Housing, class and Coronavirus

When the Prime Minister and the heir to the throne were struck down by Coronavirus there was a lot of guff in the media about this being a democratic disease that can strike everyone, be they high or low. Yet it is quite clear that those who are badly housed and those who occupy the lower ends of the social scale are hardest hit by the disease and its wider impact.

“Front-line” workers – like nurses and bus drivers – are suffering the most, and all the evidence shows that the most densely populated places – London, New York –  have been hit hardest by the virus, and within those cities it is the overcrowded who are also most affected.

The World Health Organisation says that, “..inadequate shelter and overcrowding are major factors in the transmission of diseases with epidemic potential such as acute respiratory infections, meningitis, typhus, cholera, scabies, etc. Outbreaks of disease are more frequent and more severe when the population density is high.” This is exactly the same message delivered by Sir Edwin Chadwick in his 1842 “Report on The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain”, which led to the 1848 Public Health Act. Chadwick  concluded that, “…the various forms of epidemic, endemic, and other disease caused, or aggravated, or propagated chiefly amongst the labouring classes by atmospheric impurities produced by decomposing animal and vegetable substances, by damp and filth, and close and overcrowded dwellings prevail amongst the population in every part of the kingdom…disease, wherever its attacks are frequent, is always found in connexion with the physical circumstances above specified…” Some things have changed little in the past 180 years.

The latest English Housing Survey says that just over 1 percent of owner-occupied housing was overcrowded compared to 8 percent in the social housing sector and 6.2 percent for private renting. By contrast, around 52 percent of owners had more space than they needed compared to only 9 percent of social renters. Cambridge virologist Dr Chris Smith estimates that over 80 percent of Coronavirus cases are transmitted within the household, so the more cramped you are the more at risk you are.

There is also growing evidence from here and the USA that BAME folk are disproportionately affected by the disease. My hunch is that this is less likely to be a genetic predisposition, but due to the fact that BAME households are more likely to be multi- generational and overcrowded, and so a fertile breeding ground for the virus.

Imagine if you live in a cramped flat in east London with four children, or in one of the micro-flats of 15 square metres that I wrote about in this recent Intergenerational Foundation report. Perhaps you are living in one of the tiny flats created under Permitted Development Rights, surrounded by arterial roads and business parks and with single aspect windows facing north?  Imagine the hell of daily life. You go out for your daily exercise and finally arrive at the park (if there is one) and sit down to enjoy the fresh air, and you are harassed by the police, or called a traitor by Piers Morgan, even though that fresh air and rest might be the only thing between you and violence.

The space outside your front door is critical for mental and physical wellbeing during this crisis, yet the poor have less of it. In London there are almost ten million people occupying the space that held only 6.4 million in the 1980s. Is it any wonder that it is hard to keep two metres away from other people?  A Guardian/LSE  analysis shows that Londoners in deprived areas and those from BAME backgrounds have less public space and  less access to private gardens. A third of all land in the wealthiest 10 percent of London wards was private gardens and just over a third of the land was parks, compared to a fifth of land in the poorest 10 percent of wards being gardens and only a quarter being parks.

That is why the decision by Tower Hamlets and Lambeth Councils to close Victoria Park and Brockwell Park, forcing pedestrians and cyclists onto narrow (and thus more dangerous) streets and canal towpaths was a criminal decision, and  could only have been made by people with houses and gardens. That is also why we need to open the golf courses to the public!

It is this housing and class divide –  the inability of the well-housed to understand how the badly-housed live – that has been one of the most shocking aspects of this crisis, to me at least. On social media a Stasi-like pitchfork mob has appeared, calling for anyone who has the temerity to sit down in a public place to be named and shamed, or worse. I would bet that all of these keyboard warriors live in houses with gardens.

And what of the wider impacts of this crisis? All commentators agree that there will be added deaths and misery caused by cancelled operations, collapsing businesses, rising domestic violence and child abuse, alcoholism, obesity or malnutrition (yes both), mental health problems, not to mention the community discord caused by snitching on neighbours. Yet ministers have not yet received a report from civil servants about the wider impact of the most draconian curfew since the war. Incredible. Surely any competent government would require daily reports on the impact of their decision, in order to balance the health emergency outcomes against the wider damage to society and our civil structures?

It was ever thus. The poor will always suffer the most during any pandemic. In 1665 the plague killed a quarter of London’s population, but it was mostly the poor who died – the rich decamped to the countryside. Nothing has changed: today the well-off can  scuttle away to their second or holiday homes (even our Minister has done it) or hunker down at home with plenty of indoor and outdoor space and their Ocado deliveries, while the flat-dwelling poor are left with empty shelves and barricaded or over-policed parks.

After this crisis is over, perhaps we can have a reasoned debate about the health and other inequalities caused by bad and overcrowded housing? I will hold my breath.

(This blog was first published by the Housing Quality Network. See here)

Coping with the crisis

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”

A health warning to begin with. This blog is a series of unrelated musings about the crisis. There’s so much to take in that it’s hard to construct a tidy narrative. I take the Jürgen Norbert Klopp line that this is something for the experts to comment upon, but I’ve just written a briefing for HQN on how housing providers should respond so I think I can write a little about the impact upon our sector.

Things are changing hour by hour, so everything we write can be out of date fairly quickly. That’s why it’s important that you keep your eye on official advice on the gov.uk, Public Health England and NHS websites, as well as information from your professional and trade bodies. It’s also crucial to ignore all the waffle and hysteria on social media, including all the anecdotes presented as evidence (“A friend of a friend is a doctor and he says blah blah blah”). What we’re learning is that this crisis is bringing out the very best and the very worst in people – but the worst, as ever, are a tiny minority. Most people are good.
To start with, how are you coping? Are you cooped up in a tiny flat with kids or do you have a spacious house and garden with online deliveries of food? Do you have a network of friends and relatives that can offer help, or are you alone? Do you have Netflix and a supply of books? This will be a real test of our fortitude and the quality of our homes.
My partner is in Germany and I have no idea when I might see her again. They are ahead of us in terms of their lockdown (they closed schools and non- food shops two weeks ago and have the same rules about distancing and being outside). I’m in small flat in a small town but I’m making trips to the allotment (exercise and food production combined, not seeing anyone or touching anything on the way). But I spent seven years in a military boarding school and she grew up in the GDR, so we can cope. Others are not so lucky.

I’m also collecting prescriptions and shopping and posting parcels for old folk around here. One of them has offered German lessons in return. The BBC has produced some useful tips on looking after your mental health and wellbeing and Sport England has produced a guide on how to exercise at home. I’ve also registered on the NHS volunteer scheme, see here for details.
I’m finding that friends and family are coming together like never before. Even the most IT illiterate are signing up for WhatsApp, Zoom and HouseParty and seeking regular conferences. So much so that it’s hard to get on with other things! All positive but it makes you wonder why people didn’t do this before. Perhaps we’re so bound up in our lives that we forget that the only three things that matter in life are health, friends and family.
I’ve a number of friends who feel they’ve had the virus and haven’t been tested or reported. My gut feeling is that the number of cases will be five or ten times higher than the official figures. This seems obvious given that the mortality rate appears to vary from 0.3% in Germany to over 8% in Italy. So perhaps the actual mortality rate is closer to influenza – but there’s no vaccine and no indication of when it might appear. But surely we need testing? And tracing.  If so many people are asymptomatic we need to test the population so that people who have had it can be free to circulate, without infecting anyone or being infected (assuming re- infection is unlikely). But, as I said at the beginning, I’m no expert, so what do I know?
The virus is awful, but there are silver linings. We’ve a government that’s intervened in the state in unprecedented ways, in peacetime. The magic money tree has been found and the government finally recognises that profit-driven businesses aren’t always the best. Rail franchises have been nationalised. The NHS is being pumped with money. Surely things can never be the same again? We cannot go back to the levels of greed, consumption, inequality and self-absorption that existed before, can we?
In addition, we have cleaner air and fewer deaths from air pollution and road traffic accidents. The climate can recover for a while (“The virus that saved the planet”). On the downside there will be a spike in suicides, domestic violence and child abuse. Criminals will have a free rein to rob and plunder. At some point the negative impacts of lockdown might outweigh its medical benefits, but that time isn’t now. But think how much has changed in just a couple of weeks. This is a long haul and, well, “Events, dear boy, events”.
My final thoughts are about housing. This is a stressful time for everyone but even more so if you live in bad housing. This will be a severe test of the quality, durability and adaptability of our homes. We have some of the smallest in Europe and they’re going to be stress tested to the extreme. The wear and tear will be enormous and repair requests will rise at a time when many contractors are disappearing. Domestic abusers and child abusers will be able to operate with impunity. Neighbour disputes are likely to escalate and providers need to keep an eye on this and to protect their most vulnerable residents. You’ll need clear policies and protocols on entering homes where people are self-isolating or shielding. There’s plenty of advice on the gov.uk website. These are testing times but I’m sure everyone can face the challenge head on. It will pass.

Keep busy. Learn a language. Read. Exercise. Stay safe.


This blog was first published by HQN on the 26th March 2020. 

Brexit: the key question

Tomorrow, we shall be out of the EU. Depending on your point of view this is either a triumph, a tragedy, or something in between. But after three and a half years of often angry debate, this is where we are. It is happening, whether we like it or not.

But I do hope that our exit does not mean that we stop co-operating with and learning from our European neighbours, because there is certainly a lot to learn.

In December and January I spent a few weeks in Germany, in the southwest city of Freiburg-im-Breisgau, and I can tell you that everything they do there planning, housing, transport, recycling, leisure is, in my opinion, better, smarter and greener than in the UK.

Take transport: Freiburg is a city of only 230,000 people yet it has an extensive tram network that provides around 60 million journeys a year. There are 40 kilometres of track and 70% of the population live within 500 metres of a tram stop, with a tram every eight mins. A ticket of any distance costs €2.30. Can any city in the UK of a comparable size boast such a system?

Freiburg has a huge central pedestrian zone where no cars are allowed. There are cycle lanes everywhere. Two weeks ago, I cycled to a village seven miles away to see an evening performance of Guys and Dolls and the whole route was either on quiet back streets or well- lit cycle lanes. There are easy-to-use car share schemes with their cars parked in designated spaces in every neighbourhood.

Take recycling. Every supermarket has a machine where you can insert your plastic and glass bottles and receive money back 25 cents for a plastic bottle and eight cents for glass.

Or take planning and housing. The city has a number of well-planned traffic-free suburbs where social and private housing sits side by side. On the south side of Freiburg is an eco- settlement called Vauban with over 2,000 homes and 5,500 residents. It was previously a French barracks (France occupied this region post-World War II). It was occupied by squatters for many years and still has a slight hippy feel. All the homes are low energy, with social and private mixed together. Many of them are Passivhaus.


Vauban has its own power station fed by wood chips and many homes have solar panels. The Solar Settlement of 59 homes is the first housing site in the world to produce a positive energy balance, with the surplus being sold to the city-grid. A tram runs through the site and most of the roads are car free: stellplatzfrei – literally, “free from parking spaces”. Parking is banished to the edge of the site where a space costs over €20,000 plus a monthly fee. Around 70% of households have no private car. The number of cars per thousand residents in Vauban is about 180, compared to a national average of more than 500. Does the UK have anywhere like this?


The housing that I have visited also appears to be far superior to UK homes in terms of the quality of construction and finishes, insulation, windows, doors etc. The apartments I stayed in comprise about 120 flats in eight modern blocks set in landscaped car-free grounds, all built to a Passivhaus standard. The blocks are connected underground by a vast parking garage which also contains bin stores, cycle stores and a personal cellar for each flat of about 12  square metres, where you can store all your stuff. The roofs are green; there is a water wheel on an adjacent stream that feeds the communal electricity supply, and heating and hot water  comes from a wood chip power plant.


But one small example, the key question, will suffice to highlight the differences between the UK and Germany. In the UK renting or owning a typical flat will require you to have a bunch of five or more keys: one for the flat, one for the communal entrance, the garage, the balcony door, the bin store etc. In this apartment there is a single key that opens nine separate doors, viz. the flat door, the communal entrance door at ground level, the communal entrance in the garage, the bin store, the entrance to the cellar, the entrance to the cellar store, the pedestrian entrance to the garage, the car entrance to the garage, and the bike store. That means that when I went out I carried a single key and a key for my bike lock. It is quite liberating. Does anywhere in the UK have a similar system?


As I say, Brexit or no Brexit we still have a lot to learn from our European neighbours. One of the problems in UK housing is that we tend to be too insular, too bound up in our own petty rules and distractions and too resistant to learning lessons from other sectors and other countries. I hope that we can still take the time and effort to visit and learn from places like Freiburg. If you want to visit I am open to approaches!


(This blog was first published on the Housing Quality Network on 23/01/2020)

Wanted: housing weirdos

Happy New Year to you all – although it has to be said that the new decade has kicked off with anything but happiness: instead there is a sense of Apocalypse, with Australia on fire and Iran threatening retribution in the West for the assassination of General Soleimani.

But in housing we have more prosaic matters to attend to, not least dealing with a new Conservative government with a large majority. How should the sector respond to the new political situation? Grudging co-operation; enthusiastic collaboration; opposition? I have written before about Boris Johnson’s views on housing, and it is obviously disappointing that the Tory manifesto said little about social housing compared to the other parties. For some, the future looks gloomy, but there are chinks of light, as I wrote here.

One of the more interesting developments over the Christmas break was a “job advert” published by Dominic Cummings calling for people to apply to work in government.

I have to say I find Cummings a fascinating character. Depending upon your point of view, he is either a genius (perhaps an evil genius) or a charlatan, but the fact that he has twice outwitted and outmanoeuvred his opponents, first as Director of the Vote Leave Campaign, and then as éminence grise directing the 2019 election, suggests the former moniker is more apt. If only we had living writers of the calibre of Dickens, Thackeray or Evelyn Waugh – what a glorious satiric banquet they would create out of this scruffy, weird individual sitting at the heart of Downing Street. If you want a flavour of his spiky, belligerent character take a look at his appearances before the Treasury select committee, or his encounter with Lewis Goodall of Sky News (Goodall is now policy editor of BBC’s Newsnight).

There are some in our sector who would describe Cumming as a “disruptor”. Others would be less charitable.

Anyway, back to his rambling blog post in which he calls for a range of experts to apply for posts in government, including data scientists, software developers, unconventional economists, policy experts and “Weirdos and misfits with odd skills”. Cummings has a low opinion of most MPs and civil servants, and he is clearly trying to overturn and subvert the Whitehall machine. The mandarins have already hit back by claiming that he is not able to recruit directly. But I am sure he will find a way to by-pass them.

I suggested on Twitter that people in our sector should consider applying for these jobs but my SHOUT colleague Tom Murtha demurred, “Why would you want to work with the most corrupt government in my lifetime?” he asked.

Tom has solid principles, but I think this is rather short- sighted. If you look at the historical record, the Conservatives have governed for around two thirds of the post-war period. Labour has only been in power for barely 27 of the past 75 years. It is no good waiting forever for a Labour government to appear. And which year saw the greatest output of social housing in England? It was 1953 when 198,200 council homes out of a total output of 263,680 were built. Harold Macmillan, an old-school Tory, was housing minister. This was far in excess of Labour’s annus mirabilis of 1967 when 154,500 council homes were built (albeit out of a total output of 342,740). So the political picture is less clear cut than many would imagine. For the housing sector, opposition is self-defeating; you have to work with whoever is in power and I think that many more Tories now accept that tackling the housing crisis is a very high priority for this government.

Yes, it is true that the Conservatives have a poor recent track record on social housing. But Boris Johnson has accepted that Tory votes in the so-called Labour Wall and other deprived areas have been gained on a short-term lease. One of the very best ways to bring real jobs and prosperity to those areas is to invest in infrastructure and housing, especially social housing. That is the message we need to be promoting with the utmost vigour. That means every housing provider reaching out to their local Conservative MPs with tenfold the effort they have employed in the past, to make the case for investment. If it does not happen, then the voters will eventually return to Labour, inevitably.

But having a voice at the heart of government is also critical. We need people making the case for social housing in Number Ten. So if you are a housing policy expert and perhaps a weirdo to boot (I can think of a few) then make your application now!

This blog was first published by the Housing Quality Network on 9th January 2020.