Health and Housing

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Freiberg’s car-free city centre

By Dr. Tammy Boyce

Life as a civil servant can sometime be difficult – politicians constantly on the lookout for innovative ideas, dispensing with evidence. So when Cardiff Council recently stated they were investigating the possibility of a car-free suburb, copying the success of Freiberg, Germany, where the council are world leaders in creating a green-city, one would think it would be a great project to emulate. In many ways it is – but whilst Freiberg is often written about – it is rarely copied. Many politicians are attracted to the outcomes Freiberg’s policies have achieved but few are prepared to make the radical changes that Freiberg has made (which includes numerous policies on energy, water, building and participation – transport and traffic are just one element in the city’s ambitious plans for a different way of urban living).

The attraction of Freiberg to politicians is that it offers innovative ways to think about cities, health and urban planning. Professor Ronan Lyons, one of DECIPHer’s directors, is leading an innovative evaluation that offers similar innovative ways of understanding the impact of urban living on physical and mental health.

Instead of building entirely new suburbs, Professor’s Lyons’ research examines the existing housing stock – the reality most local councils are dealing with. Between 2009 and 2015 Carmarthen Council in West Wales is spending over £200 million on social housing improvements to 10,000 homes. The research examines medium and long term health benefits from social housing regeneration. It will provide evidence of the effect of changes to the housing stock on health outcomes. Improving the housing stock is an essential part of improving public health and reducing inequalities, as discussed in many government reports, including the Marmot Review of health inequalities. The problem so often is that little evidence shows what works to improve health – this research addresses the gap.


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Carmarthen, West Wales

Ronan’s research examines the impact of housing regeneration on physical and mental health – examining whether housing improvements can:

  • Reduce emergency hospital admissions for conditions such as:

  – heart attacks;
  – asthma attacks;
  – falls and burns in people over 60 years old, and

  • Decrease the number of prescriptions made for: 

  – anxiety and depression;
  – asthma and related conditions.

In order to find out ‘what works’ the research compares health status before and after the housing improvements and compares residents in improved housing with residents where housing improvements did not take place. The intervention is already showing health improvements in the short term.

A central part of the project is spending time with local councillors and stakeholders working together to collect relevant evidence to create effective policies and explaining research outcomes. For Ronan Lyons, lead of DECIPHer at Swansea University, practical and applied research is central to all his work. With a background in medicine and experience working as a public health consultant, he now splits his work week between Public Health Wales and Swansea University. His research examines health inequalities, injuries and health informatics and involves ‘crossing the interface between service and academia and policy’.

Much of Ronan’s research examines large datasets and he leads CIPHER, one of four UK centres developing new methods to anonymise, link and analyse e-health records and other routinely collected data. Watch out for a future blog on this new centre.


Dr. Tammy Boyce (@TamBoyce) works with DECIPHer as a Knowledge Exchange consultant.

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