News Roundup [abridged Versions Appear In The Paper Journal]

Poor housing continues to adversely affect heath of vulnerable groups

BMJ 2003; 326 doi: (Published 10 May 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;326:1003
  1. Susan Mayor
  1. London

    Poor housing continues to adversely affect the health of some of the most vulnerable groups of people living in England, warned a report published this week by the BMA.

    The report examined available evidence in relation to health and housing. It found that children living in bed and breakfast accommodation (temporary housing, often with relatively poor cooking and washing facilities) were at increased risk of behavioural problems, stress, poor sleep, infections, and gastrointestinal problems.

    The health of the many elderly people who live alone in old, damp, and cold homes was also at risk, said the report. The authors suggested that the health of some of the most vulnerable groups in society was being adversely affected by living in damp, cold, overcrowded homes, often in socially excluded areas.

    On the basis of the findings, the report suggested ways that the government could change its housing policy to reduce adverse effects on health. The BMA has called on the government to create a healthy housing taskforce to address this complex issue. This taskforce would report to ministers responsible for housing and health and would re-establish the strong link that had previously existed between health professionals and those concerned with housing policy and practice. It would provide expert advice on the likely effects of planning policies, constitute a forum for debating all aspects of housing and health, and develop and maintain minimum housing standards required for health. The report argued that improving housing could offer a cost effective approach to improving health: “Provision of a reasonable standard of accommodation for all will have health benefits for the most disadvantaged in society; in the long term it may even lower health care costs.”

    Dr Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics with the BMA, said: “Recognition of the link between poor housing and ill health started in the 1800s, so it is appalling that in the 21st century we are still raising concerns about this issue.”

    She added: “Poor housing can cause psychological and physical health problems, and the best way to reduce health inequalities in this country is to improve living standards. We are worried about children growing up in overcrowded, substandard bed and breakfast accommodation and about the elderly living alone in poor housing conditions.”

    The report was developed by the board of science and education, a standing committee of the BMA that provides an interface between the medical profession, the government, and the public. It was written in response to a resolution at the 2000 annual representative meeting of the BMA to “produce a report on housing and health to set the minimum health requirements for housing.”

    The BMA pointed out that housing policy needed to reflect the fact that owner occupation was no longer a domain of the middle classes but included many poorer people. It considered that mortgage arrears and repossession of houses during difficult financial periods should be recognised as a major potential public health issue.

    The report noted that more than 75 000 households lost their properties during 1991, at the height of the recession. By 1997, even though the market had begun to recover, more than one million people had lost their homes.

    Housing and Health: Building for the Future is available at

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