Recent floods have shown that climate must be front and centre of our housing strategy. Photo: Bailey-Cooper Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

Covid highlights the flaws in our broken housing system

The pandemic has shown the importance of affordable housing. But the government has not done enough to ensure everyone has a safe home
January 28, 2021

For rough sleepers, this lockdown is very different from spring last year. The weather is colder and the virus is more infectious. Yet despite these dangers, the government has not reinstated the “Everyone In” programme which quickly got rough sleepers off the streets. This immoral decision will cost lives, and shows that the Conservatives don’t view housing as a basic right for everyone.

Rough sleeping during a winter pandemic is perhaps the most extreme example of a broken housing system. There are others. The fundamental housing flaws exposed over the last year existed before the pandemic and, unless we act now, will continue to affect millions of families across the country. We have a shortfall of an estimated 4.8m homes, according to research published in 2018. This shortfall leads to rising housing costs, overcrowding and downward pressures on quality and security. It also results in families living for months and years in unsuitable accommodation at great expense to the public purse—as well as compromising their own wellbeing. Damp and poorly insulated homes increase the risk of respiratory and other illnesses, which can make people more vulnerable to coronavirus. Too many people on low incomes in the private rented sector were already living on stretched budgets. After an economic shock like lockdown, people are struggling to keep up and pay the bills, rent and living costs, and can quickly find themselves in debt. Insecure tenure adds to the anxiety. 

Overcrowded homes are always tough. But when children are not in school, parents are trying to work from home and older family members are shielding, it becomes a physical health risk as well as being harmful for learning, working and mental health. It’s even harder for those with little or no access to green and outdoor spaces. Meanwhile, too much existing housing is not designed with climate change in mind: too cold in winter, too hot in summer, poorly insulated and ventilated, prone to flooding. We’ve seen too many times in recent years the misery and suffering that flooding causes. Reforming the housing system is not only essential to creating a fairer society, it can also help to stimulate economic recovery and create jobs, as well as providing the net zero carbon homes we need. So what should we be aiming for?

The recommendations of the Affordable Housing Commission offer well thought through routes to addressing the shortfall over 15 years, creating truly affordable rented and owned homes. The planning system should ensure everyone has access to open green space, and guarantee standards on size, quality and safety, especially in the light of the post-Grenfell cladding scandal. Counter-cyclical investment could help to build the homes required, training up thousands of people in good quality jobs. 

There are relatively quick fixes that could be life-changing for millions. We need the end of Section 21 “no-fault” evictions that give landlords the right to evict tenants even with perfect rent records. The government promised to do this in a Renters’ Reform Bill, which could also include more professionalisation of the sector. Labour local authorities and the Welsh government have already made great strides in this direction through landlord registration schemes, though cuts to local authority finances over the last decade have limited their abilities.

The bulk of public expenditure on housing currently goes towards housing benefit instead of addressing quantity, quality, safety and security. Shifting that focus will be tricky but essential. Climate has to be at the centre of our thinking. The government must speed up the Future Homes Standard, which will set climate standards for new homes and reduce their carbon emissions. 

Covid has shown the ways the housing system has been damaged by the economic and social changes of the last ten years. A recovery from coronavirus, if properly designed, could mend our broken housing system, transform the country and fulfil the Labour Party’s ambition to make the UK the best country to grow up and grow old in.