Appalling housing conditions and crippling rents in one of the UK’s poorest boroughs helped turn it into a hotspot of Covid-19 deaths, according to a poverty inquiry that examined links between local inequalities and the pandemic.
The Brent Poverty Commission, which had been running for two months when Covid-19 struck, said chronic overcrowding and widespread poverty in the north-west London borough had created ideal conditions for the virus to thrive.
Latest figures show Brent has the worst death rate of any local authority in England and Wales per 100,000 population, with 490 deaths to the end of July, including 36 deaths alone in one of its most deprived neighbourhoods, Church End.
The chair of the commission, Lord Best, said there was a clear link between coronavirus deaths and poverty, inequality and poor housing. “It’s definitely the case that those people who have had Covid-19 and died of it come from the poorest areas, the most deprived estates and parts of the borough. That’s just a fact.”
The crisis had brought into sharp relief the severity of pre-existing housing and poverty problems in the borough, said Best. “The good things you want to do in places like Brent, because you want people to be better housed, are in fact good for Covid reasons.”
Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities – which make up the majority of the borough’s population – were the worst hit by the pandemic, according to the commission, which was set up in January to examine the lived experience of poverty in the borough.
The commission called for urgent investment in social housing and a crackdown on overcrowding and exploitative landlords, as well as more help for families hit by debt and unemployment, and more leniency for residents who run up rent arrears and council tax debt as a result of the crisis.
It urged Brent council to borrow to expand the social rented sector – currently dwarfed by the private rented sector – by purchasing private housing developments from distressed private developers and buying back ex-council homes from private landlords.
Sky-high rents meant 43% of children in the borough lived in poverty, with many low-income families spending more than 40% of their monthly income on housing costs, it said. Brent has the second-highest rents in outer London – an average-priced two-bed flat would cost a tenant £1,500 a month.
There were high levels of severe overcrowding, with large numbers of people living in houses of multiple occupation (HMOs). Many private rented homes were in poor condition. Eviction rates were the second highest in the capital, and high levels of homelessness levels meant many people were in temporary accommodation.
“If you live in a HMO you are not going to keep social distances. Spreading stuff around in crowded places is the worst possible thing. The chances of passing something on is much greater in those places,” said Best, a crossbench peer and housing and poverty expert.
Eleanor Southwood, a Brent councillor and cabinet member for housing and welfare reform, said: “The last six months have shown in the bleakest way possible the sharp divides in our society and the costs poverty imposes in terms of health and wellbeing, community and cohesion – dignity and opportunity. In short, poverty kills. It blights lives.”
The commission also proposed measures to tackle poverty and unemployment in the borough, warning that problems were likely to worsen as the UK plunged into recession. Brent has about 50,000 workers under furlough, the second highest among UK local authorities, putting it at high risk of surging joblessness.
A Guardian investigation in June found how a cluster of 36 Covid-19 deaths had devastated Brent’s mainly British-Somali Church End neighbourhood – still the third-highest number of pandemic deaths in any neighbourhood in England and Wales.