No laughing matter

OonaKing4x3 (1)Oona King on the impact of decent housing on children’s development

When I was first elected, I was inundated with pamphlets and reports from my constituency and beyond. But one that grabbed my attention was called I mustn’t laugh too much. I like to laugh, so I wanted to understand why anyone would impose such po-faced advice. As I read the report, I discovered that the title was based on the words of a doctor to a young woman in a cold, damp and overcrowded flat at the top of a tower block in Stepney.

The report detailed the housing conditions that the family was living in. Despite the heating being on constantly, everyone suffered from the cold in the winter and frequently fell ill. There was severe damp which produced black mould and the windows were always dripping wet. The three eldest children had asthma and used inhalers. The doctor warned the family that asthma attacks can be precipitated by fits of laughing - hence the advice.

The intense and grinding daily impact of living in such conditions was really brought home to me by this report. Surveys of a hundred families on the Ocean and Limehouse Fields estates in Tower Hamlets calculated the number of days lost from work or school through sickness. It painted a vivid picture of how bad housing affected the health, education and well-being of children, undermining their life chances. It proved the central importance of decent, secure and affordable housing in ending child poverty.

In the years that followed (1999-2005), the Bothnia, Malacca and Tunis blocks in which the young woman and her neighbours lived were demolished and replaced by excellent, family-sized social housing – the kind of homes Nye Bevan would have been proud of. And a few years later, I received a follow-up report that showed how the “health gain” of those families who had moved into these new homes was already dramatic and that the children were doing much better in school.

It took the last Labour government too long to rediscover the importance of social housing. But rediscover it they did – especially after the 2004 Spending Review – so that almost 50,000 new social homes were completed in 2010/11 alone. Tragically, funding for new social housing was slashed by two-thirds by the Coalition in 2010.  The disastrous economic impact of that decision is now recognised, even by ministers. But they continue to sweep the human impact under the carpet.

The anti-poverty charity, Zacchaeus 2000, tells us that two million children are still growing up in cold, damp or overcrowded homes today. The difference now is that many of those families are forced to rent privately. Lots of my own children’s schoolmates are in such conditions. Bad housing is already having an impact on their development. And when they go on to secondary school, the overcrowding at home will make it almost impossible to get a decent night’s sleep, or find a quiet space to study.  

Our country urgently needs more new homes and I am delighted Ed Miliband has promised the next Labour government will deliver 200,000 a year. It will require extra investment as well as policy changes, such as truly freeing up councils to build again, reducing Right to Buy discounts and regulating private landlords. But it is clear from the pledges to scrap the ‘bedroom tax’ and tackle developers’ ‘land-banking’ that new housing is a big priority for Ed and that he is prepared to be radical to deliver it.  

If we can build the homes our children need, perhaps doctors won’t ask them not to laugh too much!

Baroness Oona King of Bow is a backbench Labour Peer, and former MP for Bethnal Green and Bow 

Published 9th October 2013

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