22 Sep 2020

The right homes in the right places – why we need a Healthy Homes Act

The homes and neighbourhoods we live in are foundational for our health and wellbeing, and to enabling us to flourish. That is why the Healthy Homes Act developed by TCPA is so important and why CIH is supporting the campaign – because it is not just about the numbers of new homes we need but the quality of them, and making sure we deliver the right homes in the right places.

The current COVID pandemic has thrown a spotlight on the quality of our homes and places, particularly during the period of lockdown. 15.9 million people in Great Britain - 31 per cent of the population - have experienced physical or mental health problems during lockdown, due to the condition of, or lack of space in their homes, according to a recent survey. Lack of access to green space also impacts on people’s ability to exercise and affects both physical and mental health. The negative experience of overcrowding, poor housing conditions and lack of gardens or decent outside space is more likely to be felt by households on low incomes, and from ethnic minority populations.

Health and wellbeing have to be at the heart of what we plan and build, but levers to ensure that this happens are fragmented and many are discretionary. Some of the new housing being developed, particularly through permitted development rights, falls well short of these standards. The government has recently published a consultation on raising accessibility standards for new homes - we hope that this will provide an opportunity to embed higher standards as a minimum for all new homes. However, government’s recent white paper, Planning for the Future, is concerned fundamentally with the issue of speeding and scaling up delivery, and providing a greater focus on beauty; it is limited in terms of addressing higher standards that would support health and wellbeing. government has also recently extended further the scope of permitted development rights, in spite of evidence of poor quality in much of this housing, limiting additional requirements only to access to natural light.

That is a missed opportunity to set health at the heart of our built environment but adopting the Healthy Homes Act could tackle that gap.

It establishes eleven principles that define healthy homes and neighbourhoods, that should underpin the development of a national healthy homes policy statement. All government departments would be required to have regard to that statement when making policies and it should inform the planning and housing responsibilities of local authorities. The Act sets out a duty for the Secretary of State to secure the health, safety and wellbeing of individuals and communities, ensuring that the different legislative and regulatory measures that shape our built environment have to deliver that overarching legal priority. And it will also establish a route to monitor the delivery of healthy homes, including adequate provision of homes that are genuinely affordable to people on average and below average incomes.

The inclusion of affordability within the context of healthy homes is really important. Research by Shelter since the pandemic has highlighted how affordability and fear of losing their homes has had a negative impact on the mental health of many in the private rented sector, with 2.7 million (31 percent of private renters) feeling more anxious and depressed about their housing. The same number also reported having sleepless nights because of it. CIH has argued for a significant shift in government investment into more affordable housing, especially for social rent, and analysis by Heriot Watt for Crisis and NHF highlighted the need for 90,000 new homes in England alone at social rent needed each year for a decade to tackle the housing affordability crisis.

Historically, improving public health was a fundamental purpose for both planning and housing – with the Healthy Homes Act we have the opportunity to ensure that health is back at the heart of what we do, and make sure that we develop homes and places that enable people to live healthily and well.