Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Overcrowding in Reading damaging lives of families

I got a phonecall out of the blue earlier this week from a woman living with her a family in West Reading. They are overcrowded. Three children are currently sharing one bedroom. I get calls like this pretty regularly but that doesn't mean that individual cases are not heartrending. I asked the female caller what impact the current housing situation is having on family life.She told me that her children - three girls and one boy - have no personal space and nowhere to do homework in peace. It affects their social life as they cannot invite friends round. "I want to move somewhere larger so that my children can have room to breathe" she told me. It's calls like this which spur me to campaign for a better quality of life for local people. They are the basic reason I stood for election as a local councillor and why I would like to be a Member of Parliament. I am not content to shrug my shoulders -I want to work to help local people, particularly those in need.

Overcrowding - a Reading-wide issue
As a local councillor I have been contacted countless times in recent years by families in the same predicament as the women who called me earlier this week. I have long been concerned that the people contacting me in my ward are the tip of the iceberg so last October I tabled some written questions about about this issue which revealed the true extent of the problem faced by hundreds of families. With this in mind I have been campaigning for more family-sized houses to be built in Reading in the coming years to meet local need. I was keen to dig deeper to get more information about this isue and get more attention from politicians and officers in Reading on this issue so via my role as Chair of Scrutiny I asked officers to prepare a focussed piece of work on the issue of overcrowding. We are due to discuss that report on Thursday evening in a meeting of the HHCC Scrutiny Panel. The facts contained within the report I commissioned are worth highlighting:

  • The number of people on Reading on the Council's 'housng register' has risen from 4,400 (April 2008) to around 6000 in February 2010 - an increase of 30%
  • This increase is partly due to the impact of the recession but one of the most common reasons given is overcrowding
  • In February 2010 there were around 186 families in Reading registered with RBC as needing a propertywith 4 or more bedrooms
  • Data is not available for overcrowding in privately-rented housing -which could also be a signficant figure

The supply of larger family homes either housing association or Council-owned is in short supply and the local authority in Reading is simply unable able to meet demand. Too few affordable homes are being built each year in Reading. Under successive Labour governments councils have been prevented from building the number of council houses that local communities need to replace the loss of thousands of council houses which were sold off via the disastrous Right to Buy policies introduced by the Conservatives. Officers in the local authority are doing everything they can but their hands have been tied by government which has dicated housing policies to councils far too much. Currently the pressure is greatest on properties that are 4 or more bedrooms.

  • The Council currently owns 133 x 4 bedroom properties and 3 x 5 bedroom properties
  • RSL (housing assocation) partners built 28 x 4 bed and 2 x 5 bed properties in the last 2 years
  • 22 x 4 bed and 1 x 5 bed houses are planned by 2013

I'll leave you to do the math...!

Overcrowding is a problem across Reading, but there are some wards where the problem is particularly acute. Based on figures about percentages of tenant transfer requests these are - Caversham (20.5%), Minster (14,8%), Battle (10.3%) followed by Katesgrove and Southcote (8.3%), Redlands (8.2%) and Abbey and Church (8.1%).

Finding solutions

In Reading and many parts of the South-East the affordability of housing is a major issue. A recent national survey showed that only 23% of families under 40 living in the South East can afford to get on the housing ladder. More council homes must be built in Reading to meet the needs of our growing population. Larger affordable homes for families are urgently needed and thanks to pressure from the Lib Dems on the Borough Council the Council's Housing Strategy 2009 -2014 the blueprint for future housing in the Town includes plans to alter the housing mix towards more family-sized housing. There are very few large sites in Reading and the outskirts of the Town where large-scale new housing can be developed so we need to get better at getting more out of our exisiting housing stock. Long-term empty properties being brought back into use must also be part of the solution which I have actively supported. RBC is looking at ways of getting the most out of existing council stock - including extending some properties and encouraging some tenants who are technically 'under-occupying' council homes to move into smaller properties. As you can imagine, persuading people to downsize is not easy. A report on this is due in the autumn.The private rented sector has a key role to play - hence the need to raise standards in the sector - since 2008 600 households have been placed by RBC's housing team into the private sector via the increasingly-popular Deposit Guarantee Scheme. On a national level I am grateful to Shelter for pointing out the terrible impact that overcrowding is having on children and families. I will continue to campaign to get action taken to help families affected here in Reading.

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