THE lack of meaningful action to tackle Britain’s cold homes over the last decade has only intensified existing inequalities. The level of harm being felt by many millions of households across the country is now at the point of crisis, according to a new review examining the health impacts of cold homes.

The failure to upgrade the UK’s energy inefficient housing stock, alongside years of wage stagnation, soaring energy prices, exorbitant living costs and unaffordable housing, has left the hope of a warm and healthy home out of reach for too many.

Produced as a follow-up to a seminal 2011 report, the new analysis finds a staggering 9.6 million UK households are currently living in poorly insulated homes with incomes below the minimum level at which an acceptable standard of living is affordable. This means that finding enough money to pay for decent housing, enough heating and the basic essentials of life will be out of reach for most – at stark detriment to their health and wellbeing.

Led by the UCL Institute of Health Equity (IHE), on behalf of Friends of the Earth, the new report, Left out in the cold: the hidden health costs of Britain’s cold homes comes just weeks after the Labour Party back-pedalled on its spending commitment to tackle the cold homes crisis if voted in at the next election. The current government’s spending pledge falls even further short of the urgent investment needed to address the scale of the problem.

Professor Sir Michael Marmot, IHE’s Director, said: “That there are millions, in a rich country like ours, living in cold homes is a national disgrace. One third of all households in the UK, 9.6 million, can’t afford a decent standard of living and are in poorly insulated homes. Cold homes are a public health hazard: those living in them have much higher risk of developing poor physical and mental health and this is adding burden[s] onto an already overstretched NHS, and contributing to poor productivity. We need urgent action to address poverty, the cost of fuel and to insulate the homes of the poorest, not just because the government has a moral duty to look after the health of its population, but also, frankly, because it makes economic sense too.”

According to the latest research, adults who experience prolonged cold temperatures at home double their risk of developing new mental health conditions, while the risk of exacerbating existing mental health issues triples. Meanwhile, an alarming one in four (28 per cent) children that live in cold homes are at risk of multiple mental health symptoms, such as anxiety and depression. Physical discomfort from the cold, financial stress, social isolation and loneliness are all thought to contribute to declining mental health.

Cold homes are also associated with negative health outcomes more widely, including heightened risk of heart attacks, impairment in children’s lung and brain development, and respiratory problems, which can be exacerbated by damp and mould.

Nicki Myers lives in Cambridge. She is a palliative care patient and disabled rights activist who is bedbound due to Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a genetic condition that affects the connective tissue, and pulmonary fibrosis which causes scarring and thickening of lung tissue. She said: “I’m in fuel debt, but when I tried to limit my energy use last winter I got hypothermia twice, so I don’t have any option but to heat my bedroom constantly in the winter.

“Lots of councils have installed access equipment to reduce the number of care hours they provide, but many disabled people can’t afford to use it anymore because it’s too expensive to run. What’s more, no funding is provided to heat the rooms that domiciliary care staff need to use.

“There are so many sick and disabled people struggling to survive winters and heatwaves in the UK because of extortionate energy bills and not enough income. The final cost of living payments are being paid this month – I do not know what disabled people will do without them. I have no doubt that some of us will join the thousands who die every year from living in a cold home.”

At least one in five people out of work because of ill health are living in cold homes. The impacts on children are also significant. It is estimated that 1.7 million school days are missed across Europe each year due to illnesses associated with damp and mould, with rates among UK children 80 per cent higher than the European average, at detriment to their long-term prospects and educational outcomes.

Professor Ian Sinha is a paediatric lung consultant at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool. He said: “Whatever the outcome in children – health, education, or emotional wellbeing – cold and substandard homes are toxic risk factors. Childhood is a time when the foundations of a person’s body are laid down, and that is what they are left with for the rest of their life.

“Babies in cold homes do not spend their calories on developing lung tissue, neural pathways, and other crucial physiological drivers of health – rather, they spend their calories trying not to die of hypothermia and hypoglycaemia.

“In our clean air clinic we have spent the winter hearing about children who can see their breath in front of them, and can’t sleep because of how cold their rooms are. The answer does not lie in families tinkering around the edges – it requires politicians at the highest level to recognise that the housing arena in the UK is an absolute shambles, the cost of heating is a cruel blow for families trying to get by, and to hold their hands up to say that yet again, we have let children down.”

Through costs incurred to the NHS, mental health services, care costs and the lost economic contributions of those who develop illness associated with cold homes, researchers estimate cold homes are costing the UK economy tens of billions of pounds per year.

This builds on earlier work by the Building Research Establishment (BRE) Group, which identified that just a fraction of the country’s coldest homes is costing society £15 billion per year. When carbon costs are accounted for (effectively how much carbon emissions from cold homes are costing society through climate and environmental damage), this rises to £18 billion.

Building on the work of BRE, and adding carbon costs, IHE estimates that the cost of cold homes to society is at least 18 billion but that this is likely to be a significant underestimate given that BRE only costed the impact of the worst 720, 000 cold homes.

The UK has the oldest and least efficient housing stock in Europe. Since 2013, installation rates of energy saving measures and insulation have plummeted by 90 per cent. Investment to upgrade UK homes would therefore go some way to alleviating the high number of people experiencing cold-related hardship, while also saving the economy billions each year in avoided health, climate, and economic productivity costs. This investment is also essential for meeting legally-binding carbon reduction targets and international climate commitments.

Mike Childs, head of science, research and policy at Friends of the Earth, said: “There’s no getting away from the enormity of the cold homes crisis and the impact it’s having on millions of lives. This hard-hitting report should spur all political parties into action as we head towards the general election – both the Conservatives and Labour have gone backwards over recent months on this critical issue. Given the sheer scale of the problem, we need to see transformative levels of investment and action, to stem the huge social and economic costs of cold homes and ensure our internationally agreed climate targets are met.”

The disproportionate impacts faced by marginalised and vulnerable communities, including those with pre-existing health conditions, people of colour, older people, young children and those on low incomes, requires targeted action to ensure they are adequately protected from harm.

Researchers at The UCL Institute of Health Equity have calculated that a national scheme to insulate low-income UK homes to a suitable standard (Energy Performance Certificate grade C), would cost in the region of £74.5 billion. Using regulations to ensure landlords upgrade heat-leaking homes to a suitable standard would mean that not all of this has to come from the public purse, although tax incentives would ensure costs are not passed onto tenants as higher rents.

Spread over ten years, the total cost is likely to be broadly aligned to the £6 billion a year spending commitment originally proposed by Labour as part of its Warm Homes Plan – now just a fraction of what was first promised – with which Friends of the Earth and The UCL Institute of Health Equity are urging all political parties to align.

Such a scheme should be part of a range of measures designed to eliminate cold homes, including higher wages, financial support for those on low incomes so they can afford to pay for heating, and a national drive to build more social homes in order to reduce housing costs and improve standards.

* Read: Left out in the cold: the hidden health costs of Britain’s cold homes here.

* Source: Institute of Health Equity