“Fatima” and her Mum share a small bedsit in east London. The flat is so small that there is barely room for her bed, let alone her clothes and toys. Her Mum works, but because the hours are not guaranteed, she sometimes has to rely on Housing Benefit to help with the rent. Fatima is in Year 3 now and doing quite well, but her Mum thinks the overcrowded conditions at home undermine her confidence in school. She really worries how Fatima will make the most of her studies if she is still stuck in this bedsit when she moves on to secondary school.
Nearly 400,000 London children like Fatima are growing up in overcrowded conditions. All the evidence shows that overcrowding has a serious impact on the health, education and well-being of children. The way infectious diseases spread in overcrowded conditions means that in bigger families, when one child falls ill, their brothers and sisters often end up falling ill too. And the lack of quiet space also makes it much more difficult to finish their homework and to study for exams. The lack of privacy is especially unfair for teenage girls who have to share bedrooms with their brothers.
Many observers were pleasantly surprised when Boris Johnson published an Action Plan to tackle overcrowding it as part of his Housing Strategy. However, his decision to set a target to halve only the number of those most severely overcrowded by 2016 meant that there would be just 5,500 fewer households in such conditions after his second term than at the start of his first. This translated in barely 2 per cent of all the overcrowded households in London.
Despite the creation of the London Overcrowding Board to oversee progress towards this limited target, the number of severely overcrowded households has actually increased. No doubt, the recession and demographic changes in the Capital play their part in this trend. But is also reflects the reduced numbers of social rented homes being built since the National Affordable Housebuilding Programme was ended. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the overcrowding target seems to have been dropped completely from the most recent version of the London Housing Strategy.
The next Mayor really needs to do much more to help children like Fatima. Her Mum’s only hope of the decent family-sized home they need is from the local council’s waiting list. But she has already been waiting five years and there are still dozens of other young families ahead of her in the queue. That’s why Z2K is delighted the London Child Poverty Alliance is calling for the candidates to be Mayor of London to pledge to halve the number of children growing up in overcrowded conditions by 2020.
No doubt, this is a very challenging target. But it is not unrealisable. More money for genuinely affordable new housing is certainly needed. However, the Mayor must also ensure that the current investment delivers more genuinely affordable family-sized social homes too and that developers are obliged to set aside a meaningful proportion of new schemes for overcrowded local families. Of course, it is essential too that London’s boroughs aren’t forced to sell off the homes they have already if the sitting tenant leaves.
London’s next Mayor really could do more to help overcrowded children like Fatima. We hope all the candidates will back LCPA’s pledge and make them a real political priority if they win in May.