Report highlights health impacts of cold homes

woman turning on radiator
Image © Shutterstock

New analysis from the UCL Institute of Health Equity (IHE) has found that 9.6m UK households are living in heat-leaking, poorly insulated homes.

Led by the UCL IHE, on behalf of Friends of the Earth, the report Left out in the cold: the hidden health costs of Britain’s cold homes says that a “lack of meaningful action to tackle Britain’s cold homes over the last decade has only intensified existing inequalities and the level of harm being felt across the country”.

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 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 that 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, 1 in 4 (28%) 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.

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, andcan’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 £15bn per year. When carbon costs are accounted for, this rises to £18bn. 

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.

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 £74.5bn. 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 aren’t passed onto tenants as higher rents.

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