Lime Legal

Overcrowded children

Published 10 March 2024

A survey of households in one London borough revealed that more than three-quarters exceeded the council’s own measure of overcrowding – until they redefined it. Peter Ambrose reports

‘Noisy, overcrowded and annoying’… an 11-year-old’s verdict on the two-bedroom flat he shared with his family in Wandsworth, South London, is a huge indictment of living conditions for many families in Britain’s capital city.

Six other people were crammed into the flat – the boy’s lone parent and five brothers and sisters aged 16, nine, five, three, and two – a level of overcrowding that local government guidelines acknowledge will endanger physical and mental well-being.

Another family of five was living in one room, in a flat which had been declared unsafe by environmental health. The landlord was refusing to carry out repairs. Although the council was aware of their plight, the family was sixth on the council’s list of families in urgent need of rehousing. Another five families were ahead of them in the queue.

Housing Our Future, a report by South London Citizens (SLC), paints a disturbing picture of overcrowding in the homes of children attending four primary schools in Wandsworth.

The shocking finding of a survey, carried out with council approval, was the high level of overcrowding families were forced to accept in this part of the borough. More than three-quarters (81per cent) of households with children at one school, St Mary’s primary, were living in conditions that exceeded the borough’s own measure of overcrowding.

The first instance came to light when a parent of children at St Mary’s told the local Catholic priest and a teacher at the school of her concerns about the overcrowding and damp in the family home.

In July 2018 a SLC group, including a parent, went to the borough’s director of housing to plead on the family’s behalf. The director acknowledged the severe shortage of family-sized accommodation in the borough. SLC undertook to carry out research on the incidence of overcrowding and to report back.

I was invited to design and manage a survey. The bilingual survey forms were distributed first at St Mary’s and later in two other primary schools in the borough.

More than 60 per cent of St Mary’s parents judged that their children’s educational progress was being affected by lack of space, sleep problems, noise and by not being able to invite friends to come and stay.

‘Conditions in our home are very bad. I am waiting for my children to be good at school, but they can’t give me that because of conditions at home,’ said one parent.

‘My son can’t sleep at night and it is affecting his school performance. I need help,’ said another.

‘Because the children can’t do their homework, they get into a fight, which results in detentions, which is worrying me,’ another parent said.

An interim report on the findings was produced in October 2018. The director of housing was informed and the housing department responded by asking for the names and addresses of the households surveyed. But parents, fearing reprisals from landlords, were understandably reluctant to have their names passed on to the council.

At this stage SLC decided to form a housing commission to gather further evidence on the severity of overcrowding among parent households.

Three experts experienced in fields of law, housing and education agreed to join me on the commission – Sir Michael Harris, a retired judge and former president of the Appeals Service,

Peter Mortimore, a former director of the London University Institute of Education, and Robina Rafferty, former director of CHAS, the debt advice agency, and first chief executive of the charity Housing Justice. The commission heard directly from more than 300 people including 140 children.

On 7 May 2019, the first hearing of the commission was held at Wandsworth Town Hall. The four commissioners heard evidence from Wandsworth residents in housing need and they agreed to help the citizens panel which had also been formed to refine its recommendations.

In June 2019, SLC extended the research into overcrowding to three more Wandsworth primary schools. A survey form designed for children was completed by children at Alderbrook, Christchurch, St Mary’s and Trinity St Mary’s schools as part of their lessons. They were invited to make drawings and comment on their home conditions.

In July 2019, the citizens panel and commission members carried out visits to the homes of 12 families who had completed the survey. The visits revealed cases of extreme overcrowding where children’s health and education was clearly in serious jeopardy.

In all these homes it was found that children had insufficient space to do homework, invite friends to the house or to store schoolwork, clothes and possessions. This was placing considerable stress on both parents and children and leading to household tension.

One teacher said: ‘There are children I teach who are tired all the time and “nodding off”. In the overcrowded households it is impossible for the younger ones to have adequate sleep.’

A parent said: ‘My main problem is my kids keep getting frustrated, because of these conditions. It’s having a bad effect on my older son’s behaviour. He’s taking it out on other people.’

A second hearing, and the presentation of the findings to councillors and borough officers, was held in September 2019. At all stages in the production of the report SLC took considerable trouble to elicit the borough’s responses and ensure that no factual errors or misrepresentations of policy were included.

We compared the results with a French study published in 2015, which identified a statistical relationship between housing conditions and academic failure, and a study of people living in Stockholm which showed that children living in crowded conditions suffered a 52 per cent greater risk of subsequent mental health problems and increased drug and alcohol dependency.

A number of government documents since 2015 clearly identiy the adverse outcomes associated with crowded homes and it was spelled out in the DCLG ‘action plan’ of 2017 which referred to the ‘devastating effects’ of crowding on families.

The mayor of London’s draft housing strategy of the same year required all London authorities to develop policies to stem the growth of overcrowding by 2012. The 2018 follow-up document encouraged all boroughs to self-assess the level of overcrowding but did not oblige them to respond.

The government has allocated an additional £15 million to tackle overcrowding during the next three years and has set up a number of ‘Pathfinder’ authorities to develop and share good practice.

And Shelter has published several reports based on surveys detailing the extent of crowding and the health and behavioural problems with which it is strongly associated. A 2015 survey showed than more than 77 per cent of respondents agreed that overcrowding does serious harm to family relationships and leads to tensions and even fighting between children.

Shelter found that 905,000 children were overcrowded in England in 2013, but by 2018 this figure had risen to more than a million. In London the number had risen from 261,000 to 331,000.

However, the only statutory definition of overcrowding, testable in the courts, is in the 1985 Housing Act, which carried it over from a 1935 Act. This definition is out of touch with modern aspirations.

The survey of English Housing Bedroom Standard sets out bedrooms required, but is ambiguous on whether or not a living room not required for sleeping should be taken into the calculation. This is the standard that local authorities are being encouraged to adopt by central government.

Wandsworth adopted this standard as the SLC project progressed to qualify for the Pathfinder programme. The differences in outcomes resulting from this change are startling. Whereas in the three schools combined the rate of overcrowding in the sample by Wandsworth’s original standard was 71 per cent, the rate in the same population using the government’s bedroom standard was 18 per cent – better than the average for London boroughs.

The problem had been reduced simply by changing the definition – although the situation of the families remained the same.

It is clear that more decent, family-sized, affordable housing is still desperately needed.And questions remain about the lack of a statutory definition of overcrowding in line with modern aspirations, which would enforce a space standard sufficient to protect health and wellbeing.

Why does a government stressing ‘education, education, education’ ignore the conditions we found in Wandsworth – and deny children the right to succeed at school and reach their full potential?