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Health and Housing – why we need to recognise the links

Labour Housing Group and Socialist Health Association held a conference ‘Prescription for a healthy Britain’ on Monday 13 June.  Conference papers are available on the LHG website here.  In a guest post, LHG Vice chair Marianne Hood picks up the conference theme.
Despite the fact that the links between health and housing have been recognised for well over 100 years, and despite over a century of public health and housing interventions, we still have people with the worst health living in the worst housing.
The original impetus in the 19th century for improving housing conditions (for example slum clearance to tackle squalid living conditions, severe overcrowding and dilapidation) was clearly focussed on improving health outcomes. Sadly, in the 20th century the focus shifted to issues of ownership, access, management and cost – losing the link between improving housing to improve both mental and physical health.
Now in the 21st century many of the policies being driven forward by the Tory-led coalition risk returning us to that early 19th century situation with severe overcrowding and the poorest and most vulnerable people being driven into the poorest homes in an unregulated private sector. Make no mistake, there is a wealth of evidence to show that the private sector, especially the private rented sector, contains the highest proportion of ‘non-decent’ homes with a significant percentage of older people living in the very poorest private sector homes.
If investment in housing is not substantially increased, much of the expenditure on health and care programmes will be totally ineffective. In a report commissioned specially for the LHG/SHA Conference earlier this week, environmental health expert Stephen Battersby* reminded us that poor housing conditions cost the NHS at least £600 million per year, that the one-off costs of works to improve private rented housing gave an annual financial saving to the health sector, and that every £1 spent on providing housing support for vulnerable people can save nearly £2 in reduced costs of health services, tenancy failure, crime and residential care.  
The Labour Housing Group believes that housing should be recognised as a community capital asset that needs to be properly maintained, most of our current housing will still be here in a hundred years time, because if it is neglected the cost of demolition and replacement will ultimately fall on the state.
Surely we owe it to current generations, and to our children and our children’s children, to have good housing and health policies fit for the 21st century? Policies that recognise that investment in housing is an essential prerequisite for tackling inequality overall but especially health inequalities.
 *University of Surrey and University of Warwick, current President of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.