Covid has highlighted the need for new investment in council housing to tackle overcrowding
For those forced to live, learn and work in one room, the psychological impact of lockdown has been extraordinary. As we build back from this crisis, we must ensure everyone has access to a safe, secure and affordable home - with space to live.
Two years ago, an 11-year-old constituent wrote to me. She lives with her four sisters and their parents in a one bedroomed council flat. The family first asked my help on overcrowding when she was aged two.
She wrote: “I sleep on the floor with my two older sisters and every night when my Dad gets up to go to work, he always has to turn on the light so he doesn’t step on us. Due to this I don’t get enough sleep and I can’t concentrate … I am so scared because I want to pass my SATs but I have no place to revise...I am sick and tired of being treated like this.”
That family is still in the flat today. With 27,000 people on the Newham Council housing waiting list, it’s not unusual for families to wait fifteen years for re-housing, as that one has.
I represent East Ham, where the rate of overcrowding is the highest in the country: 27% according to the 2011 census. But it’s a growing national problem too. The 2019-20 English Housing Survey showed overcrowding at the highest rates since records began - 9% in the social sector and 7% among private renters.
Lockdown has been challenging for everyone. But how would you have coped with seven people in a one-bedroomed flat?
Today I am leading a Westminster Hall debate on overcrowding and coronavirus. These were already serious problems. The pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated them.
We know from studies like the Marmot Review that housing is a ‘social determinant of health’. In overcrowded households, infection has spread faster. Social distancing and self-isolating are impossible. The stress of overcrowding has been transformed into a catastrophe.
Freezing Local Housing Allowance means support isn’t tied to real rents, and families can’t afford homes suitable for their needs
Last May, Inside Housing published a graph of local authorities’ overcrowding rates against their Covid death rates. The correlation is remarkable.
Overcrowding may well partly explain disproportionately high mortality among ethnic minority groups, documented by Public Health England. 24% of all Bangladeshi households, 18% of Pakistani households and 16% Black African households are overcrowded, compared with 2% of White British households. If we are serious about addressing racial inequality, we must address overcrowding.
For those forced to live, learn and work in one room, the psychological impact of lockdown has been extraordinary. On a video call last month with a family of mum, dad and five daughters in a two bedroomed council flat, the girls pointed out to me how infeasible it was for them all to be doing their school work at the same time. That family was clearly teetering on the edge.
Last month, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Housing Commission set out a positive vision of our home as a place we enjoy living in and returning to. I am old enough, just, to remember the 1960s furore over the housing crisis around the television play “Cathy Come Home”, about a family destroyed by inadequate housing. We need that moral outrage again, and to raise our collective vision and ambition in addressing this generation’s crisis.
Social security must tackle overcrowding. Freezing Local Housing Allowance means support isn’t tied to real rents, and families can’t afford homes suitable for their needs. This year, thankfully, LHA has been re-linked to the thirtieth percentile of rents. However, from next month, rates will be frozen again.
But most significantly, as we build back after the crisis, we need a major new programme of investment in council house buildings. That is the only way we can ensure everyone has access to a safe, secure and affordable home, with space to live, and to flourish.
Stephen Timms is the Labour MP for East Ham and chair of the Work and Pensions Committee.