Lagging Behind

The thousands of extra deaths each winter are just one symptom of a massive national housing crisis

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 24th December 1996.

It’s hard somehow quite to believe the adverts which appear every Christmas, as regular as fairy lights, asking for money to help pensioners faced with the hideous choice of eating or heating. Not only does the timing rouse suspicions of a cynical appeal to seasonal goodwill, but, in the midst of our plenty, the words and images seem to come from another age. Can people, in this superheated nation, really have been left so far out in the cold? But ask any doctor, and you’ll discover that, far from exaggerating, the appeals only hint at the size of the problem.

Whenever a cold snap like this one is forecast, hospitals clear their wards in anticipation of the rush. When temperatures in Scotland fell to -18C over Christmas last year, there was a massive rise in admissions. Every year in Britain, around 30,000 more people die in the winter than in the summer. Most of the victims are either elderly or very young. Low temperatures make the blood thicken, increasing the chances of a heart attack. Coughs and colds can turn into pneumonia. But these, in truth, are just symptoms; the underlying cause is an even more noxious disease: a seasoned and ingenious government filibuster.

Though some researchers still blame long queues at the bus stop, the balance of evidence suggests that the main problem is cold homes. It’s not so much that people can’t afford to heat them (though many can’t); millions cannot afford to keep the precious warmth from pouring straight through the roof or the window.

There has never been much doubt that British homes are poorly insulated, but, until last month, no one could have guessed just how desperate the situation is. On November 28th, a mere five years after it was compiled, the Department of the Environment published the Energy Report from its 1991 House Condition Survey. There’s little mystery about why it was suppressed until two days after the 1996 Budget.

Four hundred pages long, meticulous and comprehensive, the report’s conclusions are chilling. When outside temperatures fall to a relatively cosy three degrees above freezing, 50 per cent of all households can no longer maintain minimum acceptable heating standards. Only five per cent of English homes are energy efficient, and one in five is beyond salvation. Pensioners’ homes are in the worst state of all: the elderly pay proportionately more for heating and have colder houses than the rest of us. Typically, the homes that need the most attention are receiving the least. Private rented accomodation is in such a poor state that, were landlords to be forced to sort the problem out, many of them would simply withdraw from the market. The deficiency has been pushed under the carpet for so long that to bring the housing stock up to standard in England alone would now cost £80 billion.

The human and financial costs of ignoring this crisis are far greater. The 30,000 who will die of neglect this winter are just a fraction of those who will either shiver through a miserable Christmas at home or fill up the desperately overstretched hospitals. Poor insulation is one of the reasons why, despite the growth in traffic and the feeble targets set for industry, domestic energy consumption is still responsible for 30% of our carbon dioxide emissions. Burst domestic mains and radiators cost Scottish local authorities £250m after last year’s freeze.

The government seems to accept that the market can’t deal with this problem. It spends £72 million a year on insulation grants for households with means-tested benefits, which should get us back on track in just over 1000 years. Until this year, the ‘fossil fuel levy’, extracting an annual £1 billion from consumers, provided the best chance we’ve had of sorting this mess out, but the government decided it would be better spent on propping up the nuclear industry. Now that this is no longer a national priority, most of the money has been given back to consumers as a £50 bonanza: not, perhaps, the most progressive or lasting way in which to redistribute a nation’s assets. VAT on fuel, stingy and punitive as it is, could still be turned to good account.

But, as the energy specialist Dr Brenda Boardman points out, no one is better placed to line the nation’s lofts than the energy regulators. James McKinnon, the last gas regulator, insisted that British Gas invest directly in energy efficiency measures, principally because of his concern about the depletion of North Sea reserves. Clare Spottiswood, his successor, sagely decided not to encumber free enterprise with such impediments. The electricity regulator still wants £100m to be spent over four years, but most domestic heating systems are now fired by gas.

Instead, however, both regulators and ministers don’t so much lag behind the problem of home insulation, as ensure that we scarcely lag at all. In April, the Housing Minister, David Curry, was asked when the energy report would be released. He promised it would be coming out in the summer. It’s not hard to see why the promise was broken. Despite pledges to provide for those in greatest need, the government has been cutting the housing maintenance money it gives local authorities since 1991, the year the energy report was collated. On November 26, it deprived them of a further £250 million. The Department of the Environment must have been pleased to see that its careful timing paid off: the report’s release received no publicity whatsoever.

I know that John Gummer’s Christian devotions seem to have little to do with the policies his department pursues, but this surly endgame is surely one of his most diabolical devices. Better than anyone else, he knows that millions of British homes are hardly fit for asses, let alone babes in the manger or venerable wisemen. For the old, the very young and the vulnerable this Christmas, the best of all presents would be a government department that responded to its own reports.