The statutory overcrowding standard was last updated in 1935

When the statutory overcrowding standard was first introduced it was viewed as a threshold that could be strengthened. In practice, the standard has not been updated since 1935. It is currently found in Part X of the Housing Act 1985.  It is not generous, and the English Housing Survey (EHS) and the census in England and Wales use a different standard to measure levels of residential overcrowding.

Some demographic groups are more likely to be overcrowded

The 2021 census found that 4% of households in England and Wales (around 1.1 million) were overcrowded. The census measures overcrowding using the ‘bedroom standard’, which compares the number of bedrooms a household has with the number it needs based on the ages and relationships of household members.

Overcrowding was more common amongst social renters (9% of households) and private renters (7%) than owner-occupiers (2%). Overcrowding was higher in urban areas including London, Birmingham and Leicester.

2021 census data also shows that overcrowding is more common amongst certain demographic groups. These include households with people from certain minority ethnic and religious groups, households with dependent children, and households with multiple disabled people.

The impact of overcrowding

Evidence suggests that overcrowding has a detrimental effect on household members’ physical and mental health. Research carried out for the National Housing Federation over 2022 refers to levels of overcrowding across all tenures as “One of the strongest indicators that all is not well in our housing system”.

The same research found evidence of children forced to share beds with other family members; households experiencing poor mental and physical health because of overcrowding; and family members forced to sleep in rooms other than bedrooms, such as kitchens.

The coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic highlighted and intensified existing housing problems. For example, reports by The Health Foundation and The King’s Fund, in partnership with the Centre for Ageing Better, identified an increased risk of Covid-19 transmission in overcrowded housing.

The Homelessness Monitor: England 2021 said “the pandemic has further exposed England’s severe shortage of affordable homes.” The authors called for, amongst other things, “a large expansion of total and social housing supply” to reduce homelessness.

The Women and Equalities Committee (December 2020) called on the Government to “produce a strategy to reduce overcrowding due to its poor health impacts” (PDF) by the end of summer 2021. The Government did not accept this recommendation, referring instead to work already underway to support those in overcrowded conditions (PDF).

Legislation to update the statutory standard has not been implemented

Government amendments to the Housing Act 2004 provided for the statutory overcrowding standard to be amended by secondary legislation. The then-Labour Government described the standard as “no longer defensible in a modern society.” However, secondary legislation to update the standard has not been introduced. There is concern that updating the standard in the absence of a significant increase in affordable housing supply could place additional pressure on local housing authorities.

Governments since 2010 have considered and implemented other means to incentivise households to downsize and free up properties for overcrowded households, for example, the under-occupation deduction from Housing Benefit / the housing element of Universal Credit for working-age claimants in social housing.

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