Millions of people are living in overcrowded and mouldy homes – why won’t the Government fix the housing crisis?

This week, I led a Westminster Hall Debate on Social Housing Occupancy Levels, an issue I have been campaigning on since I become a Member of Parliament for Hornsey and Wood Green in 2015 and before that a London Council Leader.

Each week, I speak to constituents who are living in overcrowded social housing, waiting many years for suitable housing. In Haringey, over 13,000 people are on the council housing waiting list and 1,053 people are estimated to be living in overcrowded council homes and 871 private sector tenants in the highest social housing priority are overcrowded or severely overcrowded. No local authority wants to place a household in unsuitable accommodation, however the severe reduction in the number of homes available to let through social housing means that councils are forced to use the dwindling private rented sector, B&Bs and hotels. The use of temporary accommodation often means families are having to move far away from friends, work, and school just to keep a roof over their heads.

According to the National Housing Federation, an estimated 8.4 million people are living in unsuitable housing – affected by overcrowding, unaffordability, disrepair and damp and mould (as of December 2021). I have lost count of the number of residents who have contacted me to say they can no longer use their bedroom due to excessive mould on ceilings, walls, and bedding. Most significant of all, overcrowding is the largest problem nationally, affecting nearly 3.7 million people.

So, what is the impact of overcrowded housing? Firstly, it has proven to worsen physical and mental health. We know that people living in these conditions are more likely to face problems such as damp, vermin, and lack of outdoor space. According to the 2022 Marmot Review for the Greater London Authority, overcrowding is associated with higher rates of TB transmission, stress, and depression. All this puts more pressure on our NHS and means that people are sicker for longer. Last summer, one constituent told me that she had been living in an emergency one-bedroom studio with her 16-year-old teenager and 6-year-old severely autistic son. As well as living in cramped conditions, she told me: “the roof has collapsed, and our bulbs keep going out as there is some electrical fault here, the fridge doesn’t work, I keep feeling constantly ill because there’s no windows that work either”.

I am also deeply concerned and saddened about the impact of overcrowding on families. It means that children are less able to concentrate on homework or be able to play. According to the National Housing Federation, almost two million children live in overcrowded homes. I remember one young constituent wrote to me about being unable to study for his GCSE exams as he was sharing a bedroom with two other siblings. He had found solace in his local library but was very upset when he learnt that the library would have to reduce opening hours due to a lack of government funding. Recently, I heard from one constituent who lives in a 2-bedroom flat with his wife and four children, the youngest of whom is blind and requires essential medical equipment such as specialized chairs, a buggy, a standing frame, and various feeding-related apparatus – can you imagine all of this in a 2-bedroom flat? This family, like many others, desperately needs a bigger home.

The Government’s recklessness has hiked house prices, rents, mortgage rates and its refusal to scrap Section 21 evictions means more people are going to the council for emergency homelessness support. I am grateful for all the wonderful charities in my constituency who work tirelessly to support my constituents, including Shelter, Citizens Advice Haringey, St James’s Legal Advice Centre in Muswell Hill, Haringey Law Centre and Haringey Connected Communities. But the third sector should not have to do the work of the Government.

If Labour is privileged enough to serve in government, we will bring about the biggest boost in affordable homes for a generation – with social and council housing at the core of our plan. There is no solution to the housing crisis that does not involve a substantial programme of social and affordable house building. In the meantime, more and more families in my constituency will be stuck in overcrowded and completely unsuitable housing.

Catherine West MP

Catherine West is the Labour MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, and was elected in 2015. She currently undertakes the role of Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs).