The great housing divide

I suspect that when this pandemic is finally put to bed (if it ever is) then bad housing will be fully exposed as one of the key villains in the spread of the virus and the wider collateral damage caused by lockdowns.

I have a written a few blogs and articles about the deepening inequalities caused by Covid- 19, but the latest English Housing Survey’s household resilience study provides further exposure of the harm caused by poor housing and the growing divide between different tenures.

One of the most shocking findings of the study is that the percentage of private renters living in overcrowded properties has doubled over the course of the last year, from 7% to 15%. In December 2020, one in seven private renters were overcrowded compared to only one in 50 homeowners. Almost a fifth (17%) of private rented households had increased in size by at least one person since 2019, compared to only 9% of owner-occupiers and 10% of social renters. This was the result of mass population movements as people switched locations to cope with lockdown. (A home is defined as overcrowded if there are not enough bedrooms to avoid undesirable sharing, given the ages and relationships of those using them.)

Many scientists believe that transmission of the virus within households is a primary spreader of Covid-19, and this is exacerbated within overcrowded and multi-generational households. The Health Foundation found that, even before the pandemic, people living in poor housing experienced worse health outcomes, with the triangle of quality, affordability and security linking together to determine physical and mental wellbeing.

Obviously, families living in overcrowded rental homes and young people in shared housing are impacted more by the triple whammy of these three factors. But the pandemic has made them even more significant in causing bad health outcomes for those affected. Last year the Health Foundation also pointed to worsening housing conditions – overcrowding and poor quality housing – being associated with higher risks of mortality from Covid-19. They pointed out that mortality rates were higher in deprived areas and among groups with lower incomes.

Overall, the English Housing survey shows that the pandemic caused overcrowding to increase across all tenures from 829,000 to 1.3 million, but private renters were the most affected.

BAME communities were particularly badly affected by overcrowding, with almost a quarter (23%) of ethnic minority households being overcrowded, compared with 3% of white households. A whopping 35% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi households were overcrowded. Death rates among some of these groups have been much higher than for white populations (as much as double in some cases) and you have to recognise that overcrowded housing conditions must be playing a significant part in this. Some ethnic groups have also had their livelihoods disrupted to a much greater extent, being much more likely than the population as a whole to work in locked-down sectors or to be self-employed, and to suffer from job insecurity and loss of income.

There is also an intergenerational aspect to this since younger households are more likely to be overcrowded than older households.

On top of this, the survey reveals big differences between tenures in terms of anxiety, unhappiness and loneliness. 14% of private renters and 16% of social renters reported feeling lonely often or always, compared to only 5% of owners. During the pandemic overall satisfaction with life declined across all tenures, but at the end of 2020 owner occupiers had higher happiness scores than renters (a score of 7.2 for outright owners, compared to 6.3 and 6.4 for private and social renters respectively). Similar differences exist for anxiety and scores for the question ‘is life worth living?’ with renters faring worse in all cases. But these differences also existed between people on different incomes, with people in the lower income quartiles reporting higher levels of anxiety and unhappiness.

To sum up, those living in the worst, overcrowded properties – many of them in the private sector – and often experiencing job uncertainty and low incomes have suffered the most during this pandemic, not just from mortality but also from the anxiety and stress a caused by living in overcrowded conditions without access to outdoor or indoor space.

But the big picture is that our distorted housing system has forced millions of unwilling households into the private rented sector where overcrowded conditions, high rents and insecurity are causing, at the very least, higher levels of unhappiness, and, at the very worst, death.

I have said it before but I do hope that the post-pandemic public inquiry into the handling of the crisis will shine a massive spotlight on the multiple harms caused by poor housing. We really need a Royal Commission, along the lines of the big nineteenth century commissions that exposed the death and disease caused by unsanitary and overcrowded housing. As ever, one of the key answers must lie in the need to invest in genuinely affordable homes, so that, in the future, everyone has the space they need to work and self-isolate in their home and stay safe. Surely that should be recognised as a basic human right?

(This blog was first published by HQN on the 29th April 2021)

Allan Brigham: Housing friend

I doubt many of you will have heard of Allan Brigham but he was one of the most remarkable people I have ever known. Allan died last September after a long illness. Last week, over 200 people gathered on Zoom to celebrate his life.

For much of his working life Allan was a road sweeper in Cambridge, but that only tells a small part of his story. He was also a local historian, a blue badge guide, a housing and planning activist, an educator, and in 2009 he was awarded an
honorary degree by Cambridge University, alongside Bill and Melinda Gates and Shirley Williams. A group of his friends assembled outside The Senate House on that day with a big banner reading Allan Brigham MA, Roads Scholar.

For the purpose of this blog he was also a firm friend of our sector, an “outsider” who could spread our concerns to a much wider audience. We need more people like him.

I first met Allan in 1988 when we moved into his road. He had moved to the city over a decade earlier and could only find work as a road sweeper, but it was a job he kept for over three decades, often rising at 4.30am. He was also a union activist, fighting for better pay and conditions for his colleagues. This experience informed his views about housing. He would regularly talk about his workmates who could no longer live in the city and often had to commute in from distant villages. He wanted Cambridge to work for everyone, rich and poor.

Early in the century a few of us set up a group in Romsey Town, our neighbourhood in Cambridge, to campaign on planning and housing issues. We fought against developers who sought to evade their responsibilities to provide mixed communities, and we highlighted shoddy developments – we even made it to the pages of The Daily Mail!

In his activism, Allan was very much for Town over Gown. He was always reminding us that the town of Cambridge pre-dated the university. Its royal charter was granted at least 80 years before the university. His tours had a focus on the town side of Cambridge, its industrial past, the coming of the railway, the poverty and struggles of working people.

He was anti-nimby and very much in favour of growth, but growth that worked for the people and not for developers and their shareholders. You can see an example of his views in this speech at Great St Mary’s, the university church. He repeatedly pointed out that Cambridge had always been growing, and had grown at a much faster rate in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Everyone, he said, lived in a place that had once been open countryside, and that it was pointless to push growth beyond the green belt as this just caused traffic problems. The key was to make Cambridge a compact, walkable and liveable city.

In 2006 I was involved in organising the CIH Eastern conference. I asked Allan to contribute to a book we produced to tie in the with the conference, called Bringing it all Back Home. His half of the book was a social history of Romsey Town, the area where we lived. It had been built for railway workers in the nineteenth century and is a closely packed area of terraced houses. He interviewed a number of local people and charted the social, physical and social changes that had affected the area over the previous 40 years. In his summing up he wrote:

“Romsey looks very similar today to the way it looked in the sixties. But the social composition of the area has changed dramatically. The last forty years have seen the traditional working-class residents in retreat. But those living in council houses have a security of tenure that gives them stability and they remain a significant part of the community. Ironically the successful regeneration of the area has made owner-occupation unaffordable on manual wages while the ‘right to buy’, although benefiting those who took it up, leaves a diminished number of family houses to rent.

“(Romsey) has a clear physical identity and many points of contact – pubs, clubs, two community centres, allotments, two primary schools, pre-school nurseries and after- school clubs. One of the most important meeting places remains the ‘Rec’, where dog walkers, joggers and basketball players rub shoulders with teenagers ‘hanging out’ or playing football. On the route to and from the primary school it is also where parents and children pause to chat.”

The importance of ‘chatting’ as a means of gluing communities together was evident on his tours. At the outset he asked everyone to talk to each other and to make friends. Even when he was sweeping the streets he could often be seen chatting to residents and tourists. I always said that the city council should have employed him to chat all day. It would probably have done more for community cohesion than almost any other form of spending. No one left an encounter with Allan feeling more miserable than they did at the outset.

This sociability made Allan stand out as a human being. He was always smiling, always cheerful. Being out with him was a challenge because people would be stopping him every few minutes. He was also full of energy, always busy with a new project – writing, campaigning, lecturing. He would go into schools to educate kids about litter and he sat on the board of the Cambridge museum for 30 years.

Another quality was his stoicism. He was in pain for many years and yet never showed it, never complained. I last met him in July 2019 when we walked around Romsey and visited the new mosque and his allotment. As we parted I went to embrace him but he flinched. He could not touch anyone because of the pain. As I said at the outset, he was a remarkable human being and a friend of affordable housing. May he rest in peace.

(This blog was first published by the Housing Quality Network on 8th April 2021)

Space Matters

After the Russian revolution in 1917 most housing was nationalised by the Soviet government and living space was allocated according to need, with a fixed quota of space for each person.

As the country industrialised, millions of people flooded into the cities; large apartments and houses were subdivided into smaller spaces with families sharing kitchens and bathrooms. Commissars billeted people together and enforced the rules, ensuring that no one had too much or too little space. By the 1950s it’s estimated that the living space for each person was five square metres. After Stalin’s death in 1953 the Politburo determined to end the housing crisis and embarked on a mass housebuilding programme. By the 1970s this had increased to nine square metres.

In the UK we rarely talk about the space occupied by each person. It’s a bit like discussing salaries, and the notion of local bureaucrats sniffing out spare bedrooms and billeting people into unused space would be anathema to the British public.

But there’s a debate to be had about the way we use existing housing space. There are wide disparities in the amount of living space we occupy; between rich and poor, and between older and younger people. Our housing and taxation systems encourage people to under- occupy their homes and to buy more space than they need. What’s more, these disparities are worsening, with well-off owners occupying more space and renters becoming more overcrowded.

According to the English Housing Survey it’s estimated that 52% of owners now under- occupy their homes, up from 48.7% in 2011 – that means they have two or more bedrooms than they technically need. By contrast, the percentage of social and private renters who under-occupy their homes went down over the last decade – from 10.3% and 16.6% to 8.7% and 14.4% respectively. Renters also became more overcrowded – around 7% of renters live in overcrowded properties, compared to only 1% of owners. We’ve also seen significant increases in second homes and investment properties over the last two decades, with baby boomers being the main beneficiaries.

Research by the GLA also shows that floorspace per person has been increasing for owners and decreasing for renters. In 2018, households that owned their home outright (mostly older people) occupied an average of 53.9m2 per person, compared to 35.9m2 for those with a mortgage, 28.6 m2 for private renters, and 27.5 m2 for social housing tenants. Since 1996, floorspace per person has increased for all owners, whereas the average floorspace enjoyed by social housing residents fell from 28.4m2 in 1996 to 27.5m2 in 2018, and from 34.1m2 to 28.6m2 for private sector tenants.

The pandemic has highlighted these inequalities in living space, with renters suffering disproportionately from Covid-19 deaths, hospitalisations, and the wider impacts of lockdown. Renters have less access to open space, are more likely to suffer depression and anxiety, and to have lost their jobs or been furloughed. Furthermore, owners, and particularly older owners, have been buying up more space over the past year. The demand for country and coastal properties has increased; Londoners have been on a spending spree, buying up country and coastal properties; and larger, more expensive properties have been disproportionately bought by older buyers.

Some of the factors that encourage under-occupation, and discourage downsizing, include, firstly, the council tax system. It is regressive (people in smaller properties pay proportionately more) and there are wide disparities across the country. For example, a Band H property in Dover district, where I live, pays almost £4,000 a year, whereas in Westminster the charge is only £1,561 a year. For an oligarch living in a multi-million-pound penthouse that’s barely small change. The single person discount also encourages people to under-occupy. (Whenever this is raised there are cries of protest from older people who are asset rich and cash poor – but why can’t they downsize?)

The stamp duty system also discourages people from downsizing and is a major barrier within the secondary housing market. Although the current stamp duty holiday is misguided, it’d make sense to scrap the duty for people who downsize from larger to smaller properties.

But the lack of suitable retirement properties is also a major factor. It’s estimated that only 3% of the nation’s housing comprises bespoke retirement properties, yet almost a quarter of the UK population will be over 65 within a couple of decades. Tweaks to the planning system could address this. For example, could the NPPF put a duty on local authorities to assess the level of under-occupation within their areas and set targets for retirement homes? Another policy change could be to put retirement housing on a par with affordable housing when looking at rural exception sites. But this could also be extended to urban areas, with marginal and infill sites receiving permission for retirement homes alone.

Of course we need to build many more homes, but according to Les Mayhew of the Cass Business School if “people lived in homes more suited to their needs, 50,000 fewer homes would need to be built each year”. However, I’d not want vocal nimbys to jump on this as an excuse for failing to build the homes we need, just as they jump on the ‘brownfield first’ myth. We need to do both in tandem.

It would, of course, be wrong to use coercion against people who are under-occupying their homes, but there’s much more we could do to encourage and incentivise under-occupying owners to downsize, and also to make them believe that it’s the ‘right’ and ‘moral’ thing to do.

All of these issues and more are addressed in a report I’ve just produced for the Intergenerational Foundation called Stockpiling Space. It’ll be out soon.

(This blog was first published by the Housing Quality Network on the 25th March 2021)

Cladding Chaos

This week, the Commons voted by 263 votes to 0 to urge the government to speed up remediation works on buildings with unsafe cladding. Several Conservatives spoke against the government, although they all ended up abstaining on the vote. The vote will not be binding, but it shows that the cladding scandal is an issue that cuts across party lines. It has even made it to the pages of The Spectator. On this issue, caveat emptor does not apply, it seems.

In June 2017, just after the Grenfell fire, I wrote a blog for Inside Housing in which I said: “But as time goes on I am certain that cladding and fire safety concerns will be uncovered in all sectors and all property types. Above all this will become an urgent issue for legislators and the government. They will both need to take a hard look at their primary role – to keep us safe. This they have not done.”

If you read Inside Housing’s timeline of the cladding scandal, it builds up month after month like a distant tsunami until it becomes overwhelming. Immediately after Grenfell, the government assumed the problem was mainly confined to the social sector and that only a few buildings with ACM cladding would be affected. Later, it was estimated that around 700,000 households were affected. Almost four years on from the fire, not only has dangerous cladding been found in all sectors and property types but if you include blocks of less than 18 metres with all forms of combustible cladding there could be perhaps 100,000 buildings involved, with up to 11 million people affected. Many have no immediate prospect of relief: they cannot sell, re-mortgage or staircase their homes.

Yet from the outset the government promised to act to make building owners carry out remediation works and pledged that leaseholders would not have to pay. In December 2017, Sajid Javid told private building owners not to pass on costs to leaseholders but that is exactly what is happening with some leaseholders being charged up to £600 a month to pay for waking fire watches.

The government has made a total of £1.6bn available to help with the cost of works but it is estimated that around ten times that amount will be required. The pandemic is likely to cost us well over £400bn, so the government could easily add a bit more to that bill in order to resolve this tragedy.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of leaseholders are stuck in limbo, sandwiched between their building’s owner and the government with an unsellable property. Every day, heart wrenching stories of bankruptcy, depression and suicide emerge.

When the National Audit Office looked at this last year it found that the pace of remediation was painfully slow. By April 2020, 456 buildings had been identified with ACM cladding (the type used at Grenfell) but only 149 had been fully remediated.

Why should buying a house be any different from buying a car or any other product? If the product is defective then you would expect to be compensated and not to suffer financially. When you buy a new car, or a new home, most of us have little idea what is under the bonnet, or behind the walls. You buy bricks and mortar and you assume that the place is built on solid foundations, that the structure is sound, that the builder has used safe materials both internally and externally, that there is insulation in the walls, that the windows fit properly and that it will be fit to live in for several decades without any major remediation.

Above all, you assume that you can insure the property and take out a mortgage. You buy largely on trust. ‘Safe as houses’ goes the saying. Of course, most people will employ a surveyor to check the property – but anyone who has bought a home will know that surveyors’ reports are riddled with caveats, listing all the things that he or she was not able to see.

Likewise, the builder will take on a warranty from the likes of NHBC, LABC, or Zurich. You also naively assume that these outfits have inspected the property before issuing a warranty, that the builder has employed a clerk of works to inspect the work in progress, that the local authority building control team have visited the site at least once to ensure it is being built in accordance with the approved plans.

In fact, it is likely that few of these things have happened. Ever since the building control teams were privatised in 1985 and design and build contracts were introduced, most of the onus now sits with the contractor. He can choose his own independent inspector. Everything is done on trust. Add this to the mix of a booming housing market where you can sell any old rubbish and you have a recipe for certain disaster.

As the Grenfell public inquiry has shown, the contracting system is now so opaque that everyone can blame everyone else. The buck stops with no one. Dame Judith Hackitt summed it up in her report: “The mindset of doing things as cheaply as possible and passing on responsibility for problems and shortcomings to others must stop.”

With any luck the measures in the Building Safety Act will help to improve the situation but we will have to wait for the final report of the Public Inquiry, which I hope will lead to a fundamental review of the Building Regulations.

Actually, I have some sympathy with building owners. After all, it was the government and its agents that wrote the Building Regulations and deemed many of these deadly materials to be safe. It was this and previous governments that privatised building control and determined that we should build ‘as cheaply as possible’. We need to return to a regime where quality and safety come first. There might be a short-term cost but the long-term benefits will be much greater.page2image2326387024

(This blog was first published by The Housing Quality Network on 3rd Feb 2021)