Statutory overcrowding: definition of overcrowding
‘For section 324 of the Housing Act 1985 there is substituted—
“324 Definition of overcrowding
(1) A dwelling is overcrowded for the purposes of this Part when the number of persons sleeping in the dwelling is such as to contravene—
(a) the standard specified in section 325 (‘the bedroom standard’), or
(b) the standard specified in section 326 (‘the space standard’).”.’.—[Lyn Brown.]
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 32—Statutory overcrowding: bedroom standard—
‘For section 325 of the Housing Act 1985 there is substituted—
“325 The bedroom standard
(1) The bedroom standard is contravened when the number of bedrooms available to the occupiers of a dwelling is less than the number of bedrooms allocated to them in aggregate in accordance with the formula set out below in subsection (4).
(2) No account shall be taken for the purposes of the bedroom standard of a room having a floor area of less than 50 square feet.
(3) A room is available as a bedroom if it is of a type normally used in the locality as a bedroom.
(4) For the purposes of the bedroom standard a separate bedroom shall be allocated to the following persons:—
(i) a person living together with another as husband and wife (whether that other person is of the same sex or the opposite sex);
(ii) a person aged 21 years or more;
(iii) two persons of the same sex aged 10 years to 20 years;
(iv) two persons (whether of the same sex or not) aged less than 10 years;
(v) two persons of the same sex where one person is aged between 10 years and 20 years and the other is aged less than 10 years;
(vi) any person aged 21 years in any case where he or she cannot be paired with another occupier of the dwelling so as to fall within (iii), (iv) or (v) above.”.’.
New clause 33—Statutory overcrowding: space standard—
‘For section 326 of the Housing Act 1985 there is substituted—
“326 The space standard
(1) The space standard is contravened when the number of persons sleeping in a dwelling is in excess of the permitted number, having regard to the floor area of the rooms of the dwelling available as bedrooms.
(2) For this purpose—
(a) a child under the age of five shall be reckoned as half a unit and a person aged five or over shall be reckoned as one unit, and
(b) a room is available as a bedroom if it is of a type normally used in the locality as a bedroom.
(3) The permitted number of persons in relation to a dwelling is the aggregate for all such rooms in the dwelling of the numbers specified in column 2 of the Table set out below in relation to each room of the floor area specified in column 1.
No account shall be taken for the purposes of the space standard of a room having a floor area of less than 50 square feet.
Number of persons
110 sq. ft. or more
90 sq. ft. or more but less than 110 sq. ft.
70 sq. ft. or more but less than 90 sq. ft.
50 sq. ft. or more but less than 70 sq. ft.
(4) The Secretary of State may by regulations prescribe the manner in which the floor area of a room is to be ascertained for the purposes of this section; and the regulations may provide for the exclusion from computation, or the bringing into computation at a reduced figure, of floor space in a part of the room which is of less than a specified height not exceeding eight feet.
(5) Regulations under subsection (4) shall be made by statutory instrument, which shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.
(6) A certificate of the local housing authority stating the number and floor areas of the rooms in a dwelling, and that the floor areas have been ascertained in the prescribed manner, is prima facie evidence for the purposes of legal proceedings of the facts stated in it.”.’.
According to the 2001 census, Newham has the highest average household size in the country. The lack of bigger homes is a principal cause of the overcrowding, with entire families living in one-bedroom flats. The negative impacts of overcrowding and/or cramped accommodation on family life, education, health and community cohesion have been ably demonstrated in reports by Shelter and the Royal Institute of British Architects.
In Shelter’s report entitled “Full house? How overcrowded housing affects families”, we discovered that three quarters of overcrowded families had children sharing a bedroom with parents; more than a quarter had children sleeping in living rooms and dining rooms—that rose to more than a half in respect of severely overcrowded families—and 86 per cent. said that depression, anxiety and stress in the home were caused by cramped living conditions.
More than a quarter of Newham’s homes are overcrowded, according to the occupancy rating. Indeed, the Department for Communities and Local Government’s figures from a 2005 study showed that the highest level of overcrowding at ward level, based on the bedroom standard, is shared by a ward in my constituency—Green Street West. Twenty-five per cent. of those households are overcrowded. It shares the dubious honour of being the most overcrowded ward with its neighbour, Green Street East, which is also situated in the London borough of Newham.
I have numerous constituency cases in which overcrowded accommodation is clearly having a very negative effect on family life and children’s development and achievement, and is placing a real strain on services and communities. For instance, Mrs. R lives with her entire family in a one-bedroom property in Stratford. That is an almost adult family of four. Mrs. R, who is elderly and has health problems, sleeps on the living room floor.
Mrs. B, another constituent who sought my help, lives in a two-bedroom flat with her four children, whose ages range between four and 14. As one can imagine, the cramped living conditions have an enormous impact on her eldest children’s education; they find it difficult to study, given that they have no space to do so. The schools that the children attend have written to me on the family’s behalf, asking whether I can help to get them housed in more appropriate accommodation.
Mrs. O is trying to balance her busy career as a nurse with the pressures of an overcrowded home. She, her husband and their eight-year-old daughter share a one-bedroom flat in my constituency. Mrs. O will soon have a greater pressure on her family life because she is heavily pregnant and is expecting the baby soon.
Mrs. I from Plaistow has been living in a two-bedroom flat for seven years, and in that time her family has grown. Her four children are getting older, and her son has to sleep with two of his sisters in the second bedroom because of the pressure of space. Mrs. I told me of her concern about the impact that it has on family life, especially on her children’s development. Again, the educational prospects were a great concern.
Frankly, Mr. Gale, I could continue listing such cases, but I chose those four because they happen to have come up in the last six weeks. I wish to make it clear that it is a tiny selection of the cases that have come to my attention. Often, however, families in overcrowded accommodation are not entitled by law to larger properties because of the archaic definition of overcrowding currently on the statute book.
The current standard dates back to 1935. It bears no relation to modern living standards. It may have been appropriate in the inter-war years, when we were clearing the slums in the east end—those that were left standing after the luftwaffe had played their games—but they are not the standard for today.
Under the existing definition of statutory overcrowding, infants under 12 months old are not counted as members of the household. Those under the age of 10 count as only half a person. The definition includes living rooms, and even kitchens, as acceptable places to sleep. Its definition of acceptable bedroom sharing arrangements is not appropriate to 20th century Britain.
New clause 31 would overhaul the current definition of overcrowding. It would insert new wording into the Housing Act 1985 to ensure that bedrooms and not merely “rooms” counted—a bedroom standard rather than a room standard. New clause 32 would bring in a new bedroom standard, based on the statistical measure of overcrowding used in the survey of English housing, and it has wide acceptance—for example among researchers—as an appropriate gauge of overcrowding.
New clause 33 would update the existing space standard by including all children under the age of five as half a unit, and everyone over that age as one unit. Youngsters take up space, as all lucky parents realise, and a more generous bedroom standard that recognised their presence would do much to assist young families juggling work and home to make ends meet; and it would allow our young people more space at home in those crucial early years.
I want to give hope to families that find themselves trapped in such circumstances. The high cost of living and the high cost of housing mean that many families are completely trapped. I hope that the Minister will be minded to intervene, when appropriate and possible, to ensure that the size of new build in areas of the greatest pressure meets the real needs of the residents. To decode that, I mean that we need to build larger properties in the developments currently planned in Lea valley and the Thames Gateway, properties that are appropriate to the needs of the communities that those areas should serve.
There is a real social, economic and health cost to families living in overcrowded conditions. I ask the Minister to recognise that, and to pledge Government action to tackle it. Overcrowding is completely unacceptable. I recognise that some local authorities have concerns that the introduction of a bedroom standard might add further pressure on social housing. I stated before, that pressure is already extreme in Newham. However, overcrowded households—even those that are statutorily overcrowded—are entitled only to reasonable preference on the waiting list, not to extra priority ahead of others who are in more immediate housing need. Nor will statutory overcrowding be anything more than a relevant consideration in reaching a decision on whether it is reasonable for an overcrowded household applying as homeless under section 175 of the Housing Act 1996 to continue to occupy its current accommodation.
An updated statutory definition will not overburden local authorities or create unrealistic duties beyond those imposed by current legislation. I therefore hope to hear something significant from the Minister on the new clause.
I want to speak briefly in support of the new clause. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham has given extensive and compelling reasons why further measures are needed to prevent overcrowding and provide better space standards. Clearly, the lack of affordable housing in some areas and the weaknesses of licensing, which we have discussed, mean that households will fall into overcrowding traps if they do not meet current definitions or have the means to move to other accommodation.
I should also stress to the Minister that many of the new houses that are being built throughout the country are very small, and families will grow out of them very soon, so there is an urgent need to look at space standards. Like my hon. Friend, therefore, I am very interested to hear what the Minister will say about tackling those issues.
We have listened with considerable sympathy to the arguments raised by the hon. Member for West Ham, particularly about the problem of ever-smaller places being built. I have heard her concerns about the Thames Gateway echoed by local authorities, which find that one- and two-bedroom apartments are flying off the shelves, but cannot get bigger properties built. It is therefore perhaps time for a further look at the issue, and we, like the hon. Lady, are very interested in what the Minister has to say. We are certainly sympathetic to her general position.
I, too, support the new clause. We have been discussing the issue for many years. I have sat on several Committees that have considered housing Bills, and I remember hon. Members repeating the need for a modern definition of overcrowding. The current definition dates back to the pre-war era, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham has eloquently outlined, and it is not relevant to the modern day.
Some of those living in my constituency, particularly among the south Asian and Bangladeshi communities, have very large extended families, and they face severe overcrowding. At my surgeries, I routinely see a trail of people who live six to a one-bedroomed property, and that will happen again tomorrow. It is not acceptable in this day and age to tell such people that they have no hope of being rehoused, because their lives are unutterably impossible. Those people’s children live on the streets, with all the consequences that we know that has in terms of crime and antisocial behaviour. That is not the fault of those children, who have nowhere to learn, live or play, and it is intolerable that they should have to exist in such conditions in this day and age. We need many more properties in Luton and we have a desperate need for more three and four-bedroomed homes. Ever more one and two-bedroomed properties are being built to meet commuters’ needs, but families have no prospect whatever of moving.
On many occasions, I have raised the issue of why we do not ensure that RSLs and councils can allow extensions to homes. If we lived in an overcrowded home and could not afford to move, we would try to get a loan to build a loft extension or to extend our home in some other way, and I do not understand why we cannot allow people in desperate circumstances to do the same.
I hope that we will amend the overcrowding legislation very soon, but in the interim, we should ensure that more funding is available to councils and RSLs, so that they can take practical measures to relieve at least the immediate misery of some of those families. We also need to consider how to make the housing allocation system more flexible. It is simply nuts that a family of six, living in one-bedroomed accommodation but needing four or five bedrooms, cannot be allocated at least a three-bedroomed home. Such families’ lives would be improved immeasurably as a result of that greater flexibility, but the bureaucratic systems do not allow it. Admittedly, the accommodation would still be overcrowded, according to the local authority definition, but for those whose accommodation is so overcrowded and whose lives are intolerable, increased flexibility would at least allow a slightly better quality of life.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South and other hon. Members. The problem of overcrowding dominates the surgeries and work of a substantial minority of MPs, particularly—I suspect—in London, the south-east and inner-city areas generally. I can support the examples that have been given today: five children in one-bedroomed flats and six children in two-bedroomed flats are increasingly common, as my surgery case load demonstrates. It has become the norm—not just common—for two or three-children families to live in under-provisioned accommodation that requires extra bedrooms.
During my short time in this House, I have taken part in several debates on the subject, where I have heard from the increasingly significant minority of hon. Members who have a large number of constituents experiencing such hardship. It strikes me that were that level of deprivation and lack of social provision the case in other public services, the problem would have been addressed sooner.
In the past 10 years, Government policy has failed to address the crisis in the provision of low-cost housing of a sufficient size. In part, the Bill will address that problem by setting out the Government’s intention substantially to increase housing supply, and affordable housing supply in particular, in this country. The new clauses represent the other side of the same coin, which is why I hope that the Minister will welcome them. However, if the Minister cannot accept them today, will he at least acknowledge the need to improve the living conditions of families in overcrowded accommodation? The situation is intolerable, and it must not be allowed to continue.
The huge disparity in the cost of market properties, particularly in London and the south-east, whether rented or for sale, is one of the factors that have led to the problem of overcrowding. The average price of a property in Hammersmith and Fulham is £453,000, and it is not much less in the Ealing part of my constituency. According to the National Housing Federation, an income 22 times the average is needed to purchase such a property, which means that there is no possibility, as there was just 20 years ago, of families on low or average incomes accessing property in the private sector. We need a greater amount of subsidised housing, which I believe the Government intend to provide. I strongly welcome that, if it will help to improve the overcrowding situation.
Although my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham has said that the new clauses are not designed to place infeasible and unrealistic burdens on local authorities, it is absolutely right to send a signal to them that this is a problem that they have the job of tackling. They have statutory duties towards homeless people and homeless families, and they are failing to deliver on those duties in some cases.
The measure is to the Government’s advantage, because it fulfils Government policy. It may be to the disadvantage of some local authorities, and I shall use the example of Hammersmith and Fulham council, which has openly set out three ambitions in relation to the provision of subsidised housing. The council’s first ambition is to minimise the amount of affordable social housing that is constructed, so that the borough goes from a situation where more than 80 per cent. of the housing built in the borough was social housing, as was the case under the previous Labour council, to a position where the council has a target of 40 per cent. overall, which is below the London planned target. The council’s second ambition is to reduce by three quarters, from about 40 per cent. to about 10 per cent., the proportion of housing that is social housing for rent and to dispose of as much existing social housing as it can as quickly as possible by market sale. Thirdly, the council aims to reduce the overall percentage of social housing in the authority.
Those ambitions run contrary to everything that the Government are trying to do. Whether they run contrary to the Opposition’s national policy on housing, I do not know, because every time an Opposition spokesman raises the issue, different words come out of their mouths. We hear warm words about housing supply, but we hear very little on the ground from many Conservative authorities. It is time to turn up the pressure on local authorities that are not prepared to co-operate with the Government’s laudable aim on housing supply, and emphasising the need for change to the overcrowding standard is part of that process.
I rise briefly to congratulate the hon. Member for West Ham on tabling the new clauses and to indicate my support and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire.
Many Members of Parliament are aware from their casework—I must say to the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush that the problem exists not only in urban areas, but in rural areas, too—that the existing standards are often compromised. We often deal with casework in our constituencies—I certainly do in the west Cornwall and Isles of Scilly parts of my constituency—in which the existing standards and regulations have frequently been flouted. The local authorities and housing providers are well aware of that, and they do their best to overcome the fact that there are many circumstances in which families with children of both sexes are managing in properties with two or even one bedroom.
I speak with a certain amount of experience of overcrowding myself, having been brought up in a family of eight children in a property with only three bedrooms. I know from that personal experience that there are limits to what one can do with bunk beds and so on, and I know the other challenges that overcrowding presents to any family. That does not mean that I have less sympathy for families living in similar circumstances today. In fact, with the rising standards that we have today, I have far greater sympathy for those who are experiencing overcrowding now, because I have experienced it myself in the past.
I hope that the Minister takes heed of the strong case made by the hon. Member for West Ham and others. This is an area where it is important to send out a clear message and, as the Minister will be well aware, that message will need to be backed up with the appropriate resources, or with enabling powers for local authorities and housing providers, to ensure that we address the serious challenges that many people and families face as they live in circumstances that we ourselves would not want to live in.
The debate has been important. I am under no illusion as to the depth of feeling expressed not only by my hon. Friends the Members for West Ham and for City of Durham, who have pinned me to the ropes yet again in a most eloquent manner, but others on both sides of the Committee and, indeed, of the House.
I have found the debate interesting and illuminating, and I agree with much of what has been said. I agree that the current definition of overcrowding has remained unchanged for far too long. The current standards are inappropriate, inaccessible and archaic, and we need to do something about it. However, the Government have already committed to moving towards an updated standard. Hon. Members will recall that when giving evidence in December, and in a written ministerial statement to the House on 12 December, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing confirmed her commitment to amend the Housing Act 1985.
I was very taken by what was said about the impact of overcrowding on children, which is an important point. The Government are committed to addressing the matter of children in bad housing. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, who has made that point time and again, spoke most eloquently on the effect that overcrowding can have on children.
We know that one child in 10 lives in an overcrowded house, and I suspect that the figure is slightly higher, if not substantially higher, in the West Ham constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham has made us think about the fact that overcrowding can have a real impact on health, education and wider well-being—it can leave small children with no space for toys, which can affect their development. As someone who is interested in education and how it can improve chances in life and quality of life, I accept that overcrowding leaves children with no place to do their homework, so their educational attainment suffers.
We must deal with such matters. Children who have nowhere to play with friends are more likely to underachieve at school, which might lead to their being forced out on the streets. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee know that people are concerned, in both a positive and a negative way, about gangs on the streets, and we need to do something about that. Later, we will debate a related clause at some length, but there seems to be a close statistical correlation between overcrowding and family breakdown and domestic violence. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham is doing an awful lot with regard to that important point.
“The Children’s Plan: Building Brighter Futures” was published last month, and it demonstrates strong cross-Government support for tackling the issue of children in bad housing. As well as setting out ongoing investment in decent homes and our ambitions for the supply of new housing, the plan gives a clear commitment to updating the statutory overcrowding standard proof. If necessary, the Government are committed to changing those outdated and archaic standards.
Hon. Members may be aware that the Government already have the power to amend the definition of overcrowding through secondary legislation. We have made a commitment to update the standard, which I absolutely reaffirm. However, we do not need to put powers in the Bill, because it can be done through secondary legislation.
In the long term, we need to be able to affect the supply of housing. The Bill is designed to achieve better standards and more houses. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing has already announced our priority to increase the overall supply of housing. Housing is sorely needed in some parts of the country to tackle the overcrowding problem. We have already announced the target of 240,000 additional homes a year by 2016, with the delivery of 2 million homes by that date and 3 million by 2020. In order to achieve that, we are providing unprecedented amounts of investment.
Will the homes be of the size that we need? It has been reinforced time and again today, through anecdotes from both sides of the Committee, that one and two-bedroomed properties are flying off the shelves, because they are the quickest and easiest to build and give the best profit margin to developers. We need three and four-bedroomed, proper-sized houses built to Royal Institute of British Architects standards, so that we can provide the right places for our children to grow up. Is there any hope of ensuring that the homes are of an appropriate size?
My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. However, I want to get in my message about the unprecedented amounts of investment going into housing—I like saying that—before addressing her important point about needing larger homes, not dog kennels. We are providing £8.4 billion across the regions over the next three years to invest in affordable housing. That will initially be done through the Housing Corporation and then through the Homes and Communities Agency. The investment is a 50 per cent. increase on previous comprehensive spending review periods. We are increasing new affordable housing outputs to 70,000 by 2010-11, of which 45,000 will be for new social-rented homes, which is 50 per cent. more than in the current year.
As my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham has said many times, we need larger properties, and housing developers need to ensure that family houses are being built, because that is what people sorely need. Local authorities working with the Housing Corporation and, in future, the agency, and developers have an important role to play, through both the planning system and their strategic housing role. My hon. Friend will be aware of planning policy statement 3, “Housing”, which was published in November 2006. It sets out the national planning framework for delivering the Government’s housing objectives. It states that the
“key housing policy goal is to ensure that everyone has the opportunity of living in a decent home, which they can afford, in a community where they want to live.”
Crucially, PPS3 asks for more support for family homes. It explicitly provides a requirement that the housing needs of children be considered, and it places an emphasis on family-friendly developments, including access to gardens—I know that my hon. Friend is concerned about density in her area—play areas, green spaces and parks, which should be well-designed, safe, secure and stimulating.
Similarly, planning policy guidance 17, “Planning for Open Space, Sport and Recreation”, states that such facilities
“have a vital role to play in promoting healthy living and...in the social development of children of all ages through play, sporting activities and interaction with others.”
I applaud PPS3, because it provides a way forward for better space standards and for the balanced and sustainable communities that we want to create. What checks will the Minister’s Department make on local authorities to ensure that they are delivering the objectives of PPS3 when new developments are planned?
My hon. Friend has rightly highlighted our dilemma. We hear accusations time and again that the new agency will be a top-down mega-quango that will impose centrally driven targets, but that is not the case. Local authorities have a responsibility on this issue. PPS3 clearly states that local authorities should have flexibility in deciding what sort of housing their areas need. I imagine that the diversity of housing needs and challenges in the City of Durham, to which I have been to speak at the symposium on affordable housing, will be different from those in areas such as Poole. Local authorities need to flex their elbows on that matter. There will be local considerations, but I will keep a close eye on the matter to ensure that family homes with surrounding play areas, which are so important for children to grow and develop, are provided on new housing schemes. I shall keep in close contact with my hon. Friend on that.
I agree with everything that the Minister has said, but at some point the Government will have to turn their mind to what they are going to do about recalcitrant local authorities that are not prepared to play ball. A local authority such as Hammersmith and Fulham, which I have cited, that says, “Where we had 240 homes designated for affordable rent and shared ownership, 90 per cent. will now be available only to people earning more than £50,000 a year,” and which cynically describes those homes as “affordable”, is not delivering what the Government intend.
I agree. When we debated part 1 of the Bill, we discussed how the Homes and Communities Agency will suggest how local authorities can step up to the plate. All the evidence and documentation that I have received about housing in London seems to suggest that affordable housing and housing suitable for families are Londoners’ No. 1 priority, and I think that that issue will be key in London in the next five or six months. With the greatest respect to the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield and his party, the work that my side are doing resonates more with the public than some of what local authorities are doing. Ultimately, we shall find out about that in local elections.
I am pleased to hear the Minister’s comments about more flexibility for councils on such matters. To pick up the comments made by some Labour Members on severe overcrowding problems, would not scrapping the density targets be of great assistance, so that instead of making one and two-bedroomed houses the automatic choice, it would be the norm throughout the country to have variation?
I am grateful for that, because it relates to another point that I touched on in an Adjournment debate with my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, which is that—my hon. Friend and I may disagree on this—density in itself is not necessarily the problem. We need very good planning, because planning, design and quality are key factors. The point that I always make is that the area of greatest housing density in London is apparently Kensington and Chelsea. I know that my hon. Friend will say that that cost a lot of money, and I understand that point, but it is important that there should be well-designed areas for play, so that people do not feel isolated and excluded, which is vital.
Because Newham is one of the 10 poorest areas in the country, and it is poverty coupled with density that causes social problems. Density is an issue where people cannot buy or provide for themselves recreational space and quality of life. Including less dense areas in areas of deprivation improves quality of life and enables families to reach their full potential. I accept the points that have been made about density, but having grown up in a council flat and lived on a council estate—a good one, which had space—I know that we can build areas that are appropriate for families. However, there are too many places in my constituency that have too great a density and that have many social problems not only because of the overcrowding, but because there is no space and people do not have the money to buy themselves out of that situation. We should not return to the road of building high-rise blocks and thinking that they will answer our social needs.
My hon. Friend has raised an important point. We do not want to see the return of tower blocks. That demonstrates, however, the importance of design and planning, which leads me to reiterate this concern. In the context of place shaping, a well-designed area with suitable facilities, open spaces and good quality housing and other accommodation allows people to raise their games. Alternatively, we all know that poorly designed and badly planned estates can depress the spirits and be breeding grounds for crime, antisocial behaviour and social exclusion. We need to make sure through the Homes and Communities Agency and bodies such as the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment that planning, design and quality are top of the agenda.
Let us also recognise that much of what we are talking about is attitudinal. I regret intervening at this point, but we cannot expect legislation to solve all the problems. In part, it is because of bad management that we end up with bad communities.