Nearly half of Britons are living in sub-quality housing, and other stories

The good old days: London slums, 1901. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

Britain's last Labour government has often been criticised for the failure of its housing policies – and in terms of ensuring this country was building enough homes, it undeniably did drop the ball.

But it's not quite true to say it had no housing policy whatsoever: it's simply that it was focused on quality, not quantity. Its flagship housing programme was the 2001 pledge to ensure that all social housing met its "decent homes standard" – decent kitchens, bathrooms, generally not falling to bits – by 2010. To meet this goal, it spent billions – more than £37bn, at the last count – on improving public and quasi-public housing. Private housing, it was assumed would look after itself.

Today, housing charity Shelter has published a major report laying out its Living Home Standard – a sort of housing equivalent of the living wage, which defines the quality of home you should look for if you want a half-decent quality of life. Its headline finding is that 43 per cent of Britain's population are living in sub-quality homes, which serves to bring home two big points:

1) The Labour government was right to think that quality mattered as much as quantity;

2) It was wrong to assume that private landlords would automatically ensure that their property was in a good state just because they owned it.

To compile the report, Shelter commissioned pollster Ipsos MORI to survey the public on what they imagined to be an acceptable standard for a home. They used five criteria: affordability, decent conditions, stability, space and neighbourhood.

Click to expand.

Some of these criteria are arguably begging the question slightly. We know that housing is expensive at the moment – that is, if not the entire problem, then a bloody big element of it. We probably shouldn't be surprised, then, that if you judge “decent” housing based on its price, a significant minority of people (27 per cent, in fact) won’t meet your criteria.

If anything, in fact, that sounds low. My suspicion is that it'd be much higher, were it not that most people living in overpriced housing are owner-occupiers, so get to enjoy the capital appreciation rather than freaking out about rising rents.

Similarly, the private-rented sector has ballooned over the last two decades, and tenancies tend to be short term – so, if you view unstable housing as a problem, them a lot of people will be suffering from that, too. Some 10 per cent of people live in homes that fail on stability criteria.

None of this, however, makes the findings any less worrying. Nor, come to that, does the fact that the people most likely to be living in poor quality homes are exactly the ones you think they are. It's twice as common among the 25-34 age group (58 per cent) as it is among pensioners (27 per cent). It affects relatively few people who own outright (20 percent), rather more who own with a mortgage (38 per cent) – and vast numbers of those who live in the private rented sector (69 per cent), which suggests that 20 years of policies that encouraged buy-to-let landlords into an under-regulated market might not have been such a good idea after all.

Oh, and when you break the results down geographically, the situation is obviously far worse in London, where 73 per cent of people live in sub-quality housing, than it is anywhere else.

Click to expand.

One result that is surprising: the proportion of poor quality homes in the private rented sector (69 per cent) isn't really much worse than the proportion rented from local authorities (68 per cent) or housing associations (66 per cent). Which suggests that, six years after Labour left government, those Decent Homes aren't looking so decent any more.

Building a load more housing will address some of these concerns – on affordability, security, and, perhaps, by relieving over-crowding, space. But it won't magically improve the condition of homes that already exist. If we're ever going to solve this crisis we need to invest in both quality and quantity.

Here’s one more infographic that Shelter produced to promote the report. Don't eat it all at once.

Click to expand.


Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”