Everyone in the UK deserves a healthy home
Our homes should play a positive role in our health and financial well-being. It is often the most vulnerable in society that pay the price for poor living conditions, as was recently highlighted by the tragic death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak as a result of prolonged exposure to mould in the housing association home he shared with his family.
According to the 2019-2020 English Housing Survey, 3.5 million occupied homes did not meet the Decent Homes Standard with serious damp problems affecting almost a third of these. Whilst this is caused by a number of different factors, the inability to heat homes to a safe level underpins most occurrences. An underheated home, which includes any home heated to less than 18°C as highlighted by the Public Health England 2014 Report, also has a direct effect on your wellbeing. Health problems and diseases related to a cold home include increased blood pressure, more susceptibility to the common cold, pneumonia and even an increased risk of heart attacks. The cost of poor housing in England 2021 by the BRE highlights that the combined effect of these health-related issues currently costs the NHS in England £1.4bn a year directly. When societal costs, such as those relating to care, loss of economic potential, poorer educational achievement, loss of productivity, career prospects and mental health are included they estimate that £18.5bn is lost as a result of sub-standard housing.
We must act now!
One of the greatest travesties in this situation is we already have many of the elements to solve the problem of unhealthy homes. But sporadic political action and woefully poor industry practice mean families still have to live in such appalling conditions. There is however an increasing desire to finally make some positive change.
In February 2023 the government announced that an amendment to the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill will mandate that landlords must investigate and fix serious problems within strict time limits. It will also give new powers to the Housing Ombudsman to help landlords improve performance. Whilst these proposals are a step in the right direction, it is essential to ensure that all involved in managing, maintaining and retrofitting homes understand:
- the serious health risks damp and mould create in homes
- the root causes and conditions that create damp and mould
- the role fuel poverty plays in increasing these risks
However, to truly resolve this problem both now and in the future, requires three key elements:
- Policy makers must link decarbonisation to health and fund as a complete package
Important lessons were learned during the Each Home Counts report in 2016. The resulting creation of PAS 2030/2035 aims to ensure that retrofit projects actually deliver their intended outcomes whilst being cost optimal, on their journey to net zero.
It is always essential to ensure that the chosen retrofit measures themselves do not cause increased risks to the occupants or the property. For example, thermal improvements are often the first retrofit measure needed; this will increase the airtightness of the property, making it essential that improvements to the ventilation system are conducted at the same time to ensure no risk of mould and compliance with building regulations.
But it is here where we see a disconnect in major funding streams. For example the latest Energy Company Obligation 4, funds a range of retrofit measures including insulation, heating systems and PV, but it doesn’t cover ventilation systems. Given the proven role these play in a health home this really needs to change.
- Landlords must provide well planned maintenance to care for their tenants
We are yet to see the detailed results of new legislation for landlords to investigate hazards and repairs linked to Awaab’s Law. But it is safe to assume Landlords should expect some form of continuous monitoring of their properties, to provide indications of a property and resident at risk.
Landlords should not underestimate the financial and reputational risk of not acting now to improve people’s living conditions. The Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 came into force in 2019 requiring all landlords, both private and social, to ensure that their properties, including common areas, are fit for human habitation at the beginning and throughout the course of a tenancy. Failure to comply with this statutory obligation will lead to enforcement action, possibly legal proceedings and financial compensation for the tenant.
The Housing Ombudsman Service from April 2019 to March 2021 enforced over £123K in compensation across 222 cases, with sums over £1,000 being ordered in 21 cases. However, this was prior to the previously mentioned high profile court case for Awaab Ishak’s death. We can rightfully expect to see significantly harsher penalties for damp and mould related cases in the future.
- Construction professionals must own the risks and learn what actually works
The construction industry is rapidly becoming aware of the role digitisation, IoT devices and data analytics will play in its future. Forward thinking funding, such as the Welsh Government’s Innovative Housing and Optimised Retrofit Programmes, have since 2019 required high quality performance monitoring as part of grant offers. When added to developments like the BEIS S-Meter and the recently launched BS 40101 standard for evaluating buildings, this means we have never been in a better position to capture real data in a consistent manner so lessons can be learned and solutions that actually work implemented across the UK.
Now is surely the time to start making building performance evaluation ‘business as usual’ across the sector. Especially targeting those data streams, such as internal temperatures, relative humidity and CO2, that we know will help us truly understand how best to make unhealthy homes a thing of the past for everyone living in the UK.
By addressing these elements, we can provide energy efficient, low carbon homes, that protect residents from the risk of fuel poverty whilst ensuring their continued health and wellbeing. You can read the full thought leadership piece by Sero here.