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Analysis | The deadly silence of the UK budget on housing

Remark

Tragic, preventable deaths happen even in advanced countries with strong institutions. Sometimes the only conclusion that can be drawn is that someone has not done their job. But often there are also uncomfortable lessons for the government.

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

Gove rightly pointed an angry finger at the landlord who abandoned the toddler and his family. The walls of the one-bedroom apartment Awaab shared with his parents north of Manchester were covered in black mould. The house was unfit for human habitation (as can be seen from the photos) but the housing association that owned the property refused to act. But Gove’s intervention also points to the central importance of an issue barely touched on Thursday’s budget: housing.

Awaab’s family had repeatedly complained to the landlord, Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH). In 2017, his father, a recent immigrant from Sudan, was told to paint over the mold. By 2020, he had started legal proceedings, but according to association rules, he was sidelined while that slow-motion process played out. “We didn’t recognize the level of risk to a little boy’s life from the mold in the family’s home. We allowed a legal lapse process to get in the way of a speedy approach to the mold,” Gareth Swabrick, the director of the housing association, said in a statement.

Ignorance is no defense here. The government’s housing, health and safety rating system includes damp and mold on a list of 29 potential hazards. And no landlord should be clear at this point that mold is a hazard, especially if it was so visible. The dangers 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 standard of decent housing requires homes to be safe. People who live with damp and mold are more likely to suffer from respiratory problems, asthma, allergies and other conditions that affect the immune system.

“We all know that local governments are going through tough times when it comes to finances, but frankly, that’s no excuse. All this stuff, all this ‘Oh, if only we had more government money’ – do your job, man,” said Gove, who is responsible for housing and for “levelling” Britain’s economy. But this is not a case of a single bad apple and Gove knows that. Governments exist precisely because people need protection from such cases. “In the UK in 2020, how will a two-year-old child die from mold exposure?” coroner Joanne Kearsley asked. A better question is probably how many other Awaabs there are.

The 2020 English Housing Survey found that 3.5 million occupied homes did not meet the Decent Homes Standard; 2.2 million had at least one Category 1 hazard (including damp and mold), and 941,000 had severe damp. Although the prevalence of these poor housing conditions has decreased over the past decade, it remains a serious problem, especially in the poorer parts of the country. Landlords save money by putting off repairs as long as possible in the hope that tenants — especially those whose English skills may be lacking — won’t bother to file a claim.

A 2021 report from the Housing Ombudsman found damp and mold deficiencies in 92 of 142 landlords surveyed; damages were imposed in 84 cases. As in the case of the Ishaks, landlords often blamed the inhabitants for the problem. “This recurred so frequently that it is appropriate to call it systemic,” the ombudsman wrote. It concluded that “changes in culture, behavior and approach” of landlords are overdue, but change is slow without the firm taste of regulatory oversight and accountability. Indeed, there are other reports of mold growing on walls in damp flats, soggy mattresses and children’s toys, causing illness and stress.

And here Awaab’s tragic death fits into the broader challenge facing Rishi Sunak as he tries to steer a shrinking British economy to a better place. Awaab was also failed by a health service that struggled with staff shortages and backlogs, and public services that were disjointed. But good housing is fundamental to both a civilized society and a thriving economy.

Not only has Britain failed to build enough houses for many years; Existing homes are too often in a deplorable state. The UK has the oldest housing stock compared to EU countries. The houses are less energy efficient and more difficult to heat in the winter. It also has some of the most expensive housing and cramped accommodations of its peers.

For a country now grappling with alarming levels of economic inactivity, as new statistics show, it’s worth remembering that inadequate housing also has broader social consequences. People in cold, moldy, or homes that fall far short of their needs tend to get sick or suffer other consequences. A 2010 study by researchers at the University of Warwick estimated that substandard housing in England was costing the NHS an estimated £600 million a year at the time. And health costs were estimated to be only about 40% of the total cost to society due to poor housing conditions. Others arise from energy leakage, underachievement at school, absenteeism, social exclusion and psychological problems. The savings from one-off costs to improve housing outweighed the cost of repairs.

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

And the government is nowhere near the Tory Manifesto pledge to build 300,000 new homes a year. Gove gave a speech at a growth conference this week revealing his plan to overcome planning hurdles to building new homes, based on the strange acronym BIDEN, with each letter representing an aspect of the strategy. The B stands for beauty. People “don’t want ugliness imposed on them,” Gove said, so government policies will ensure that new homes are aesthetically pleasing. (The remaining letters stand for infrastructure, democracy, environment, and neighborhood).

The strategy sounds enlightened and promising; just like RBH’s colorful website. But execution is everything. And planning and building takes time. In the meantime, families like Awaab’s don’t ask for nice houses; only those that are not lethal.

More from Bloomberg’s opinion:

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

How to Get Away With Just a Mild Mortgage Pain: Marcus Ashworth

In the energy transition you can’t have your cake and eat it: Javier Blas

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion on healthcare and British politics. She was formerly editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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

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