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, in which 72 people lost their lives.
In response to Awaab’s death, ministers proposed that landlords would have to investigate and fix damp and mould in social housing within strict time limits under what would be known as “Awaab’s Law”.
Awaab’s Law was added as an amendment to the Social Housing Bill in his memory and aims to “make sure no other child, or anyone else, dies due to mould in their home”.
Cllr Kieron Williams, the leader of Southwark Council, apologised to the residents affected but criticised the government for “reducing the money we have to spend on our homes”.
“I would like to say again how sorry we are to the residents involved with these cases from previous years,” he said.
“They should not have happened and we have since made many changes to ensure we learn the lessons from each case.
“This week we published our plans for improving our repairs service, overseen by a resident board, and that work is already showing improvements.”
He added: “We take full responsibility for the things that went wrong in these historic cases and will continue to work with residents to improve our services.
“That job would be greatly helped if the government stopped reducing the money we have to spend on our homes.
“Decisions made by government ministers have taken hundreds of millions of pounds out of the funds councils have to maintain our tenants’ homes.
“Tenants need councils to have secure and adequate funding so we can provide the quality services that we, and the government, believe our residents deserve.”
A spokesperson for Barking and Dagenham Council said it had “recognised the failings in this case and the impact that this would have had on the family and the ability to enjoy their environment” and offered its “sincere apologies”.
“As a council it is important that we take complaints and use these as a basis to improve services for our residents, as such we have taken this complaint and determined several learning outcomes to improve the services which we offer all residents.”
A Sandwell Council spokesperson added: “We take our responsibilities to our tenants extremely seriously and we are working hard to provide the excellent services they deserve.
“However, we acknowledge we fell short on this occasion and we have made changes as a result.”