Council tells overcrowded family to sleep in the bath

Sarah Coles
Angela Hemming
Angela Hemming

Angela Hemmings has been asking Northampton Partnership Homes for a larger council house since July last year. At the moment the 59-year-old lives in a two-bedroom property in Kings Heath, Northampton, with her daughter and grandchildren. The council's response was quite a surprise.

The Northampton Chronicle and Echo reported that care worker Angela shares her property with her 34-year old daughter Helen Forward, two granddaughters and two grandsons. She has to share a room with the boys, while the girls share another room and Helen sleeps in a small box room.

She asked to be put on the waiting list for a larger property when her household mushroomed from three people to six, but was told her home didn't meet the government's definition of overcrowding, so she couldn't go onto the list.

Angela told the Daily Mail that among the bizarre suggestions made by a housing officer assessing her home was to put a board over the bath for a child to sleep on, or convert the dining room table into a makeshift bed for another child.
Bizarre rules

Technically the council is right, because according to the rules, the family is not overcrowded.

The government standards relating to overcrowding were laid down in 1985, but originate from standards set in 1935. These state that a dining room and a lounge can be used for sleeping, that adults of the same sex can share a room, that a room of 110 square feet can be shared by two people, children under the age of 1 are not counted, and children between the ages of 1 and 10 are counted as half a person.

Couples do have the right to a room of their own, and children over the age of 10 don't have to sleep with siblings of the opposite sex either.

There's also a set rule about the number of people allowed to sleep in a house depending on how many rooms it has (adding bedrooms, lounges and dining rooms). A home with just one room can house two people, two rooms can house three people, three rooms have space for five people, four rooms have space for 7.5 people, and 5 rooms or more can take two people per room.

This would mean, according to the rules, this house could accommodate far more people, because including the lounge and dining room, Angela officially has five rooms.

Angela and Helen could share one room, the girls the other, and the boys could share the box room (as they are only half a person each). Technically this would mean they could invite a couple to share the dining room and put four more young children in the lounge without being classed as overcrowded.

It begs the question of whether the rules are sensible for an era where housing conditions are somewhat better than in 1935, and people have come to expect a reasonable amount of living space.

Not alone

The local council held a debate this week, in which Angela's case was mentioned. One councillor brought forward a motion that would allow the council to go above and beyond their statutory duties where they felt overcrowding was an issue. It was turned down, because the housing policy is currently under review.

This case is shocking, but they are far from the only family battling with these kinds of conditions. An estimate in 2013 put the total number of overcrowded families in the UK at 652,000.

There are also plenty of families living in difficult positions that are not classed as overcrowded. The Chronicle reported that in Kings Heath alone there are said to be more than 50 families living in one bedroom flats that are not classed as overcrowded. Even if there were two children of the opposite sex and over the age of ten in the property it wouldn't be overcrowded as long as there was a lounge or a large kitchen - because the mother and daughter could have one room and the father and son the other.

Councils, who are struggling with a shortage of housing stock, are making difficult decisions about how to prioritise the little housing they do have, and as a result some tenants are clearly suffering. You have to wonder whether allowing councils to sell off more of this stock at a knock down price is going to help the situation enormously.

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