“Further to a successful legal challenge by the Public Interest Law Unit (PILU) and Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL), it has become apparent that Southwark Council have been incorrectly applying the ‘space standard’ test for statutory overcrowding as contained in s.326 of the Housing Act 1985.
Had Southwark applied the law correctly, it would have been recognised that the family in question were living in statutorily overcrowded conditions, and that in accordance with their allocation scheme they should have been placed in Band 1 and given an additional ‘Priority Star’ to reflect that status.
The evidence provided by HASL and as a result of a Freedom of Information Request suggests that the error in fact forms part of a wider unlawful practice.
Since December 2017, HASL have come across five cases where households have reported to Southwark that they are overcrowded according to the space standard for the number of people in the property and the number of rooms, that in each of these cases Southwark has proceeded to measure the size of the rooms and that in only one of the cases has the household been placed in Band 1 on Southwark’s allocation scheme.
The Council’s response to a Freedom of Information request showed that since February 2018, 46 banding decision had been made which had involved assessing whether a household was statutorily overcrowded, all of these cases had been assessed with reference to the space standard set out in s326 Housing Act 1985, and all had been assessed solely with reference to floor area as opposed to the number of rooms. 13 of those cases had been found not to be statutorily overcrowded.
Southwark Council have now admitted that the test for statutory overcrowding had been incorrectly applied the case in question, and while the Council have been reviewing previous decisions made on this basis, it is unclear whether everybody affected will notified and awarded the additional priority that they are entitled to.
Helen Mowatt, solicitor from PILU said:
Southwark Council has formally adopted the measure of overcrowding contained in Part 10 of the Housing Act 1985 within its allocation scheme and is required to properly apply this when allocating social housing. A failure to do so is a breach of the Housing Act and amounts to an unlawful failure to follow a published policy.
Southwark have been erroneously applying the space standard contained in s326(3) Housing Act 1985, by assessing overcrowding solely with reference to floor area and not also with reference to the number of rooms, as required.
The error in our client’s case is material. Had Southwark correctly applied the space standard, his household would have been deemed statutorily overcrowded months ago, they would have been placed in Band 1 of the allocation scheme and awarded an additional priority star.
This was also not an isolated error on the part of the Council. The evidence we have obtained from HASL and as a result of our Freedom of Information Request shows that Southwark have been consistently misapplying the law in every case. It is therefore likely that many households have wrongly been assessed as not being statutorily overcrowded and placed in the incorrect housing Band.
We know that there may have been as many as 13 cases since February 2018 which must now be reviewed, but we are unclear as to how many households may have been affected before this date. We will be seeking assurances from the Council that they will review all relevant cases, but if anyone thinks they may have been affected, please contact HASL and/or seek legal advice.
Elizabeth Wyatt from HASL has said:
Overcrowded housing in the private rented sector, but also in Southwark’s own council housing, is one of the main problems we come across in our group and is one of the more invisible sides of the housing crisis. We know many families forced to live in single rooms, studio flats and one bed flats because of discrimination and extortionate rents in the private rented sector. We know first hand the devastating impact that overcrowded housing has on people’s lives particularly their mental and physical health. We have been raising the problem of overcrowding with Southwark council for years but the council have failed to engage and take meaningful action.
Southwark council should be supporting their residents to access their housing rights and the secure council homes they need, instead it took a legal challenge before the council would accept that it had been wrongly denying that our families were statutorily overcrowded. Together with PILU, we will be making sure that the council goes back to review all previous decisions and applies the law correctly for all future cases.
Southwark residents and all Londoners desperately need good quality, secure, 3, 4, 5 bed council homes in our communities. We welcome anyone struggling or worried about housing problems to get involved in our group to support each other and take collective action for good housing for everyone.” [ENDS]