12 Apr 2023
Dealing effectively with damp and mould remains one of the highest priorities in the UK housing sector. Following the tragic death of Awaab Ishak and an escalating number of damp-related severe maladministration judgements by the Housing Ombudsman, the social and private rented sectors have been placed under increasing and necessary pressure to ensure that the homes they let are safe, warm and dry.
It is now widely acknowledged that damp and mould exacerbate, and in many cases directly cause, serious health issues. Previous research has observed that damp and mould are associated with a 30 to 50 per cent increase in respiratory problems, with asthma sufferers twice as likely to live in damp homes than people without the condition. Young children and older people are particularly at risk of this sort of respiratory ill-health, and there is growing evidence that damp is also associated with fuel poverty, mental ill-health, social isolation, and stigmatisation. Recent changes to household working and habitation patterns triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic have also exacerbated the relationships between damp and health in complex ways, especially among private renters forced to spend more time in mouldy, overcrowded properties.
The impact of damp on human health – whether demonstrated statistically or through shocking individual examples – underlines the significance of tackling the problem. However, progress in eradicating damp from the UK’s housing stock has stalled in recent years, as new analysis published in the UK Housing Review (UKHR) shows. The UKHR uses data from the English House Condition Survey, which has measured the incidence of damp consistently for 15 years. The analysis shows that the prevalence of damp in English housing has hovered at around four per cent for over a decade, following a substantial decrease from 1996.
Furthermore, the UKHR shows that in 2021, the private rented sector was the most affected tenure, with 10.7 per cent of properties showing some incidence of damp. 4.5 per cent of social dwellings had some incidence of damp, while for owner-occupied dwellings the figure stood at 1.7 per cent. While these percentages may seem low, four per cent signifies around 904,000 homes with damp. In addition, the UKHR shows that less recent stock condition surveys in Wales and Scotland suggest damp issues are more prevalent in the two devolved nations, with nearly one in ten homes having some incidence of damp in Scotland.
Although the causes of damp are complex, the energy efficiency of domestic dwellings plays a key role. According to the English Housing Survey, 713,000 less energy-efficient homes in EPC band D or below also had damp in 2021, with inadequate heating and a lack of loft and wall insulation among the main causes. In addition, recent research by Citizens Advice showed that renters in homes with an EPC D-G were 73 per cent more likely to experience damp than those with an EPC of A-C. Upgrading the energy efficiency of domestic homes is therefore one of the main pathways to fixing enduring damp issues, as well as precipitating wider benefits, such as improvements in thermal comfort and energy affordability.
However, the UKHR shows that we are still far from meeting energy efficiency targets across the UK. In England, over half of the country’s private rented and owner-occupied homes have an EPC rating of D or below, and the UKHR concludes that there are significant shortfalls in funding across the UK to meet targets in all four nations. The challenges do not end there. Bereft of long-term certainty, the supply chain growth progresses at too slow a pace to meet the requirements of an increased retrofit ambition. We still lack an updated Decent Homes Standard, and the Future Homes Standard, perhaps not unironically, remains firmly in the future, meaning we are building homes today that will need to be retrofitted tomorrow. As the Committee on Climate Change laconically summarised in 2022, “Government’s overarching target is for most homes to achieve EPC C by 2035, but there are not yet firm policies or consultations on how this will be achieved for the majority of the housing stock.”
The lack of progress on retrofit and energy efficiency therefore translates into a lack of progress on damp. This lack of progress is all the more frustrating because, as a recent review of global evidence on the health impacts of energy-efficiency retrofits concluded, “dampness and mould, usually based on occupant's reports, almost always decreased after retrofits.” Put differently, improving the energy efficiency of domestic homes means reducing the health risks associated with damp. Let’s not forget the positive knock-on impact this has for society, especially the NHS. The Building Research Establishment has estimated that the NHS would save around £38 million a year if all dampness was effectively addressed, paying back the total cost of mitigation – approximately £270 million – in seven years.
Ultimately, the causal relationship between damp and health is complex, but we increasingly have a greater grasp on its finer points. The data and analysis presented in the UKHR helps us understand the equation in more granular detail, as well as pointing the way towards how it should be solved.
Matthew is a CIH policy and practice officer leading our work on asset management, specifically on building safety, repairs and maintenance and the domestic transition to Net Zero in social housing. He holds a PhD from Newcastle University and has previously held several research and policy roles in the academic and third sectors.