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To Eat or Heat: Life in the Private Rented Sector at a Time of Austerity

November 21, 2012

The following is taken from the UK Housing Professionals Forums blog by Dr Stephen Battersby. To read more blogs or to take part in our Expert Q&A, join the forum here.

A report published by the Pro Housing Alliance on Friday came up with a gloomy picture of life for those living in the PRS and dependent on state support, many of whom are in work (see prohousingalliance.com).

The findings were reinforced by the story in the Guardian on 19th November reporting on how the diets of those on low incomes are deteriorating because of austerity. All in this together – I think not. Cuts have a disproportionate effect on the health of those towards the bottom of the social gradient. These are challenging times for local councils and the environmental health, public health and housing professionals, but they have to rise to the challenge if ever increasing health inequity is not to become the defining legacy of the current economic policy.

Local councils need to readjust priorities and to take a new approach to dealing with the PRS. The old ways are just not good enough.

Welfare reforms are already having a detrimental effect on the health and well being of private tenants, and the worst is yet to come. Many have no choice but to remain living in cold and unsafe housing fearing complaints may lead to eviction or higher rents. So EHPs must take the initiative and have a strategy for finding and dealing with the poorest conditions without putting the tenants further at risk. It can be done if there is the will.

The lack of security in the PRS is a real concern and these feelings are heightened which, combined with trying to live on a small budget, contribute to increased levels of stress and anxiety. They feel increasingly isolated from the world. Debt damages relationships with families and friends and they cannot afford to socialise. They lack confidence to find work and for those with a job, it is difficult to concentrate at work. This is a national issue, not limited to London.

Staying in the same home means meeting the shortfall in rent from other sources, for example from other benefits, and reducing expenditure on food and fuel. For single under-35s sharing may affect their own health as well as that of those sharing with them – so we will have increasing multi-occupation.

Poor housing conditions are estimated to cost the NHS at least £600m a year and society as whole £1.5bn a year so it costs us all. The PHA research found visits to the GP are more frequent. GP involvement in supporting welfare claims has increased. Demand for health services is increasing.

Advice agencies are ‘drowning’ under the demand arising from reforms, particularly the Employment and Support Allowance, leaving no capacity to respond to other matters. Yet enquiries about insecurity in the PRS to the CAB have risen by 167% over the last four years. So how are EHPs working with Citizens Advice and other agencies to reach those most vulnerable? Just how are EHPs working these agencies to develop effective strategies and manage complaints, when these are unlikely to be from those most at risk? Just how are EHPs using the tools available to work with the better private landlords and squeeze the others out of the market?