Housing and place play a key role in people’s health

4 June 2019

By Kate Henderson

As we get closer to the launch of our latest health report, Beyond the NHS: Addressing the root cause of poor health, Kate Henderson, Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation, shows how housing affects health and wellbeing.

Where we live plays a huge role in our health, and strong local partnerships are key to making sure our homes and communities have a positive impact on our wellbeing. This is common sense, and the forthcoming report by Centre for Progressive Policy (CPP) highlights the value and importance of tackling the root causes of poor health.

Good quality affordable homes, like those built and managed by housing associations and local authorities, prevent ill health by keeping us safe, warm and dry, by ensuring there’s enough space for everyone, by offering access to green space, and by providing tenancy support which helps people to manage. The contribution that housing makes is about the quality of individual homes, but it is also about the design of whole communities, and the role of supported housing for people with particular needs.

The housing association sector has a proud history of providing specialist and supported housing that improves the health and wellbeing of people with particular needs. Housing associations deliver a range of different homes with integrated support services including for people fleeing domestic abuse, people with learning disabilities, people with mental health difficulties, people who have been homeless, and older people.

I really enjoyed recently visiting Arlington in London, for example, where One Housing Group not only provides housing for homeless people, but also delivers training and support for people to secure a more stable future following family breakdown, drug and alcohol problems, and helps them rebuild their physical and mental health.

In our submission to the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review, we’ll be urging the Government to do everything it can to ensure that adequate funding is available for the services that are essential to delivering specialist and supported housing. The services that ensure people get the help they need to live well in their homes. For too long, cuts to local authority budgets have squeezed funding for support services, and put councils in the impossible position of having to choose who most deserves the limited funding at their disposal.

This investment is the right thing to do to ensure that people who are in crisis, or people who need homes that allow them to live independent lives, are supported. But we also need to be clear that investing in this kind of housing means people are less likely to end up in care services unnecessarily, struggle to stay in work, or frequently visit A&E – for which there is a greater cost to the taxpayer.

As a systemic approach to health, the Healthy New Towns programme proposes a community-centred, whole-place way of developing and regenerating towns. This is being tested in areas as diverse as Darlington, Hampshire, Halton Lea and Ebbsfleet, with a focus on tackling childhood obesity, improving life expectancy or supporting people with dementia - all through a holistic approach to planning and a more inclusive approach to thinking about the design of new homes. It is particularly interesting that this work has been pioneered by NHS England with its national partners, in acknowledgement of the key role that housing and place play in determining people’s health.

Strikingly, CPP tells us that health is the fundamental economic asset, and that lives are being significantly shortened by socioeconomic inequality. The Great Places Commission, supported by the National Housing Federation, has thrown a spotlight on communities that are thriving despite previous social and economic decline. The commission points to the importance of shared vision for delivery between housing associations and other local anchor institutions when it comes to driving improved health and economic outcomes.

CPP is right to highlight the challenge posed to addressing determinants of health by the complex web of health institutions that operate in any given place. But we know that where housing associations are able to strike a relationship with an NHS Trust, this can lead to great things for older people needing a more efficient and human system for being discharged from hospital, for example.

In fact, the more I have seen of the impact that housing and places have on people’s health and wellbeing, the clearer it seems that trusted partnerships are critical to maximising the potential benefit to individuals’ health, to community wellbeing and to the public purse.

Kate Henderson is the Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation. More information about the housing offer to health on the Federation’s webpages.