How does the built environment impact on mental health?
With an estimated £1.4bn spent every year by the NHS as a result of sub-standard housing, an All-Party-Parliamentary-Group that brought together an expert panel of policy makers and built environment professionals last week sought to find out.
Chaired by Ealing Central and Acton MP Rupa Huq, the session found that, essentially, the poor quality of UK housing meant that people’s wellbeing and health is suffering, in contrast to advances being made in the offices and retail sectors. But attention to green spaces, adequate light levels and encouraging healthy lifestyles are all ways that design can fight back.
‘The post-Grenfell bill for remedial works is likely to be £10bn - so there isn’t much spare cash for housing’, said Karen Buck, MP for Westminster North. Although, over the course of many decades there has been reasonably steady progress, the shocking situation, Buck went on, is that here are still around 1 million properties in the UK housing 2.5 million people that are ‘unfit for human habitation’ under the 2004 housing act and pose an actual potential risk to health and even to life".
The bulk (75%) is in the private rented sector, with a major problem stored up as people age into that sector. Buck read excerpts from her housing casework – including emails from concerned residents about damp, mould and cold, even flooding and mice infestations affecting children’s respiratory systems – which ‘shocked her into distress’. Westminster, said Buck, had historically been at the forefront of housing problems, with slum landlords and associated with very poor-quality housing. And today, the people living in these properties tend to be disproportionately, disadvantaged people – the disabled, those with mental health issues, and BAME communities as well as a high proportion of students.
A number of changes including restrictions on housing benefit have increasingly concentrated those people with least housing choice in the worst condition of properties, said Buck. Permitted development rights schemes are to the fore here as a key problem, with conditions falling short of decent quality housing. Furthermore, environmental health officers are, Buck said, one of the ‘emergency services’, but only enforce in around 1% of all those homes that are unfit. ‘So it will take 100 years to get through all those properties’. Funds are an issue, but interest in this is patchy: Newham has carried out 50% of enforcement actions. Tenants feel disempowered in terms of an ability to act against their landlords so tenants rights need strengthening, Buck added, especially since large parts of the country are legal aid ‘deserts’ – even if London is better served in this respect.