SCOTLAND'S biggest publicly funded housing association has been condemned for a failure to track the full extent of damp and mould problems in their rented properties leading to serious health concerns.

The controversy has surfaced a matter of days after a toddler died from a respiratory condition caused by exposure to mould in his socially rented home.

Awaab Ishak's father repeatedly raised the issue with Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) but no action was taken.

Coroner Joanne Kearsley said RBH were not "proactive" and asked: "How in the UK in 2020 does a two-year-old child die as a result of exposure to mould?"

The case has sparked a national debate about standards in social housing and has echoes of the Grenfell disaster, which was preceded by a social landlord failing to properly listen to tenants’ complaints.

The coroner, Joanne Kearsley, said Awaab’s death should be a “defining moment” for the UK’s housing sector.

It also triggered calls from paediatric doctors for better reporting of air quality problems in homes.

It has emerged that Wheatley Group, which owns or manages homes in 19 of Scotland's 32 local authority areas, has admitted that it does not "place any particular marker" on its properties to identify if they have damp and mould problems.

It was responding to a Freedom of Information request from concerned tenants asking Glasgow-based Wheatley, the UK’s fourth largest housing group how many of the total social housing stock had damp and mould problems in each of the last two years.

HeraldScotland:

Awaab Ishak

The housing group which manages over 93,600 homes in 19 of Scotland's 32 local authority areas said: "I write to advise you that, following a search of our electronic records, I have established that we do not hold the information that you have requested.

"This is because we do not place any particular marker on our properties to identify that they have ‘damp and mould problems’.

"I am satisfied that we do not hold this information in question. As we do not hold the information you have requested, I do not consider there to be any conceivable public interest in requiring that the information be made available."

The housing group were also unable to say how many complaints it had received over damp and mould problems.

But it was able to say that there were 56 complaints over dissatisfaction over the group's repairs and maintenance service in 2021/22 - 23 more than the previous year.

The response has shocked the Scottish Tenants Organisation (STO) which said: "It beggars belief that Scotland’s biggest social landlord the Wheatley Group does not know the extent of dampness and mould throughout the thousands of their social rented homes in Scotland.

"This is a major dereliction of a duty of care to thousands of their tenants in Scotland and shows the serious disconnect between the privileged lives of housing professionals in the Wheatley Executive Team and the difficult lives of tenants going through the cost of living crisis living with damp and mould in their homes throughout Scotland.

"The avoidable tragic death of two year old Awaab Ishak in Rochdale will be repeated in Scotland unless social landlords here are made to tackle the serious problem of damp and mould in this country by the Scottish Government."

It comes as a new analysis by the Fraser of Allander Institute highlighted damp and overcrowded accommodation as a factor in the dramatic stalling of improvements in living standards in Scotland.

Previous housing condition surveys in Scotland had shown a decrease in the number of properties reporting issues with damp conditions over the past decade, but suggested that lower income households were still the worst affected.

The Herald revealed earlier this month that the head of Wheatley has seen his wages soar by 63% in eight years to nearly half a million pounds while rent arrears in the cost of living crisis hit a record high of £169m.

The remuneration package of Martin Armstrong, the chief executive of the Wheatley Group, which owns or manages homes in 19 of Scotland's 32 local authority areas, has been described as "obscene" by housing campaigners and amounts to nearly three times as much as Scotland's First Minister.

HeraldScotland:

Martin Armstrong, the chief executive of the Wheatley Group

His £418,000 salary package, including pension contributions, has soared since 2014 when he got £256,000-a-year and was then responsible for owning and managing around 77,000 homes in 15 local authority areas.

It is 25% more than in 2019 when he was earning £334,000 and a 6.63% increase in a year.

In the wake of the Awaab Ishak case, housing ombudsman, Richard Blakeway said some landlords had shown a dismissive attitude towards damp and mould and called on them to tackle the “real risk of worsening damp and mould issues” as energy bills soar.

Senior doctors also called on the UK government to set up a reporting channel for renters to raise the alarm about indoor air quality problems and to help with necessary improvements.

Michael Gove, the levelling up, housing and communities secretary, said the death was “an unacceptable tragedy” and that “it beggars belief” that the chief executive of the social housing provider was still in office. But he also said the government had been too slow to toughen regulation of social housing.

Greg Fell, the vice-president of the Association of Directors of Public Health, said the verdict “tragically underscored” the “hidden risk” to public health posed by mould.

“It’s a significant threat,” he said. “We are going into a winter where people will be turning the heating down in a way that encourages more damp in our homes.”

Awaab’s parents read a statement in which they accused the social housing provider RBH of doing nothing over a number of years to treat the mould problem that killed their son.

RBH accepted at the inquest that a more proactive approach should have been taken to tackle the mould.

Sean Clerkin, campaign co-ordinator with the STO added: "It is abhorrent that they do not know the extent of the problems. The embarrassing admission by the Wheatley Housing Group on this issue is a wake up call to the social rented sector in Scotland that damp and mould has to be the number one priority to be tackled right away so that no tenants and members of their families in Scotland suffer the terrible avoidable tragedy of the Ishak family."

HeraldScotland:

Gareth Swarbrick, the chief executive of Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, said on Thursday that he would not be resigning despite a call in parliament for him to stand down and the launch of an investigation into potential “systemic failures” at the organisation.

The housing ombudsman, an England-wide regulator, announced an investigation into possible “systemic” failings at the social landlord, which looks after more than 12,000 homes.

Mr Swarbrick had said he backed the government’s commitment to “strengthen the Decent Homes Standard and the importance of the tenant’s voice”, adding: “We have made a fundamental change to our disrepair policy. Equity is at the heart of what we do as a mutual housing society and we will continue to strive for greater inclusion and equality.”

In a parallel statement, Alison Tumilty, the chair of the RBH board, said Awaab’s death was “a tragedy of the highest order … We have made mistakes and we are endeavouring to correct them. We have full confidence in Gareth’s leadership. He has the trust of the board. He has extensive knowledge of the sector and the communities of Rochdale.”

It is unclear whether Ms Tumilty had also consulted the landlord’s “representative body”, which includes tenants.

Meanwhile Glasgow City Council, which is partnership with Wheatley over social housing strategy, has launched a pilot project over smart technology that detects damp conditions in social housing is being used in a pilot project run by Glasgow City Council.

The system allows social landlords to spot the problem and take action before damp and mould causes health problems.

It involves homes being fitted with sensors that send real-time data to a central hub every 30 minutes.

This alerts social landlords and the council about "critical" conditions in a property.

Glasgow City Council, like other councils no longer owns or manages any social rented housing stock. It transferred all 83,000 of its properties to the Glasgow Housing Association, now owned by Wheatley, in 2003. A subsequent second stage transfer of around 22,000 were also transferred to other social landlords operating in the city.

Critics such as housing campaigners Living Rent said they were "eviscerating" public housing and clearing a path for mass privatisation and demolition "in the name of democratisation and modernisation".

In a close ballot, however, 58% of tenants backed the transfer plans with 42% voting against.

Then social justice minister Iain Gray said the decision was "a giant leap towards achieving community ownership" and giving people a greater say in how their homes are managed.

There are now estimated to be 2.6m homes in Scotland, with nearly a quarter being social, rented properties and 15% being private. Social sector landlords tend to provide lower-cost accommodation.