Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Cold homes: our 21st century challenge

Living in a cold home can make you sick. It’s perhaps not surprising that older people are particularly vulnerable, with cold houses putting them more at risk of heart and lung disease as well as worsening conditions like arthritis and rheumatism.

But when Friends of the Earth asked my research team at University College London to review the evidence of how cold homes affect people’s health, it was shocking to see how much children and young people also suffer.

 Cold, poorly heated homes affect babies’ weight gain and increase the frequency and severity of asthmatic symptoms in children. Teenagers who live in cold houses are five times more likely to risk developing multiple mental health problems than adolescents who have always lived in warm homes.

 The indirect consequences are subtle and worrying. Growing up in a cold home is likely to have a negative effect on children’s educational achievement, emotional well-being and resilience. Over time this can put them at a disadvantage, worsening their life chances and increasing health inequalities.

 The evidence also shows that fuel poverty – when you can’t afford to heat your home properly – is surprisingly widespread. The poorest Britons are hit the hardest, but fuel poverty also affects people from a range of income groups and backgrounds. Treating people made ill by living in a cold home is estimated to cost the NHS hundreds of millions annually a year, not to mention the added expense of social care and the loss to economy of young people not realising their full potential.

 Despite this there is a clear contradiction between the Government’s recognition of the link between health and cold housing, its statements of support for the reduction of fuel poverty and CO2 emissions and its lack of identifiable commitment to support this agenda through regulation, target setting, guidelines, or funding. The recent cuts to the Warm Front grants scheme with its clear record of health improvement, ahead of any significant detail on the level and arrangement of the future Energy Company Obligation, are of particular concern.

 The impact of the funding cuts to local authorities on investment in fuel poverty and energy efficiency programmes is likely to be highly detrimental. It is estimated that between £3 and £8bn is needed annually to eradicate fuel poverty. Current and expected Government support and financial commitments to dealing with cold homes is simply inadequate.

 There’s a danger that cold homes are dismissed as part of the tough nature of things. We’ve grown used to draughty, poorly insulated old houses, with inefficient boilers and single-glazed windows that make them extortionate or impossible to heat properly. Tenants often put up with bitterly cold rented accommodation – homes rented from a landlord or letting agency are most likely to be the worst insulated.

 But it doesn’t have to be this way. In far colder countries like Finland and Sweden homes are built to protect people against low temperatures and ill health, with decent insulation in walls, lofts and floors.

 It’s unacceptable that in our developed society so many homes are so cold they’re officially dangerous to health, while 4.5million households in the UK suffer from fuel poverty. The health problems caused by cold homes and the stresses of living in fuel poverty are avoidable with the right policies – if there’s the will to do something about it.

 The extent of the problem demands a suitably sized solution – a nationwide refit of the worst, coldest homes. The announcement by Chris Huhne earlier this week that the Government will - due to popular demand – be introducing a minimum energy efficiency standard for private rented homes is a strong and welcome start but it is a long way from a plan to end fuel poverty.

 In this country we have a proud history of ambitious projects to improve public health at home. Pioneering housing reform in the 19th century introduced drains and lavatories, clean running water, street cleaning and refuse collection. In the process it got rid of cholera that killed thousands each year and made towns cleaner, fresher places to live. The major slum clearances during the 20th century saw people move to decent, sanitary living conditions.

 A big challenge facing us this century is improving cold British homes.

 It seems to me there’s a double win here, and it shouldn’t be a trade-off. Insulating homes to stop them wasting energy would improve people’s health and wellbeing and protect the environment at the same time. As so often, public health and environmental advances are linked.

 With an Energy Bill being debated in Parliament now is the time to act. None of the previous great strides forward in public health came about by themselves – they took courage, imagination and political will.

 Let’s hope the Government is brave and bold enough to step up to the mark and banish cold homes and fuel poverty to history, where they belong.

Please click here to read the Fuel Poverty and Cold Homes Report.

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