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For someone involved in housing for 50 years, it is impossible not to feel embarrassed and ashamed by the appalling conditions lived in by some social tenants as exposed by Daniel Hewitt’s ITV documentary, Surviving Squalor.

The ‘regulator’ (sic) should be throwing the book and the ‘Ombudsman’ (equally sic) should be down on them like a ton of bricks. Sadly, they are both ineffectual. I would like tenants to be able to sue for damages more easily and for landlords to be prosecuted. But where are the highly paid Executives, and where are the Boards and where are the councillors who run these organisations?

We are rightly angry at some of the cases shown and it is excellent journalism especially when the tenants themselves are allowed to speak. Once again, we see people who are articulate but totally exasperated, just wanting a decent service in return for their rent and service charges.

But equally fine journalism and campaigning has also exposed many a bad private landlord over the years. The cases of many badly treated lessees and shared owners have also had wide coverage recently. And I recall that some of the worst housing conditions and poverty I ever encountered were amongst elderly homeowners. So, the issues are broader, not confined to a single tenure, and must be properly examined.

Across all tenures, our standards and expectations are just too low – and falling behind all the time, especially when health implications and climate change are considered – the remedies are just not good enough, and accountability is totally inadequate.

At the core, we just don’t invest enough of our national wealth in homes, and we don’t invest because we do not value highly enough the human dignity that comes with living in a decent, appropriate, warm, dry, affordable home.

There was plenty to be annoyed about in the programme. The practised apologies seemingly written by PR people. The disgrace that urgent action is taken when a bad case gets on the telly – ITV might quickly find itself inundated as the country’s leading housing advice agency. The lack of intervention by people who should intervene. The quick return to normality that inevitably follows.

But one thing above all made me feel sick. Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, said it was nothing to do with the government, it was all down to bad practice and mismanagement. However guilty we feel, rightly, housing people should condemn this oleaginous brass-necked man.

His Party abolished the regulator, abolished the Audit Commission, abolished the National Tenant Voice, cut housing by 60% as its first act in 2010, ended new funding for social rented homes, introduced chaos into rent setting so no-one could plan, and pushed landlords into taking money out of housing management, maintenance, and capitalised repairs to ‘cross-subsidise’ new build as the only way of getting new homes built.

This is not an excuse for landlords, and it is not all about money – some of the worst disrepair cases in the programme seemed to be in blocks that had expensive new cladding – but for Jenrick not to admit that government drives this increasingly rickety machine is buck-passing of the worst kind.

I do think social landlords have lost sight of the bread and butter, their first duty, that homes must be properly managed and properly maintained. I know only too well that it is possible for things to go wrong even when you think you are doing it right. But now there is too much emphasis on shiny new schemes, sparkling financial products, innovative new structures, and fancy regeneration.

Development is seen to be exciting and strategic, management boring and messily detailed. Housing Association Boards do not have enough people on them with experience of running social housing in which people with relatively small incomes live. They are stuffed with people interested in development and finance, important skills but not enough. I suspect many of them never meet a tenant. I know quite a lot of dedicated councillors and I have almost no explanation as to why local councillors in the boroughs depicted were not up in arms.

Of course, some people jumped at the opportunity to denounce social housing. This is where the greatest peril lies. All too often, social housing has been made to fail by government, even if too many social landlords have also been complicit. Yet the sector has rallied due to the efforts of tenants and campaigners, and it has survived an attempt to end it altogether.

It is still the case that millions of people would be delighted to get a social rented home. Most social tenants are satisfied with their homes, the vast majority are in reasonable condition but lacking investment since the end of the decent homes programme.  

Social rented housing is still the main hope in the search for a solution to the housing crisis. But the sector must stop shooting itself in the foot, speak out for tenants, be more competent, be more caring, and be more focused on the core task of running what we already have well.

<strong>Steve Hilditch</strong>
Steve Hilditch

Editor and Founder of Red Brick blog.
Former Head of Policy for Shelter. Select Committee Advisor for Housing and Homelessness. Drafted the first London Mayor’s Housing Strategy under Ken Livingstone.

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Good housing = health and happiness

The links between bad housing and ill-health always seem obvious to anyone who has worked in the housing sector.  Although controlling the spread of disease was a major factor in the surge of interest in the housing conditions of the working classes a century ago, even the advent of ‘joined-up policy making’ in modern times has failed to establish the case that spending on improving housing could be an important factor in preventing ill-health and reducing the requirement to spend on health care. 
If your job involves being in and out of other people’s homes you tend to see the effects of bad housing daily but it still seems to be a poorly evidenced area of policy.  It’s good then that there has been more interest in this topic recently. 
A recent report by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology pulls together a lot of evidence from multiple sources and shows in particular the importance of the Decent Homes programme.  Conditions linked to non-decent housing include: cardiovascular diseases; respiratory diseases; rheumatoid arthritis; depression and anxiety; nausea and diarrhoea; infections; allergic symptoms; hypothermia; physical injury from accidents; food poisoning.  The report also points out that “Proposals to stop providing social tenancies for life may also decrease security of tenure which could lead to an increase in mental health problems”. Overall, the report says, the detrimental effect of poor housing costs the Health Service over £600m a year.
Yesterday, Shelter Cymru published research conducted by themselves and the Building Research Establishment (BRE) which estimated that poor housing costs the NHS in Wales around £67m a year.  It calculates the costs to the NHS of treating accidents and illnesses caused by problems in the home such as unsafe steps, electrical hazards, excessive cold, damp and mould.  If you include other disbenefits of poor housing, such as children’s poor educational attainment and reduced life chances, the wider bill to society is estimated to be even greater at around £168m a year.  Shelter say this is the first time a definitive financial cost has been placed on poor housing, emphasising that the economic case for improving bad housing in Wales is as strong as the moral case.  They also point to the progress made in housing under Aneurin Bevan, when housing policy was firmly located in the health department.
The report estimates that the payback time in health care savings of bringing all housing up to acceptable condition would be 22 years, but that in some areas it would be much less, for example investment in addressing dangerous stairs would be paid back in 5.7 years.
Taking the argument one step further, the resident-controlled housing association WECH has done ground-breaking research showing the beneficial effect that empowerment can have on well-being, thereby reducing ill-health.  Their research shows that, although WECH residents experience high levels of deprivation, they are happier and more engaged because they collectively own their estates and feel a much stronger sense of belonging to their neighbourhood.
As Labour embarks on its housing policy review, it will be important to avoid a silo approach to housing policy.  The external benefits of housing investment deserve to be at the top of the agenda.