22 Apr

Back to normal? How to build a better Britain – what we can learn from the Germans

Recent press reports show Germany has been much better than the UK in dealing with the Covid –19 virus. From more testing to better outcomes – fewer deaths – Germany beats the UK hands down. This does not surprise me. I spent last year living in Germany with a Churchill Fellowship looking at how the German private rented sector (PRS) works and I found that Germany provides better, more affordable housing for its residents too. There are interesting parallels in housing and healthcare from both countries that we can learn from.

For example, take Covid-19:

  • Germany has been carrying out 500k tests a week since early April. In contrast the UK struggled to meet even 10k of its 100k a day target for most of April.
  • Testing is widely available in Germany whereas it has been restricted to the very sick in the UK until recently – because of a shortage of testing facilities.
  • Testing is rigorously followed up with track and tracing to contain infections.
  • The outcomes are clear – Germany recorded less than 6k Covid-19 related deaths last week – compared to the shocking figures of over 25k in England and Wales.

Testing and tracing have been a widely acknowledged as key factors in containing the pandemic and saving lives. Until mid March both countries had similar numbers of cases and approaches. The difference is Germany continued with a rigorous testing, tracking and containment policy when the UK abandoned this because of a shortage of testing facilities.

The main reasons Germany does more testing are it responded earlier and delivers effective testing through its larger and more decentralised structure of laboratories and local government.

Since February between 200- 300 laboratories in the public and private sectors have been carrying out testing throughout Germany. This was led by the Robert Koch Institute and overseen by the 16 federal states (Lander). Compare this to the UK where testing was centrally driven by Public Health England who failed to draw on offers of help from laboratories in other institutions at a crucial stage. In its defence, public health’s ability to cope has been hampered by cuts and reorganisations in recent years. Whereas the German system is more stable, better organised and resourced.

It’s a similar story with Germany’s better record in building new homes:

  • Germany builds twice as many homes as the UK. Since the 1950s 30 million new homes have been
 built across East and West Germany, compared to 16 million in the UK.
  • Germany’s planning, land assembly and political systems support home building better than we do – less delays, land banking and nimbyism – more delivery
  • Crucially, just as there are more labs in Germany – there are also more building firms and developers – eg 1,200 regionally based housebuilders are active in 7 major cities. This compares to the handful of national housebuilding companies in the UK who dominate the market and have an interest in keeping supply low and profits high.

Finally, German local authorities have more autonomy and are better resourced than UK local authorities who have suffered funding cuts of 50%+ over the past 10 years. So they fund and build more affordable homes.

That’s why one of the recommendations in my report is to give local authorities increased powers and funding to enable them to build more housing and influence and regulate the private sector housing in their areas.

It’s not just in building more housing that Germany beats us – they also provide more affordable housing and better support to tenants and landlords – more information on this available in my report on this website https://www.morehousing.co.uk.

In both health and housing there is much to learn from a society that has strong local government and a plurality of local partners who are supported in a relatively stable, fair, well-resourced and regulated system.

When we have beaten the Covid-19 virus we will have huge challenges to face. There could be huge opportunities too, and a desire for change.

Most economic and social changes occur after times of war and crisis. After 1945 Britain introduced massive changes, such as the NHS and welfare system. After the 1st World War the Government introduced the Wheatley Act, which led to extensive council house building programmes. Changes we have reason to be grateful for today.

It’s good to see London’s Deputy Mayor Tom Copley convening a housing task force to tackle the challenges Covid-19 posses and G15’s ‘Homes fit for Heroes’ initiative.

Let’s make fixing Britain’s broken housing system a priority so that it serves everybody fairly and establishes the building blocks to a healthier, happier and better-housed society.

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