Where we live has a huge impact on our lives. We have all become more aware of this during the multiple lockdowns of the pandemic, as we have contended with working, studying and socialising from home. But for children living in unsafe and unsuitable housing, the impact is catastrophic. This month the Fairer Private Rented Sector White Paper was published, sharing reforms set to be brought into law under the long-awaited Renters Reform Bill. The changes have been called by the Big Issue as the “biggest shake-up of the sector in decades”, but what might this mean for babies, children and young people and why does it matter?
The Fairer Private Rented Sector White Paper, published 16th June, promises to “redress the balance between landlords and 4.4 million private rented tenants”. Its reforms include removing landlords’ rights to make ‘no fault’ evictions, to refuse to rent to families on benefits, or make significant increases to rent.
On paper, the UK has one of the most lucrative housing markets in the world, with the value of property exploding over the last two decades and an influx of foreign investors. But housing market data hides the reality of shocking inequality and a housing crisis, with 1.27 million households facing homelessness, overcrowding and living in hazardous conditions. The White Paper identifies one in five private renters as living in unfit homes. The reality of this is hundreds of thousands of children whose health and wellbeing is suffering because of the conditions they live in.
Research lays bare the devastating impact of poor housing on the health and wellbeing of babies, children and young people. Damp, mouldy conditions pose a huge health risk for babies and young children, significantly increasing the risk of hospital admissions for respiratory illnesses among under 3s and making children three times as likely to develop asthma by the age of seven.
Meanwhile, overcrowding has a significant impact on older children, as their sleep suffers affecting their educational attainment, they struggle to find space to do their homework, and parents worry their children are not coming home as much because of overcrowding. It comes as little surprise that the attainment gap has widened significantly during the pandemic, as children in crowded homes have struggled to engage with online learning, and that there has been increased reporting of mental health difficulties among children and young people during the pandemic.
Creating a healthy home environment in unsuitable, insecure conditions is immensely difficult. We know that housing worries are often a significant contributing factor to the stress faced by parents in the families we support, and that this affects their own health, wellbeing and quality of relationships in the home.
The Fairer Private Rented Sector reforms should help create more secure, longer-term housing options that empower tenants more control over their home environment and reduce anxiety around tenancy risks. If it delivers on its promises, the bill could make a positive impact on the lives of millions. However, how and at what speed the reforms are enforced will determine their true impact. The Renters Reform Bill was promised in 2019 and is yet to be published but is scheduled for release by the end of 2022. The length of this process will be of little comfort to the families living in the conditions it seeks to address.
It is critical that the government makes good on the pledges set out in this White Paper and the Levelling Up White Paper and ensure all homes are fit for human habitation and empower tenants to raise concerns about the condition of their property without the fear of eviction. Moreover, the commitment to increasing the availability of social housing stock needs backing up with a concrete plan. New homes need to be developed based on robust data of local housing need so it contains the right mix of larger and smaller homes to meet demand and eliminate overcrowding.
Children North East want all babies, children and young people to be able to be happy and healthy. Without change, poor housing will continue to contribute to inequality around health and educational attainment and make growing up harder. We need to hold this government to account so that the positive direction of travel into a needs-driven, and effectively-enforced housing policy or hundreds of thousands of children will continue to grow up without a safe home to live in.