15 years ago, I stood in the living room of one of the homes that my organisation managed, as a result of a potentially difficult case of carbon monoxide poisoning (that I later referred to as ‘the alien egg’). Behind an old gas fire was the biggest carbon deposit I’d ever seen – all bubbly and glowing – which had been burning pure carbon. After investigating the case, I discovered that the appliance had been deemed as ‘recently serviced’.
These days, gas safety is a subject that we all prioritise, but at that time clearly there was something not right about the case, and it spurred me to start a whole review of gas safety processes. It was also the start of the great relationship that I have now with CORGI, which has seen us work together to constantly improve the services housing associations and other organisations provide when it comes to gas safety.
Having never been personally affected by a gas safety incident, I can’t talk from that point of view, but for me it’s simple. Knowing that real people are responsible for something that I deem to be as serious as an airline pilot dabbling with the lives of their passengers onboard a plane is enough for me to want to make a difference. I see gas engineers in the same vein as pilots – if they don’t do their jobs properly, it can result in such terrible loss of life. But what gets me most is that gas safety incidents are totally avoidable.
I met Stacey Rodgers at a conference 18 months ago – Stacey campaigns for CO awareness after the tragic loss of her son Dominic, who died in his sleep after carbon monoxide fumes were released from a neighbour’s home into his bedroom. All as a result of a faulty gas appliance. From that moment, I committed my current organisation, Red Kite, to installing free carbon monoxide detectors into any and all of the properties that we manage. Next week, Stacey is coming back to one of our communities to fit the very last detector.
What frustrates me most about stories such as Dominic’s, is that something that is clearly so important is treated in three entirely different ways in the UK. Private households have no legal requirement, whatsoever, to service their appliances. Councils have a legal obligation and the power of access to carry out gas servicing to their homes. Housing associations have no power of access, yet have just the same obligations as councils.
It makes no sense to me whatsoever that we treat people who live in these homes so differently, when the consequences of getting it wrong are fatal in whichever situation. It’s a bit like saying that if you buy your own car, you don’t have to have an MOT... but if you lease or hire your car, you do. Why is one situation more important than any other?
There is this misunderstanding that as housing associations, if we carry out our obligation to service appliances, that we are looking after our own stock and our customers. The reality may be different if someone is living next door to any other person who owns their own property, they’re not protected, just like in Dominic’s case. If I could change one thing overnight that I believe would genuinely change the lives of people up and down the country, I would apply a consistent law to all households.
The danger is applicable to everyone, so why shouldn’t we all be governed by the very same legislation? Make servicing mandatory and give organisations the access they need.
Just recently, I was invited to support Lord Redesdale with his report into a review of the way that we service and install social housing boilers. The report highlights that there are many reasons why we should change the approach to gas servicing and procurement and that over a period of time, there could be over a billion pounds to be saved. For example, each housing association will go through a court process that can cost several hundred thousand pounds every year, which just recently got even more expensive due to a change to the way the legal system handles cases, which means that they have to be processed individually rather than in groups. I can’t understand why, but whatever the reason, it’s just not sustainable.
Clearly, a change in approach by the government to eliminate issues such as this would be where I’d start to make a difference, but regardless of where your head is at – whether it’s from a health and safety, social housing, customers – even from a financial perspective, there is a reason to make a change. With up to four million social housing homes and countless more people who could benefit, this is not something that is insignificant by any stretch.
For me, as with most homeowners, we have gas boilers but we often don’t really think about or take gas safety seriously in our own homes. It’s something that at its very worst can blow up and decimate a whole block or silently kill you in your sleep. If we applied the same logic that we readily accept when we carry out an MOT for our car, we could appreciate the impact of ignoring the importance of gas safety. We drive cars that we know need regular services and MOT - we even get a bit edgy before the annual MOT because we recognise the reasons for doing it. Yet that same scenario every day, up and down the country, for gas servicing is ignored. For every failed attempt at access to homes, we run the risk of devastating consequences. In some cases, gas safety is a choice, but it shouldn’t be.
So as I pen these final few words from my warm and comfortable home, safe in the knowledge that I’ve done everything I can to be responsible for myself, my family and those who live around me, I can only be reassured at the incredible strides that some organisations have already made towards some really pointed action. I passionately believe that there is enough, tangibly, that we can do, and I’m proud to say that I am part of that.