The deadly silence of the British budget on housing

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Tragic and preventable deaths occur even in advanced countries with strong institutions. Sometimes the only conclusion to draw is that someone hasn’t done their job. But often there are also uncomfortable lessons for the government in this.

Don’t blame us. That was Cabinet Secretary Michael Gove’s immediate reaction on Tuesday to the death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak. Awaab went into cardiac arrest in December 2020 and died on his way to hospital, just a day after being discharged from the same hospital, where he was seen with breathing difficulties. During an inquest that concluded this week, the coroner determined that the cause of death was prolonged exposure to mold.

Gove was right to point an angry finger at the owner who dumped the toddler and his family. The walls of the one-bedroom flat Awaab shared with his parents in north Manchester were covered in black spots of mould. The house was unsuitable for human habitation (as shown in photos), but the housing association that owned the property refused to act. But Gove’s intervention also underscores the central importance of an issue that was barely mentioned in Thursday’s budget: housing.

Awaab’s family had repeatedly complained to the landlord, Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH). In 2017, her father, a recent immigrant from Sudan, was ordered to repaint the mold. In 2020, he had started legal proceedings, but the association’s rules meant that she remained on the sidelines while this slow process unfolded. “We did not recognize the level of risk to a little boy’s life from mold in the family home. We have allowed a process of legal decay to prevent us from tackling the mold quickly,” Gareth Swabrick, chief executive of the housing association, said in a statement.

Ignorance is no defense here. The government’s Housing Health and Safety Rating System includes dampness and mold on a list of 29 potential hazards. And no homeowner should need it made clear at this point that mold is a hazard, especially when it was so visible. The perils have long been confirmed by health authorities from the World Health Organization to the National Health Service, which warns of the risks of dampness and mold for babies and children. The government’s Decent Homes Standard requires homes to be safe. People living with dampness and mold are more likely to have respiratory problems, asthma, allergies, and other immune-compromised conditions.

“We all know local authorities are going through a tough time when it comes to funding, but frankly that’s no excuse. All that crap, all that ‘Oh if only we had more money from the government’ – do your job, man,” said Gove, who is responsible for housing and ‘levelling’ the economy in Britain. But this isn’t just one bad apple and Gove knows that. Governments exist precisely because people need to be protected from such cases. ” How in the UK in 2020 a two-year-old does he die from exposure to mold?” coroner Joanne Kearsley asked. A better question is probably how many other Awaabs are there.

The English Housing Survey found in 2020 that 3.5 million occupied dwellings did not meet the decent housing standard; 2.2 million had at least a Category 1 hazard (which includes dampness and mold) and 941,000 had severe dampness. Although the prevalence of these poor housing conditions has declined over the past decade, it remains a serious problem, especially in the poorer parts of the country. Landlords save money by delaying repairs for as long as possible in the hope that tenants – especially those whose English skills may be lacking – won’t bother to make a claim.

A 2021 report by the Housing Mediation Service found dampness and mold failures in 92 of the 142 landlords it investigated; compensation was demanded in 84 cases. As with the Ishaks, landlords often blamed residents for the problem. “It repeated itself so often that it should be described as systemic,” the mediator wrote. He concluded that owners’ “changes in culture, behavior and approach” are overdue, but change is slow without the firm stench of regulatory oversight and accountability. Indeed, there are other reports of mold growing on damp apartment walls, soaking children’s mattresses and toys, causing illness and stress.

And that’s where Awaab’s tragic death fits into the wider challenge facing Rishi Sunak as he tries to steer a flagging UK economy to a better place. Awaab has also been let down by a health service struggling with staffing shortages and backlogs, and inconsistent public services. But getting good housing is fundamental to both a civilized society and a thriving economy.

Britain not only failed to build enough houses for many years; existing housing is too often in poor condition. The UK has the oldest housing stock compared to EU countries. Its homes are less energy efficient and more difficult to heat in winter. It also has some of the most expensive and cramped quarters of its peers.

For a country struggling with alarming levels of economic inactivity, as new statistics show, it’s worth remembering that inadequate housing also has wider societal consequences. People living in houses that are cold, moldy or far below their needs tend to fall ill or suffer other consequences. A 2010 study by researchers at the University of Warwick estimated that substandard housing in England was costing the NHS around £600million a year at the time. And health expenditure has been estimated at only around 40% of the total cost to society of poor housing conditions. Others come from energy drains, poor school performance, absenteeism, social exclusion and mental health issues. Savings on one-time housing improvement costs exceeded repair costs.

No wonder Gove doesn’t want Awaab’s death to be seen as a reflection of a larger problem. At a time when the UK economy is expected to contract by 1.4% next year, these pressures will only get worse. Although below inflation, Thursday’s budget saw a 7% rise in costs for some 1.3 million social housing units.

And the government is falling far short of the Conservative manifesto commitment to build 300,000 new homes a year. Gove gave a speech this week at a growth conference where he unveiled his plan to overcome barriers to planning new home builds, based on the bizarre acronym BIDEN, with each letter standing for a aspect of the strategy. The B stands for beauty. People “don’t want ugliness forced upon them”, Gove said, so government policies will ensure new homes are aesthetically pleasing. (The other letters mean infrastructure, democracy, environment and neighborhood).

The strategy seems enlightened and promising; just like the colorful RBH website. But execution is everything. And planning and construction will take time. In the meantime, families like Awaab’s are not asking for nice houses; just the non-mortal ones.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Will Sunak test the love of Britain’s Top 1%? : Therese Raphael

How to get away with just a mild case of mortgage pain: Marcus Ashworth

In the energy transition, you cannot have your cake and eat it too: Javier Blas

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering health care and British politics. Previously, she was the editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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