The current UK housing standards were set out in 2006 by the Department of Communities and Local Government in the document, A Decent Home, and the related UK Housing Health and Safety Rating System. This includes standards to address overcrowding, which is understood to go beyond tangible physical criteria, and also accounts for ‘psychological needs for both social interaction and privacy.’
However, the existence of standards does not mean they are properly implemented. In general, local authorities are only meant to enforce A Decent Home standards in the private (as opposed to public) rental sector ‘as a last resort’.
Standards about space requirements per person, set out in 1935 as a response to ‘overcrowded conditions in the private rented sector before the Second World War’, are rarely enforced and data are rarely collected. Increasing numbers of families are now housed in inadequate accommodation with fewer than the statutory number of bedrooms required for their age and gender mix.
Lessons from past housing issues
Extremely overcrowded slum housing was a common feature of early industrial urban Europe and North America. In 1900, it was estimated that about one in six Muscovites were renting corners of rooms rented to others. In 1910, infant mortality rates in the slum area of Cowgate in Edinburgh were 277 per thousand, far higher than anywhere in the contemporary world (the current highest estimated rate is 82 for the Central African Republic).
Appalling housing conditions were a major cause – rooms were cold, dark, damp, insanitary and vermin-ridden. Yet people crowded into them, despite the danger, simply because they could not afford anything better.
These issues were gradually addressed by policies, which sometimes included the mass provision of public rental housing. Better housing regulations were also important, setting out improved standards about construction, maintenance, facilities and the avoidance of health hazards.
A return to inadequate and overcrowded housing
So why are we seeing an increase in inadequate and overcrowded housing? Two key factors are at play: one is that the relationship between typical housing costs (for buying or renting) and incomes in large, global cities (such as London or New York), has been changing since around the mid-1990s.
The result is that housing of all types has become increasingly expensive in real terms. Apart from the very wealthiest, many people can no longer afford the space and amenities once achievable for a similarly placed household a generation ago – no matter where they are on the income spectrum for the city in which they reside.
Households in the lower quintiles of city income distributions can find themselves sliding towards accommodation with inadequate space. This is because one way of making housing ‘affordable’ is to squeeze the space rented, so that other necessary expenditures, such as food, heat, clothes and transport to work, can also be covered.