HOUSING WEEK: Overcrowding, an issue for today

Overcrowded conditions. Photo: Shelter

In 1961, the Parker Morris Committee decreed that as wealth increased, homes should be built accordingly. Thus, one of the most pioneering housing reports of the last century was passed, and the Parker Morris space standard of 72 metres for a terraced house was implemented.

The increase in labour-saving devices had changed the way the 1960s household functioned: the committee found that a fifth of households had a refrigerator and a third a washing machine. Although the white goods may have multiplied since then, the square metres have not. The pressure on public spending and the need to meet centralised build targets has led to London having some of the smallest space standards in Europe today.

In order to tackle the problem of inadequate homes, Boris Johnson announced in May 2009 that Londoners would be offered homes in Cornwall and Shropshire to free up social housing for families in the capital. The scheme was designed to tempt people currently living in homes that could accommodate larger families amid a shortage of larger homes in the capital.

The mayor’s housing director, Richard Blakeway, said Johnson wanted to ‘scale up’ a scheme already in place. This comes as part of the plan to target serious overcrowding by 2016. Blakeway said the waiting list for the 3,500 homes outside the capital was ‘sizeable’: around 5,000 people are believed to be on the list.

Furthermore, Boris Johnson has pledged to deliver 50,000 affordable homes in the next three years, the largest number in the history of the Greater London Authority, and including the largest number of family-sized homes in the last decade to reverse the trend for building flats. Johnson also said 80% of the targeted affordable homes had now been agreed with London boroughs.

Overcrowding on the up

According to charity Shelter, the number of overcrowded households has risen to more than 650,000, the highest level for over 14 years. The charity believes that there are over a million children living in overcrowded homes. In 2004, the government promised to update the overcrowding standard, but has not done so as yet.

Campbell Robb, Shelter’s chief executive said: “Overcrowding is a huge blight on children’s lives, with devastating consequences for their health, education and future chances. It is simply unacceptable for this antiquated standard to remain in place, allowing kitchens and living rooms to be considered as acceptable places for children to sleep.

“Investment in health and education is a false economy if children are being brought up in cramped conditions, more vulnerable to health problems and unable to find space to do their homework.

“After six years in which the Government has failed to keep its promise, we urgently need a uniform statutory standard for England which delivers a modern understanding of space and privacy, together with significant resources to end this hidden part of our housing crisis”, he added.

About 30 per cent of households in Tower Hamlets are overcrowded, as were a similar proportion in Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea and Camden. This compares to about 5% in the Outer London boroughs of Bromley, Bexley and Havering. In general, Inner London boroughs have a higher proportion of overcrowded households than Outer London.

And things are only set to get worse. The number of people living in overcrowded homes in England will soar 15 per cent to 2.6 million by 2011 as unemployment and repossessions bite, the National Housing Federation has warned. It predicts that an extra 350,000 people would be living in overcrowded conditions in the next two years, exacerbated by the economic slowdown which has left as few as 70,000 new homes being built this year – down from 140,000 in 2008/09.

In November 2006, the government gave £19 million to fund innovative schemes to tackle overcrowding in London. When figures were released Croydon was one of the highest recipients, with £3,492,735, whilst Tower Hamlets received only £202,000.

Responding to a Westminster Hall debate on overcrowding in October 2003, Yvette Cooper, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister said: “We are investing resources in the London housing problem as fast as we are able. Changing the overcrowding standards will not create any extra homes or expand the housing supply any faster.

“The concern is that to set statutory definitions at a particular level would be to divert resources away from addressing the issue of bed and breakfasts, the homelessness problem and the wider problem of decent homes. As we invest in the London housing market, we need to ensure that, as well as tackling problems surrounding the bed and breakfasts and homelessness, we tackle overcrowding problems. We need to consider further how we can ensure that overcrowding is addressed alongside bed and breakfasts and homelessness.”

Overcrowding affects child development

In a report by Liam Reynold, an author specialising in housing issues, the idea that overcrowding affects children is explored. Of those surveyed, 71 per cent of families strongly agreed that overcrowding was a damaging influence on their children’s education and development.2 For 81 per cent of families there wasn’t enough room for their children to play, and 70 per cent said that overcrowding made it difficult for their children to study. Of the families who wrote about the effects in their own words, half (49 per cent) noted a problem associated with their children’s education and development.

Mita is the mother of three daughters aged 11, 12, and 20, and a son of 19. They live in a small two-bedroom flat in east London.  Mita’s eldest daughter has her own box room; the other three children share the other bedroom and Mita sleeps on the sofa in the living room.

“It was difficult for me to decide where the children should sleep; I’m worried that they are all growing up into teenagers and will need their own space.  The children suffer from stress and feel squashed. My eldest daughter is studying for a degree now and I think that having her own room has helped her get there. But I am concerned about my son.”

The sacrifice Mita has made in allowing her children to use the two bedrooms while she sleeps on the sofa has affected her own health.  She has a bad back and her part-time work is affected by a lack of sleep.

Local authorities make the difference

On a local level, some councils are actively trying to tackle the problem. Tower Hamlets Council’s lettings policy prioritises under-occupying tenants for rehousing, as well as giving a cash allowance for moving to smaller-size accommodation. For each bedroom freed up, £500 is paid and an extra £1,000 is paid if the property is four bedrooms or larger. Using specific Homelessness Strategy funding from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) in 2004/05, Tower Hamlets, for a limited period, was able to offer enhanced grants of £3,000 per room to under-occupying tenants, freeing up 26 tenancies that were offered to homeless families.

Tower Hamlets Lettings Section also regularly sends information to under-occupying tenants to encourage them to bid for new build homes that become available. Last year it enabled 96 tenants to move to smaller-size accommodation and so brought larger accommodation back into the lettings pool.

Hackney Council provides a further incentive allowing under-occupying tenants a second bedroom. Many under-occupiers are elderly and often have family members to stay so some only wish to move if they can keep a second bedroom. Current policy allows tenants who have four-bedroom, or larger, homes but only need one bedroom to be offered a home with a second bedroom. The local authority hopes to extend this incentive to under-occupying tenants of three-bedroom homes in the future.

As it stands, the problem of overcrowding in London’s poorest areas looks set to stay the same. Without significant funding, hundreds of affordable family homes built, or better use of empty properties thousands of people will live in substandard housing for a while yet.

Overcrowding: the nitty gritty

The 1985 Housing Act states that there is overcrowding wherever there are so many people in a house that any two or more of those persons, being ten or more years old, and of opposite sexes, not being persons living together as husband and wife, have to sleep in the same room. For these purposes children under ten may be disregarded and a room means any room normally used as either a bedroom or a living room.

Under the same Act, a kitchen can be considered to be a living room provided it is big enough to accommodate a bed. When interpreting this definition a local authority looks at how the sleeping arrangements within the premises could be organised rather than how they are actually organised.

There is no limit on the number of people of the same sex who can live in the same room although there may be a contravention of the space standard.

Breach of the statutory overcrowding standard is a criminal offence. When the standard was originally devised in the 1935 Housing Act it was aimed at dealing with overcrowded conditions in the private rented sector before the Second World War. Local authorities have the power to take action against landlords of overcrowded properties on a tenant’s behalf.

However, where a statutorily overcrowded household lives in council housing, the local authority landlord cannot take legal action against itself without the express consent of the Attorney General. Shelter has noted that the Attorney General has never agreed to let a case of overcrowding by a local authority proceed to court.

The overall rate of overcrowding has changed little over time although the rate in the owner occupied sector has been gradually declining. The rate in the social rented sector has varied around the 5 percent mark but is slightly higher than 10 years ago. The most marked change has come in the private rented sector where the rate of overcrowding has risen from around 3 percent 10 years ago to 5 percent in 2006/07.

London has the highest rate of overcrowding in all three tenures. Around 10.5 percent of private renters are overcrowded in London and 12.1 percent of households living in social rented housing.

BME families are twice as likely to be severely overcrowded. In London 1 in 8 BME households lack one bedroom or more, rising to almost 1 in 6 for BME social tenants compared to 1 in 15 white social tenants.

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