Safe at home? Property standards during lockdown

This pandemic has shown just how much we all need a safe and secure home to retreat to. But for some of us, staying at home means spending more time in accommodation that does not meet basic standards of decency, risking the health and wellbeing of millions of Northerners. Northern Housing Consortium Member Engagement Officer Matthew Wilson looks at what the data tells us about the homes people have spent lockdown in.

1.3million homes – 1 in 5 homes across the North – fail to meet relatively basic quality standards, and half of all non-decent accommodation is home to someone more vulnerable to the pandemic.

Putting this right means rethinking our approach to housing. After the pandemic passes, we need to invest in the quality of the North’s homes, making them fit for the future and ensuring everyone has a safe and secure home to retreat to when we need to.

A Northern picture

Of these 1 in 5 homes in the North – some 1.3million abodes failing to meet the Decent Homes Standard – almost half are in the North West region[1]. Rates of non-decency however are highest in Yorkshire and the Humber, where 22% of homes fail to meet the standard. The North East fares best, reflecting higher levels of social housing in the region, where standards are higher overall.

While there is clearly an uneven geography, analysis by tenure presents starker contrasts. Non-decency is most acute among the North’s private rented homes, where more than a quarter of homes fail to meet the decent homes standard. These conditions will compound effects of the pandemic, with quality issues compiling pressure on renters who have also faced concerns about their security of tenure and ability to pay the rent.

Worryingly, the most common reason for Northern homes failing the Decent Homes Standard was the presence of a category one hazard: one that presents serious and immediate risks to a person’s health. These were found in more than 1 in 10 Northern homes in the 2017 English Housing Survey[2], an annual survey of homes conducted for the Government, which includes physical inspection of thousands of properties across the country.

Decent Home Standard

The Decent Homes Standard is a relatively basic minimum standard established by the Government in the early 2000s.  The standard examines four criteria, checking whether homes are: free of ‘category one hazards’ – the most dangerous type of hazard, which present serious and immediate risks to a person’s health; in a reasonable state of repair – e.g. none of the key components (such as the windows, central heating boiler, electrics) require repair or replacement; has reasonably modern facilities and services – e.g. a kitchen with adequate space and layout, an appropriately located bathroom and WC; and provides a reasonable degree of thermal comfort – e.g. the homes has efficient heating and effective insulation.

Housing standards and the pandemic

It is wrong that at a time when we’re all being asked to spend more time at home, so many of our fellow Northerners are living in accommodation that doesn’t meet minimum standards.

Poor quality housing has negative consequences for our health, placing additional strain on our health service both in the short-term, through injury from immediate hazards, and in the longer-term, with poor quality housing exacerbating health conditions, the presence of damp is known to be linked to respiratory diseases for example.

Poor quality homes also cost more to run, placing an unjust burden on the most vulnerable. We have perhaps been fortunate that the pandemic has struck in the spring, a time when we are not so reliant on heating to make our homes comfortable. Northern households are 10% more likely to live in fuel poverty than the rest of England[3].

What is so concerning in relation to the current pandemic is that half of the 1.3 million non-decent homes in the North is home to someone more vulnerable to the pandemic[4], someone aged over 65, with a long-term illness, or living with a disability. These are precisely the groups who are likely to live under lockdown or shielding for longer.

The problem of poor-quality housing is creating a problem for all of society. If we are to defeat COVID-19 we all rely on each other having a safe and secure place to retreat to. With homes contributing to ill health – or if people feel the need to spend longer outside their homes than would otherwise be essential – the? infections rate will be inflated, placing additional pressure on our NHS and threatening lives.

24% of all homes in the North were built before 1919 and 41% before 1944, above the England average of 37%[5]. In the North East, a quarter of all homes built before 1919 are non-decent, but this figure is a staggering 43% in the North West, and 47% in the Yorkshire and Humber. There has been a recent trend of the pace of Northern decent homes improvement stalling, with the North having the same proportion of England’s non-decent homes in 2017 than it did a decade earlier at 29%. We must focus our efforts on ensuring that the North has a housing stock fit for the future, redefining housing standards from an exacerbating factor of the pandemic to part of a progressive exit strategy, one which benefits the economy and the people of the region.

After the pandemic

As we plan our exit from the pandemic, our Government must act to invest in the quality of the North’s homes, making them fit for the future and ensuring everyone has a safe and secure home to retreat to when needed.

The NHC is calling on the Government to bring forward plans to decarbonise homes. We propose that the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund and Home Upgrade Grants pledged in the Conservative Election Manifesto is used as an immediate economic stimulus, creating jobs and upgrading homes across the North. In the longer term, a Housing Quality Investment Fund can be developed to level-up housing quality in the North. Such a fund would complement investment from councils and the private sector, targeting neighbourhoods with concentrations of poor-quality homes as a first step.


[1] Data from English Housing Survey stock condition 2017 AT2.7

[2] Data from English Housing Survey stock condition 2017 AT2.8

[3] Analysis for the NHC by the Smith Institute in 2018

[4]   Analysis for the NHC by the Smith Institute in 2018 showed that 48% of northern households in non-decent housing contained a resident (a ‘household reference person’) in one of these categories. More recent analysis suggests this has since risen to 51% of households in non-decent housing. We are grateful to the Smith Institute for their assistance with this analysis.

[5] Analysis for the NHC by the Smith Institute in 2018