COVID-19 has shone a light on our non-decent homes
Improving England's housing stock will have massive benefits for people's safety and health, but also have a positive impact on the economy and the strain on the NHS.
Our Associate Director for Homes, David Orr, warns of the dangers non-decent homes have on the health and wellbeing on some of the most vulnerable in society especially if there's a second COVID-19 lockdown.
There are some things so obvious that we don’t need the facts and figures or the research. We just know them to be true. Libraries are a good thing. Scotland’s national football team is a joke. Exercise is good for us. Spring flowers are beautiful. Cold, damp homes are bad for our health.
Ah, yes. Cold, damp homes are bad for us. We’ve known that for hundreds of years. Yet in England in 2020, 1 in 5 of our homes don’t meet the national standard to be considered in decent condition. One of the most common reasons for this is excess cold and damp. We accept, more or less as inevitable, that there will be a big spike in deaths in winter, primarily because so many of our homes are cold, damp and too expensive to heat.
And then COVID-19 came along and we discovered that some people are more vulnerable to it than others. People who are poor. People with disabilities. People from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities. Older people. People who live in overcrowded homes. And people living in cold, damp homes. The most vulnerable, of course, are in more than one of these groups – sometimes in all of them.
We ought to think of this as a national emergency and a national scandal. But because we have got used to it, we don’t really think about it much at all.
This must change. It is why the Centre for Ageing Better has commissioned The King's Fund to review the evidence on housing, health and coronavirus.
Homes, health and COVID-19
To no one’s surprise, there is a vast amount of evidence to tell us what we already knew. We have some of the oldest and worst housing in Europe. If there is a second spike in coronavirus and a second lockdown over winter, people in cold, damp homes will die. Being unable to heat your home affordably and effectively is directly linked to chronic health problems including respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, rheumatoid arthritis and poor mental health.
This is a problem across all parts of our housing market. Proportionately, the biggest number of poor-quality homes is in the private rented sector. In numeric terms, by far the most poor-quality homes are owner-occupied. Even in the social rented sector we have too many homes that are cold, damp and overcrowded.
The real scandal is that this is a problem with a clear solution. Most of our homes can be made considerably better, usually by spending quite modest sums but sometimes needing large scale investment. We need government action to support the provision of funding and to encourage the growth of the small businesses who have the skills to improve our homes.
But we also need strategic and imaginative partnerships. The health service has to understand that the first, most important part of primary care is having a good home. Very few Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships or Integrated Care Systems have integrated housing into their thinking. Councils, housing associations and others should build strong local partnerships with the health service.
The Centre for Ageing Better has established the Good Home Inquiry to explore these and other issues about our existing homes. We will explore why so many of our homes are old, cold and hazardous. We will review current and previous policies to see what has worked and to suggest what might work in the future. We will make strong, evidence-based recommendations for future change.
But this much we already know. We can hugely improve the health of the nation and cut costs for our NHS by improving our homes. We can reduce the impact of COVID-19 by improving our homes. At a time when the economy is struggling, we can give it a boost by improving our homes. And we can make people’s lives better by improving our homes. Let’s ensure that at least one positive consequence of a global pandemic is that finally we end the scandal of our cold, damp homes.