Entry: "Overcrowded Housing - Parliamentary Debate 29 Oct 2003"

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Housing Debate
Westminster Hall: 29th October 2003

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) on securing the debate. As a councillor, as an MP and as a Minister she has shown real commitment to helping families who live in overcrowded conditions. During her time as Minister, she visited the Boundary estate in Bethnal Green and listened to the experiences of a number of families living in overcrowded homes—families in which three or even four children shared a single bedroom; or families in which parents or siblings slept in the living room every single night. The health, well-being, educational attainment and employment prospects of those families—in other words, their entire future—are blighted because their homes are too small.

The survey of English housing estimates that there are more than 17,000 overcrowded households in London. In Tower Hamlets, we have approximately 8,000 overcrowded households. That is the most severe level of overcrowding in the country, and is accompanied—unsurprisingly, as there is a direct link between the two—by the highest density of poverty in the country.

The vast majority of those overcrowded households are young families with two or three children waiting for a family-sized home to become available. Unfortunately, as my constituents know to their great cost, they have to wait for an unacceptably long time. Some have already waited more than ten years. Some have waited for almost 20 years. I am sorry, but I will do what other MPs have done and illustrate the problem by referring to families with whom I come into contact. That is because it is so difficult to portray the level of human suffering involved. I am not using the worst cases; I usually use the worst examples, but thought that this time I would go for the averagely bad.

Mrs. A lives in a small two-bedroom flat with her husband and four children. There is not enough room for all the children to have separate beds, and the boys and girls have to share a room. Mrs. B also lives in a small two-bedroom flat. Mr. B is elderly and disabled, and lives with his disabled wife, adult son, adult daughter and baby grandson. Once again, there is not enough room for everyone to have a bed, and there is not enough room for facilities to deal with Mr. and Mrs. B's disabilities. There is obviously no privacy for the adult son and daughter. Predictably, both those tenants have come to me asking for help to get the one available vacant house in their area. At least one of them will be disappointed; from my experience both of them are likely to be disappointed.

Mr. C lives with his wife and two children, aged five and two, in a one-bedroom flat on a high floor of a tower block. His wife is expecting her third child in three months. There is insufficient room for the existing children to have a bed each, and it is difficult to see how space could be made for a cot for the third child. I took a former Minister with responsibility for housing to a property in Tower Hamlets where an extended family of 16 people were living in two bedrooms. I am sorry to report to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North that none of the families that we visited have yet been re-housed in larger, family-sized accommodation.
Mr. Love : Is not the important point that none of those cases counts as statutorily overcrowded? That shows just how completely out-of-date the system is, as it cannot deal with modern circumstances.

Ms King : That is precisely the point. The accommodation of the last family that I mentioned, with 16 people in two bedrooms, is of course regarded as statutorily overcrowded, and another family on the Tower Hamlets waiting list who require five bedrooms also currently live in accommodation that is classed as statutorily overcrowded. However, my hon. Friend is exactly right: all the other cases that I have mentioned do not count as statutorily overcrowded.

I am sure that the lack of progress is one of the reasons why my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North initiated a review of the current statutory definition of overcrowding. As has already been described, the definition ignores babies and expects living rooms to be permanently available for people to sleep in. For the benefit of my hon. Friends, I should add that 70 years ago, the Labour party described those very same standards as intolerable in the 20th century, and a Labour Member of Parliament said that this House
"ought not to let it go forth that we regard it as a satisfactory state of affairs that people should normally have to sleep in living rooms."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 19 February 1935; c. 54.]
That was 1935, yet the same standards are still with us.

The review of those standards that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North initiated gave hope to overcrowded families in Tower Hamlets that the Government were turning their attention to their needs. However, after she moved on to the Department for International Development, no progress was made with that review.

Since then, we have been told that overcrowding will be addressed through the new housing health and safety rating system. Unfortunately, the HHSRS cannot provide that review, not only because the number of hazards due to overcrowding and a lack of space are likely to be dwarfed by the number due to factors such as fire risk, damp and cold, but because the HHSRS inevitably involves a subjective assessment of conditions in a property. I hope that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but the only objective yardstick against which environmental health officers can measure hazards that arise from overcrowding and lack of space is the room and space standards in the current statutory definition—the very same definition that the Minister with responsibility for housing has described as outdated. That is why I hope that the Minister will follow her predecessor's lead and signal that she is prepared again to consider updating that definition, as that would give hope to families in my constituency.

The Housing (Overcrowding) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) does not give overcrowded families the right to insist that they are prioritised for re-housing ahead of homeless families, and the fear that that might happen has delayed the Government's movement. A remedy of that nature is specifically excluded from the Bill, because it is recognised that it might have unacceptable outcomes. However, local authorities already accept that such families have a right to a larger home, and in so doing they apply higher overcrowding standards than the statutory minimum. All that we are asking, therefore, is that the Government recognise that standard in law.

A modernised statutory definition will not add to the burdens on local authorities, but will help us to see more clearly what the problem is and where it exists.

If I thought that we could solve the problem of overcrowding with current or predicted resources, I would be less concerned about updating the statutory definition. However, despite the fantastic increases in Government investment in housing, we are still nowhere near doing that. Tackling overcrowding does not yet have the priority that it deserves. We are making huge investments: over the next three years we shall increase the total housing resource to £11 billion, we are on target to reduce the number of non-decent social homes by 1 million by 2004, and, through the transfer options, we are unlocking huge amounts of investment in social housing. I congratulate the Government on that. Tower Hamlets has had a welcome and much-needed 300 per cent increase in investment in social housing, but it needs more.

I suggest to the Minister that the forthcoming housing Bill offers the chance to give decision makers an incentive to move overcrowding up the agenda. Across southern England, updating the standards would help to energise our campaign to end child poverty. Let us not forget that 48 per cent. of this country's children in poverty live in inner London. I know that many in the rest of the country do not believe that—they think that all the streets are paved with gold—but it is a fact. If we are to meet the Government's target to deal with child poverty, we have to tackle one of the biggest issues that faces those children—overcrowding. It has to be moved up the agenda. That would help black and Asian families, who are seven times more likely to experience overcrowding than their white counterparts. Once one has faced up to a problem, one can begin to tackle it, and retaining a statutory definition that is so outdated and so rarely breached only helps us to convince ourselves that overcrowding is not a problem and does not need to be tackled. We need to set a new threshold—a gold standard—to aim for. The bedroom standard used in the Survey of English Housing is that standard, and the forthcoming housing Bill will provide the perfect opportunity to put it on the statute book.

I shall briefly offer some solutions. Admitting the scale of overcrowding is the first step in tackling it. The next is building affordable homes in the numbers that are needed. I have argued previously that the only way to tackle the housing crisis is to double our output of affordable homes. That would mean doubling our investment again, and I know that the money cannot be found immediately, so I suggest helping to generate an immediate increase in the number of council and housing association lettings. We need some short-term emergency measures to free up family-sized accommodation for families suffering severe overcrowding.
During a debate in June, I suggested an expansion of the seaside and country homes scheme. In the Minister's reply, he told me that Housing Organisation and Exchange Mobility Services, which manages the scheme, has begun working with Girlings Retirement Options to give elderly people further options. I would be grateful for details as to how that has progressed.

Since the local restriction of right to buy, cash incentive schemes have become really popular in Tower Hamlets, with the result that more tenancies, including four four-bedroom tenancies this year, have been returned to the council to be re-let. A cash incentive is a cheap and efficient way to help tenants of social housing to become home owners. It empowers tenants by giving them choice over the sizes of their new homes. Please may we have more? The money for that has been cut, and although Tower Hamlets has subsidised it, we need it to be increased.

My last point concerns occupation. As well as there being many people who want to leave London, we have the advantage that a surprisingly high number live in homes that are not fully occupied. In London, 28 per cent of council and registered social landlords' stock is officially under-occupied. The present incentive—between £500 and £1,000 for each bedroom—is not adequate; we need to increase it if we are to get people out of those properties. I should be grateful if the Minister would write to me on the points that I have drawn to her attention. We desperately need to tackle the terrible problem of overcrowding now.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Yvette Cooper) :
We have to recognise that overcrowding can cause serious problems for families. My hon. Friend referred to examples concerning children unable to do their homework. Hon. Members referred to health problems, family relationship problems, significant traumas and stress that can arise, and, particularly those from London, described the circumstances of their constituents. My hon. Friends the Members for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) and for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) referred to examples from their constituencies of distressing cases where overcrowding has been a problem.

It is estimated on the basis of the 1935 measures that 25,000 households are statutorily overcrowded. On the bedroom standard used by the survey of English housing, an estimated 2 per cent. of households—about 500,000—would qualify as overcrowded, mostly in the social housing sector.

Mr. Love : My hon. Friend mentioned that those were estimates of statutory overcrowding and overcrowding according to a more liberal standard. Would she give consideration to the Department carrying out some more focused research into the levels of overcrowding and the impact that it has on all of the issues that we have discussed, such as health and education.

Yvette Cooper : I am happy to consider research issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) has done a great deal of work as part of his research for his private Member's Bill. Hon. Members will be aware that the Government try not to overburden local authorities with the collection of data given the amount of data that they have to provide.

The Government knows that a significant number of overcrowded households are in London. My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North was right to say that it is different in other parts of the country. London has specific housing problems. We must recognise that there is a problem but be very honest about how we address it. Overcrowding is not an isolated problem; it is often a symptom of wider problems, such as under-supply and affordable housing, as many hon. Members have said.

Families may be living in cramped conditions because they cannot afford to move to a larger flat or home, or because the demand for social housing is too great and too many other families waiting for a home. They may be homeless families, or families in bed-and-breakfast or temporary accommodation. Overcrowding is part of the more significant problem of housing supply, which must be addressed in London in particular.
Homelessness acceptances are another aspect of the same problem. They have increased to almost 31,000 in London. Bed-and-breakfast numbers have been reduced as a result of specific action taken by local authorities to address the problem of families stuck in cramped and inappropriate accommodation. It is one of the most severe aspects of the London housing problem. We must recognise that overcrowding is part of a wider issue, which involves meeting the decent homes target.

The underlying problem is the need for affordable housing supply, particularly in the capital. That is why the sustainable communities plan set out a major investment programme expanding the provision of affordable housing in London and the south-east. The Government has established investment programmes in housing supply across the board with an additional 200,000 homes to those already planned. There has also been significant investment to increase the number of affordable homes, supporting the London Housing Board strategy of investment in key worker homes.

The hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) raised the issue of planning gain. We are keen to use planning gain to expand the numbers of affordable housing units. That is why we are considering further section 106 agreements and consulting on empty homes, which was an issue that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard).

Overall, £5 billion will be invested in affordable housing between 2003–04 and 2005–06. That is double the investment in 1997. As hon. Members have said, the matter is partly about resources. The Government are substantially increasing the investment in affordable housing across the capital and the south-east.

Improvements are being made to the most extreme aspects of the problem. Rough sleeping has been reduced by two thirds and there have been significant reductions in the number of homeless families with children who are in bed-and- breakfast accommodation. We must consider how we address all aspects of the problem—temporary accommodation, homelessness, houses not meeting the decent homes standard and overcrowding.

Ms Oona King : Will my hon. Friend give way?

Yvette Cooper : If I can specifically address the issues concerning overcrowding raised by hon. Members and if I have time, I will give way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North specifically asked for changes to the statutory definition of overcrowding. It is not acceptable to defend a 1935 definition of overcrowding that is out of date. I have some sympathy with many of the points that hon. Members have raised.

I want briefly to explain the Department's concern about the proposals that have been made. 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.

We recognise the strengths of hon. Members' arguments. As we try to expand the affordable housing supply in London and the south-east, we must recognise the needs of all the different groups. We will be having further discussions about these issues over the next few months. Our approach has been to say that all the issues should be addressed together as part of local homelessness and housing strategies. We need to consider further how overcrowding is addressed as part of those strategies. Certainly, putting those strategies on a statutory footing will strengthen the case for that.

We are also considering the matter as part of the housing health and safety rating system. I recognise that hon. Members have raised concerns about that, but it is important to bring overcrowding into the health and safety system in a stronger way than before. The guidance to local authorities will make it clear that, for example, GP or hospital referrals will be relevant to the hazard assessment. I recognise that there is considerable concern from hon. Members about the matter, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning and I will have continued discussions with them.

I hope that I have explained the Government's concerns on the issue and I congratulate hon. Members again on raising such important questions.