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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The cost of poor housing

As timely as ever, Shelter Cymru have published their estimate of the impact of poor housing on the health service. In cash terms they say it is £67 million a year. These costs are the result of a number of factors including illnesses and accidents caused by problems such as pest infestations, broken boilers, electrical hazards and poor insulation.

The joint study by Shelter Cymru and the Building Research Establishment Trust put the wider cost to society, including factors such as poor educational attainment and reduced life chances, at £168m a year.

The other figure that they use is the cost of bringing all poor housing in Wales up to an acceptable standard which they say is around £1.5bn, with half going on addressing problems with cold homes.

The Western Mail reports that 20% of homes with the most serious health hazards could be brought into an acceptable condition for less than £520, and half for less than £1,600.

Clearly, the argument is that more money should be spent on making homes fit for purpose, with the bulk of that coming from health budgets. However, the downside for a health service that is under severe financial pressure is that financial benefits to the NHS would take about 22 years to show, though some investments such as repairing dangerous stairs. would be paid back in as little as 5.7 years.

Shelter Cymru suggest that it would make sense for housing to be relocated within the health department, however I am not convinced. The danger is that the smaller budget would be overwhelmed by what are perceived as more urgent priorities of cancer, the availability of drugs, the NHS estate etc. But also the Welsh Government is small enough to take account of the need for cross-working.

In truth I could make a case for housing to be situated in a number of departments including regeneration, economic development, environment and even Rural Affairs, but who holds the levers is not as important as the priority given to what has in the past been a Cinderella service.

Supply and fitness are key issues in housing and I would argue that whoever takes the reins after 5th May needs to ensure that the resources and the political clout are there to deliver on both. That includes a strategy to bring back into use the 26,000 empty private sector homes around Wales.

We know the cost of poor housing and the price for putting that right. It is time we started doing something about it.
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