David Orr: The pandemic has shown that now is the time to bring England’s homes up to scratch

David Orr CBE chaired the Good Home Inquiry, an independent inquiry to determine solutions to the poor quality of England’s housing.

We have known for a long time that the quality of England’s existing housing stock simply isn’t fit for purpose. Today, four million homes don’t meet basic standards of decency – and half of these (one in ten homes overall) contain a category one hazard, meaning they pose a serious risk to their inhabitants’ health or safety.

Successive governments have tried, through various interventions, to tackle the problem – but none has taken the action needed to address the scale of the challenge. Now, we face a unique set of circumstances which make this the time for action.

First, the pandemic has highlighted the profound impact that poor-quality housing can have on our physical and mental wellbeing. Our research with the King’s Fund last year found that those most at risk of Covid, including older people, those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, and people with pre-existing conditions, were also more likely to be living in non-decent homes.

During the lockdowns, when our homes became our refuge, we discovered that for millions of us they were not only unsafe but could even harm our prospects of survival. The link between our health and our home is undeniable. To narrow health inequalities, we need to look to the state of our homes.

At the same time, we are reaching a crunch point for driving down our carbon emissions – and it is becoming increasingly clear that our energy-inefficient homes are a major stumbling block in doing this. Without decarbonising our homes, we simply will not be able to fulfil our commitments to reaching net zero.

There is huge potential for job creation here. The Construction Industry Leadership Council have suggested thousands of skilled jobs could be created in retrofit and the opportunity of related home improvement work.

And finally, we must prepare for the reality of an ageing population. By 2041, one in four people in England will be aged 65 or over with the fastest increase in the 85+ group. We know that the vast majority of older people live in mainstream houses and flats – and would prefer to stay living independently in our homes and communities.

We need a transformation of our housing stock so that more people are able to stay safe and independent in their homes for longer, and to avoid placing additional strain on the NHS and social care system – poor housing currently costs the NHS an estimated £1.4 billion a year. With government grappling with the question of funding social care, we should not overlook this huge opportunity to make savings.

There is a great deal to be gained by tackling the crisis in poor-quality housing. Over the past year, the Good Home Inquiry has gathered evidence and examined the problem, looking at the causes of the crisis, what interventions have and haven’t worked, and what policies could make a real difference.

This isn’t an issue that national government can or should try and fix alone but it is an area where national leadership is needed. We recommend that government set out a cross-government housing strategy with a ministerial champion to implement it, and empowers Homes England with a clear mission to improve existing homes. And we need to see low-cost government-backed lending and grants to improve homes.

At a local level, Good Home Agencies should bring together in one place information and advice including on trusted traders, finance, home repairs, adaptations, and energy retrofit services.

The last 18 months have taught us that we can no longer stand back and do nothing. We have both an opportunity and an obligation to come up with a plan of action which gives the best possible chance for us all to live in homes that are safe, warm, affordable and energy efficient. By doing so, we can improve the quality of life for millions while reducing demands on our health service and helping to tackle the existential threat of global warming.

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Author: David Orr


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