“Housing scandal: ITV News uncovers widespread problems with leaks, damp and mould in tower blocks across UK” ITN report, 01.04.2021.
Pic: sodden carpet in Franzoy’s flat (ITN)
“To prevent electrocution, the fridge has been unplugged for more than three months.She has no light in the bathroom, her sofa has been destroyed along with many of her children’s shoes and toys. The only room in the entire flat undamaged is the small bedroom the family of three cook, eat, play and sleep in.” (ITN). Reporter Daniel Hewitt said “After reporting on the squalid conditions in a tower block in Croydon, described by several housing experts as the worst they had ever seen, we were inundated with examples of damage and disrepair in properties from around the country”
ITN have been shocking the country, to a creditable extent, recently, with reporting of appalling, squalid, damp-ridden rented homes. At first, some owned by councils, and now by housing associations and private landlords. No reliable numbers, yet, but a very substantial and shameful total seems likely to emerge. In the year, 2021. In a developed Western country, with a relatively large economy. What has caused this?
First, I’m going to look at the causes of damp and mould in houses and flats. Secondly, a look at the broader picture of the state of social and rented housing in the UK, to understand why the problem is so widespread, and the factors underlying this.
What causes damp in people’s homes? Basically, it’s one, (or sometimes a combination of) or two things.
One is: some form of penetrating damp. This is moisture which has got through the protective armour against damp of a building. This could be from a leaking roof, porous walls, poor seals around windows, a cracked wall, or bridging of a cavity wall, etc. Or, less common in modern houses, rising damp, which is when moisture seeps up from the ground underneath, into walls or floors, because of an absent or faulty damp-barrier. ( for example, a DPC or damp-proof-course in walls, or damp-proof membrane in floors). Houses built before around 1920, might have no DPC at all, or a crude one which has failed over the years. And, to make it worse, modern building materials, no open fires, and less draughty windows, tend to keep that damp trapped inside the house.
All these are repairable. Some cost more than others to deal with, and most are fairly expensive to do properly.
The second is: condensation, usually resulting in black mould.
What causes this? When damp, moist, air in a building, (which could be the result of penetrating damp), comes into contact with a colder surface-walls, windows, ceilings etc- it condenses. What else makes the air heavy with moisture? It could be from washing and showering, boiling water, cooking, laundering- all the things humans do in everyday life. Worse, when a dwelling is over-crowded. When this moist air hits a colder surface, it becomes water again, so the surface becomes damp- and that damp surface is an ideal breeding ground for mould spores, which are both unsightly, and unhealthy. The pictures you will have seen on the News will be evidence of just how horrible it can be.
Mould on walls (pic: ITN)
How can condensation be kept to a harmless level? There’s two ways, often in collaboration wih each other. If the surfaces in the house/flat are warm rather than cold, because it it’s a warm home, the moisture won’t condense out onto the surface as much. And the other is ventilation, which can be as simple as opening windows, or extractor fans, or in bad cases use of a dehumidifier. Old houses, with heating from coal or wood fires were good at venting damp up the chimney or flue.
Now, it gets more complicated, unfortunately. Trying not to get too lengthy, factors which can make the condensation worse, include poorly insulated walls (normally outside-facing) , and ceilings. These are, obviously, colder surfaces, so condensation forms more readily. And, tenants living in a cold home, who may be struggling to afford heat in winter, will of course, be more reluctant to open windows, which might otherwise allow damp air out. Modern windows, and homes generally, tend to be more draughtproof than homes were years ago, adding to the problem. It doesn’t help, that tenants may not understand that lack of ventilation encourages damp and mould, although if they are feeling cold it’s entirely natural that ventilation is not the top priority. All these things may combine to produce a conducive atmosphere for mould, which readily increases in the right conditions. It grows, producing more spores.
That’s the technical stuff on the causes of damp and mould, but what’s the bigger picture? Why is damp, unhealthy, housing so widespread today? Why has the problem not been addressed, for years?
In ‘#5,‘The Rigged Housing Market’ , in this blog, written in Dec 2019, we looked at how the UK housing market has been rigged for years, so that there are nowhere near enough homes to meet demand today. This forces prices, to buy or rent, steadily upward. So, rent is often so high a proportion of outgoings, as to leave little income left for heating or other necessities, which adds to the problem.
Worse, the building of social housing, i.e. houses and flats available to rent at a genuinely affordable rent, has plummeted, as funding to build them was deliberately, and steadily reduced.
As Inside Housing journal noted, referring to delivery of affordable home in the year to 31st march 2020, “Of these, 6,566 were for social rent – the most affordable tenure – up 4% on the 6,338 completed in the previous year but still the third lowest on record.” Against a need for new homes, estimated by the Government’s own website Gov.uk, at 300,000 per year. And, as ITN says, “The number of homes for rent from councils or housing associations in the UK has been decreasing from a peak of around seven million in the early 1980s, to just under five million in 2014.”
So, when there are far more people in need of acceptable-standard housing than homes available, people in substandard private-rented homes have little option to move to somewhere better- and councils/housing associations have little option to move tenants to sound homes, while substantial repairs are carried out.
Clarion (a housing association in one case reported by ITN)“told ITV News overcrowding is the major reason for the mould in Sherri’s house and blames a housing crisis, caused by a lack of affordable homes to rent, for being unable to rehome the family “.(ITN)
Tenants are trapped in squalid homes, as the only other choices are unaffordable private-sector homes- or the street. It’s the perfect storm, for people on low incomes.
In #6 Austerity, a choice, not a necessity we looked at how a false pretence, that the UK’s budget was overspent, so cuts in spending had to be made, was imposed on the UK society and economy, from 2010 onwards. False, because the UK has its own sovereign currency and central bank, so can never have “financial constraints”, in pounds sterling. £ sterling, its own currency, which it has the legal and moral duty to issue as required for the benefit of the country. Instead, we were assured that spending was way in excess of receipts from taxation, and “borrowing” (smoke and mirrors) had to be kept in check. So, belts had to be tightened.
So what was the effect on local authority budgets? Councils do not, (unlike a UK government) have the power to issue money at the point of spending. Their only income is, mainly,in two parts, revenue from Council Tax, and the government support grant (for most councils, Council Tax is nowhere near enough to cover providing the services they are legally obliged to provide adequately. So they are allocated a sum from government funds).
From 2010 onwards, austerity policy meant a large and sustained cut in local authority support grants . Councils were, in plain language, strapped for cash. Hardly surprising, therefore, that they restricted the money available for repairs, let alone improvements, such as better insulation for older homes. And many suspect that Conservative governments have a natural disregard, even contempt, for social housing tenants, whom they tend to characterise as “scroungers”-( or worse, “immigrant scroungers”). People on low incomes, gig-economy contracts, under-employed people, public service workers whose wages have been kept way below inflation by government decree for years, disabled people, etc, are implied to be too feckless, or not aspirational enough, to make the effort to buy their own homes. Despite the cost of their own home having ballooned to insane, unrealistic levels.
So, there it is. The causes of damp & mould in people’s rented homes, and why the chances of anything much being done about it are very slim. Government, the only body capable of making a real change (because of their financial & policy powers, if they chose to) are solidly in denial, as this ITN quote makes clear. “We put our findings to the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick, who denied the rising number of substandard council homes was down to cuts to council budgets and a fall in social housing under successive Conservative governments.”