1. Governance
November 13, 2015updated 29 Jul 2021 10:12am

Can better housing policy improve physical health and mental wellbeing too?

By Kate Bermingham

The concept of using government policy to improve the wellbeing of a country’s citizens may sound like a radical idea to those on the right. But if we return to basic principles, and ask ourselves what a government is actually for, then it seems absurd for it to take any action that is not designed to improve the wellbeing of its citizens.

The idea of evaluating government policies using wellbeing metrics – as opposed to using GDP, or other purely financial ”cost-benefit” analyses – has been around for a while. As the former Cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell argued to the Wellbeing Economics all party parliamentary group last year, doing so is an “obvious and natural” way to improve the policy-making process.

The Office for National Statistics began measuring wellbeing in 2010. In the same year, David Cameron delivered a speech on the importance of wellbeing metrics and the short-comings of GDP.

Four years later, the Legatum Institute’s ”Wellbeing and Policy” report recommended that the government’s overriding objective when designing policy ought to be maximising the wellbeing of its citizens. The report’s writers included Lord O’Donnell, Nobel Prize for Economics winner Professor Angus Deaton and a selection of other world class economists.

It is generally agreed that the shortage of housing stock in the UK is exacerbating social and economic problems. Limited supply of housing has driven prices to eye-watering heights, particularly in urban areas.

The combined value of British homes has sky-rocketed from £1.4trn to £5.8trn over the past decade. Average rents in the UK now exceed £900 per month, and thousands of tenants have contacted housing charity Shelter, reporting dreadful treatment from their landlords.

In London, the cost of housing is pricing talented graduates out of jobs in key industries. The housing shortage has left many workers with no choice but to rent or buy outside the M25 and face a long and expensive commute to work each day.

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Meanwhile Public Health England, the NHS, health charities and other “wellbeing stakeholders” are working hard to encourage individuals to adopt lifestyle changes to address public health issues such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, alcohol addiction and mental health conditions.

To do this, they’ve put forward a wide range of recommendations: exercising several times a week, getting seven hours sleep each night, reducing alcohol intake, eating five portions of fruit and vegetables, managing stress through practices such as yoga and meditation, spending time with family, volunteering in your community, and so on.

But while many workers are commuting for several hours each day, and paying thousands of pounds in annual transport costs to do so, it is a real challenge to find the time or the money to make the lifestyle changes that could improve their health, wellbeing and productivity.

Is it possible to use housing policy to address these issues? Shorter commutes could give people more time to exercise, cook healthy food, get enough sleep and spend time with their friends and family. So could increasing the supply of reasonably-priced housing really improve our wellbeing?

It’s not impossible: Paul Dolan, a professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics (LSE), says the link between the housing crisis and poor wellbeing is “pretty well-established”.

After all, the housing shortage places stress on individuals and families on a number of levels. Shelter has published research on the far-reaching consequences of the crisis. It found that couples are having children much later than they’d like; while divorcing or separating couples are increasingly forced to continue to live together as no affordable housing is available.

Meanwhile, young professionals are unable to accept promising jobs in expensive parts of the country, and adult children are unable to support their aging and frail parents as they cannot afford to live nearby.

Increasing housing and commuting costs, in an economy when wages are either frozen or growing very slowly, is dragging more families and individuals into poverty, too. That can have long-lasting effects on brain function, particularly among children, increasing the chance that they’ll develop a mental health condition as an adult.

So it’s pretty clear that high housing costs are bad for wellbeing; bringing them down will almost certainly require building more homes, and in more convenient places.

To that end, LSE’s Paul Dolan agrees that building on the green belt, to increase housing supply and cut commuting times, is “part of the solution”. His colleague Lord Richard Layard, the director of the wellbeing programme at the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance, agrees: “If we allowed building on 10% of the green belt, we could largely solve the housing shortage.” 

Increasing the supply of decent housing cannot magically make Britain feel good about itself. But it could do much to reduce stress levels amongst the large number of people who cannot find somewhere suitable and affordable to live. Surely that would improve national wellbeing at a stroke.

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