Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, Housing Ombudsman and othering…

Thursday 6th of April 2023

The Housing Ombudsman’s report into Rochdale Boroughwide Housing makes sobering reading. The carefully catalogued failures that the report covers reveal a picture of widespread ignorance of landlord responsibilities and tenant’s rights; not to mention the callous indifference to tenants’ genuine suffering. The report uses a new term in relation to the stigma that often blights the lives of social housing tenants: ‘othering’. So what is othering?


According to Wikipedia, Othering means ‘to exclude and displace [people] from the social group to the margins of society, where mainstream social norms do not apply to them’. It’s the idea of ‘us and them’, where we matter and they don’t and there’s no ‘everyone’. It’s linked to racism and the false beliefs that some groups of people are simply not clever enough to make decisions; that some groups don’t feel strong family ties; that some types of people don’t suffer from discomfort, ill-health and injury in quite the same way that ‘we’ do.


This is the kind of mentality that’s described in the RBH report, with shocking quotes from staff such as a reference to the “lifestyle of cooking by boiling food in pans on the stove”, or the view that “refugees…are lucky to have a roof overhead”. There was also an assumption (based on no actual evidence) that “the family used a style of bathing known as bucket bathing which is common to their culture as it is part of their culture and practice.”. All of this is described as ‘othering’ behaviour – lazy assumptions based on prejudice, reinforcing the idea that these tenants are different from ‘us’, the staff.


And it’s not just about racism. We hear the same kind of comment in relation to any tenant and condensation. That tired old line about how condensation is apparently caused by drying washing indoors. Literally everyone dries washing indoors in the winter! And actually, who doesn’t cook food by boiling it on the stove?! How do these people make mashed potato? Or gravy, come to that? Why do people think it’s OK to describe this extremely normal behaviour as weird and bad? Could it be that it’s about reinforcing their idea that tenants are different? Because once you’ve put people in the ‘other’ group, you can treat them differently? Badly?


According to this way of thinking, it’s OK to leave ‘others’ living in cold damp flats; it’s OK to split up families if that makes it easier to rehouse them; and there’s definitely no point in asking for their opinions and certainly not their preferences. If you believe that tenants don’t matter, then there’s no need to tackle the poor design and years of underinvestment that mean perfectly normal behaviour can cause condensation. If you don’t need to listen to people, you’ll never find out about long-standing leaks that are hard to trace and expensive to fix. So that’s going to keep your maintenance costs down.


The Housing Ombudsman, Richard Blakeway, has been talking about the RBH report, and expressing his concern that RBH is unlikely to be an outlier in terms of ‘othering’. So what to do?


This is one of those areas that comes down to personal responsibility. Everyone working in housing needs to remind themselves every day that tenants aren’t ‘other’. They’re no more perfect than any diverse group of people, but they’re also no more flawed. They’re just human, like you. Most people are good, some aren’t, sometimes good people have bad days. And just like you, every tenant has a right to live in a decent, properly maintained home. One in which the normal activities of family life, such as cooking and showering, don’t result in life threatening dampness and mould. This is a legal right for all tenants, and it’s your responsibility to deliver on it. And if things go wrong, tenants have a right to have their voice heard, because that’s how they help you fulfil your responsibilities as a landlord.


It’s not about compassion or empathy, it’s about doing your job!