When the NHS was created 70 years ago this week, Labour’s Aneurin Bevan sat in Clement Attlee’s Cabinet with responsibility not just for health but for housing too. This was an astonishing set of responsibilities, meaning that at the same time as Bevan was negotiating the birth of the NHS he was also setting up from scratch Labour’s post-war housing programme. 1948 saw 160,000 council homes built in that year, from a standing start, and the NHS created - despite Conservative opposition on both fronts.
Housing and health were seen as closely linked because widespread slum private housing, made worse by the war, meant unsanitary conditions and poor health for millions. This was Beveridge’s evil of ‘squalor’.
Despite big improvements to housing stock over the last 70 years, today we need a fresh drive to eradicate substandard housing and the effect it has on health, or we risk recreating the sorts of problems that Bevan would have been familiar with. More people live in private rented housing now than at any time since the 1950s, and more than one in four of these homes are sub-standard.
Private rented homes in particular are older and of a worse standard than any other type of housing. Half were built pre-war and around 1.3million fail the benchmark decent homes standard, of which 800,000 have the worst ‘category 1’ hazards which pose a serious risk to the health of the people living in them.
In practice this means kids growing up with chronic damp, families crammed into bedsits with exposed wiring and unsafe appliances, young people in share houses putting up with vermin and elderly people trapped in cold homes.
Unhealthy homes like these don’t just come at a cost to those who live in them but to the NHS too. It’s estimated that the poorest quality housing costs the NHS £1.4billion a year because of additional, avoidable instances of bad health like falls, burns and respiratory problems.
In this NHS anniversary year, we are committing Labour to new action to rekindle Bevan’s vision and end the scourge of substandard homes.
The next Labour Government will designate new Healthy Homes Zones, targeted at those parts of the country, where bad housing is most common - such as in parts of town and cities in the West Midlands, London and the North West. These areas will be eligible for extra support to clamp on down on the worst kind of housing, with additional health funding for inspections and enforcement, tougher licensing conditions and sanctions for rogue landlords, building on the best of what Labour councils are already doing.
At a national level, we’ll remake the link between housing and health and cut through Departmental silos with a new national housing and health tsar - responsible for monitoring the housing determinants of bad health. And we’ll make sure all areas incorporate housing into their local health strategies.
In this NHS anniversary week, we honour the Labour vision of 70 years ago, recognise the achievements since, and redouble our efforts today to fight the causes of poor health wherever we find them, including eradicating unhealthy homes.
Jon Ashworth is the shadow health secretary and Labour MP for Leicester South
John Healey is the shadow housing secretary and Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne