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Homes, Places and the Peckham Experiment

Last year I interviewed Lord Nigel Crisp about housing and its impact on our individual and collective health, and how the scale of this impact is driving his support for the Healthy Homes Bill. The bill and conversations around it have generated enough support to get it passed in the House of Lords, and it’s now being steered through the Commons as an amendment to the Levelling Up Bill.

Earlier this month I attended an event hosted by the TCPA which has been the driving force behind the bill’s creation and design. A key ask from its CEO was to show support for the bill by writing to your MP about its importance to our health, the NHS, housing development and planning in our communities.

If you’re looking for evidence to support an email to your MP, you’re in luck. There’s plenty of it about but two things came into my radar last week which will do the job nicely. They also illustrate how the social determinants of health can, and must, be spotlighted as we debate the future of both the NHS and housing policy, two of the key challenges facing all of us moving forward to the next election.

The first thing I discovered in the last week was new evidence on the costs of poor housing to our health.

The BRE Group has published a report on the cost of poor housing in England in which it estimates direct costs to the NHS at £1 billion/year.

It comes up with this amount through a deeply forensic analysis linking several categories of housing hazards defined by the government’s Housing Health and Safety Rating System with

publicly available NHS treatment cost data. “If all hazards were mitigated now,” it points out, “the payback to the NHS would be realised in around 7 years”.

The report breaks housing down into owner-occupied, private rented and social rented categories, and concludes that its analysis demonstrates the critical importance of housing to health and wellbeing. It further shows that small investment costs can result in considerable reductions in the most serious health and safety hazards, as well as generating savings to the NHS.

The second thing I discovered was a piece of local history, giving evidence to the art of the possible. This is a story about a community-based initiative focused on improving the social determinants of health called the Peckham Experiment, which ran from 1926 – 1950 in Peckham, south London.

The Peckham Experiment was an investigation into the nature of health. Operating from the Pioneer Health Centre, a purpose-built facility for community activities, doctors observed families interacting in a social setting. The Experiment concluded that health is more than just an absence of disease, and identified the crucial role played by the environment in promoting health.

According to the Pioneer Health Foundation, which continues to promote the legacy of the Experiment and its vision of community-driven health, several important conclusions were drawn:

  • Health is a process that has to be cultivated if it is to thrive.

  • If people are given information about themselves and their families they will attempt to make decisions that are in the best interests of their families.

  • People thrive when they are given the freedom to make choices about their activities and will choose those that help in their development.

  • When people are given resources in a community to enable them to grow they will be active in their community for the benefit of that community.

The importance of local places and spaces in promoting and supporting residents’ health and wellbeing was powerfully demonstrated through the project. Lisa Curtice of the Pioneer Health Foundation, reflects on how multiple generations cooperated in designing programmes that brought widespread benefit:

“It demonstrated that, given the right conditions, a community can cultivate the habit of self organising. The development of children through what we might now call ‘free play’ was central to the Peckham Experiment and a school grew out of its multigenerational environment at the request of parents. In the Peckham Experiment children roller skated on the roof and swung freely in the gym.”

As the NHS marks its 75th birthday with a renewed focus on preventative and community-based health, we could do with a revived approach to the Peckham Experiment in all our communities. The availability of robust data and analyses from organisations like the BRE Group and others linking health factors with the characteristics of places and spaces means that new approaches can be designed, measured, evaluated and adjusted to benefit individuals and communities.

Tell that to your MP as they consider improving the development of homes, places and spaces through the Levelling Up Bill.

Clare Delmar

Listen to Locals

July 16, 2023


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