Tower Hamlets – reducing overcrowding


Top housing priority for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets is reducing severe overcrowding. Overcrowding contributes to mental health problems and transmission of infectious diseases. The council is undertaking an ambitious building and buy-back programme, along with other innovative measures to reduce overcrowding.

Key learnings for other councils

Equalities issues

Previous policies of giving priority to sons and daughters of existing social tenants have been criticised as potentially discriminatory. An equalities impact assessment (EqIA) of all proposals will be carried out. The final decision by cabinet will be part of an overall review of lettings policy.

Regional issues

The council supports the flexibility offered by the East London Sub-regional Nominations Protocol. However, it believes that it has not benefitted sufficiently from affordable housing in the borough and has therefore decided to review its role in the sub-regional agreement. In addition, it aims to ensure that all housing associations operating in the borough sign up to the Common Housing Register.

Relationships with private sector landlords

The council intends to work with landlords to drive forward higher standards through training and support, as well as enforcement.


There are well-established links between overcrowding and poor health. Overcrowded accommodation or housing with shared facilities puts people at greater risk of infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis. This has been on the rise recently in Tower Hamlets.

Studies link respiratory problems and delayed cognitive development in children to overcrowded housing. Those living in houses of multiple occupation (HMOs) are four times as likely to suffer injury and twice as likely to die in a fire as those in single dwellings. And overcrowding adversely affects mental health. (BMA, 2003; ODPM, 2004, NICE, 2005).

Overcrowding is Tower Hamlets' most urgent housing problem. New communities and the squeeze on building council homes in the 1980s and 1990s resulted in overcrowding to levels not seen since the 1930s. Tower Hamlets' has developed a multi-faceted overcrowding reduction strategy using capital investment and other innovative measures.

Who was involved?

The council has worked collaboratively with registered social landlords (RSLs) in the borough to tackle overcrowding. It has also worked with private sector landlords to reduce empty properties. This ensures the decent homes standard is met and exceeded, particularly for converted and adapted redundant commercial buildings. The council participates in cross-London housing strategies with other boroughs and with the Mayor of London.

The problem and how it is being tackled

Approximately 1,800 households on the Common Housing Register are severely overcrowded by two bedrooms or more. The borough's first Overcrowding Reduction strategy for 2009-2012 aims to improve the quality of life for 500 overcrowded households. It also aims to engage in an extensive programme of capital investment with partners. The strategy is accompanied by an action plan and is overseen by a Housing Strategy Delivery Board.

The council is taking measures to increase the overall supply of housing. These include:

Piloting the Local Homes Initiative

This involves:

  • an initial pilot to build 31 units of large family-sized housing with a development partner on small plots of council land
  • starting to build new council housing
  • allocated £19.4 million to buy back ex-council three-bed plus ‘Right to buy' properties
  • re-housing Gypsy and Traveller families and providing bigger pitches.

Overall, the council aims to increase housing supply of family-sized affordable housing by 1,400 units by 2012.

However, these homes will take several years to build. Meanwhile, the council has instigated measures to mitigate overcrowding in existing housing. These include doubling the number of specialist staff to conduct home visits and implement the following.

Cash incentive schemes

  • grants to encourage under-occupiers to move into the owner-occupied sector
  • encouraging under-occupiers to downsize to smaller accommodation: the greater the number of bedrooms tenants give up, the higher the priority they are given to move
  • a rent deposit scheme to encourage council tenants to secure private sector accommodation.


If a property becomes vacant next to a dwelling where the family is overcrowded then it will be considered for a knockthrough (around 20 per year).

‘Sons and daughters' policy

The council is currently consulting on proposals to reduce the overcrowding threshold to offer more opportunities to sons and daughters. They also aim to offer separate re-housing to a social housing tenant and adult son or daughter where this may release a larger property to an overcrowded household.

Better living conditions

To mitigate the effects of overcrowding while tenants wait for suitably sized accommodation by:

  • separating toilets and bathrooms and adding wash-hand basins
  • additional kitchen cupboards and a quicker response to repairs.

Working with registered social landlords

Tower Hamlets operates a common housing register with 17 of the largest registered social landlords - (RSLs) - pooling vacancies gives applicants a much wider choice.

Overcrowding in the private sector

The council is currently considering introducing equity release and dormer grants programmes. The Housing department works with the Environmental Health team to ensure the private rented sector complies with and, where possible, goes beyond the minimum legal standards. Private landlords are encouraged to join the London-wide Landlord Accreditation scheme.

Outcomes and impact

Twenty-one tenants have been supported through cash incentives to buy their own home. Twenty have similarly been support to move into the private rented sector, and more than 40 households have moved from under-occupied three-bed homes.

The Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) has approved £1.7 million worth of funding to build 26 council housing units.

Seventy-five ex-council ‘Right to buy' houses were bought back over the last 12 months, re-housing 146 over-crowded households.

1,916 affordable units were built at the end of 2009/10 - the highest in the country - including 526 social rented family-sized units. One hundred and fifty-one are forecast for 2010/11.

Twenty-one empty properties have been brought back into use.

The council and its arm's-length management organisation (ALMO), Tower Hamlets Homes (THH), works with residents to alleviate overcrowding. THH provides space-saving furniture, home visits to discuss housing options and community play and work facilities.

The council is introducing a new lettings policy, to equalise the priority given to homeless and overcrowded households. The council with its registered partners re-housed 374 overcrowded tenants and moved 94 under-occupiers in 2009/10 alone.

Next steps

The council will be developing its partnership with ‘Housing Options', a one-stop shop for all affordable housing London, to promote low-cost home ownership. It aims to increase information and transparency on waiting times and develop a different approach to lettings for single person households. It is reviewing its allocations policy to consider how to increase priority in a more strategic way.

References and further information

Housing and health: building for the future - British Medical Association (BMA) (2003)

Housing and public health: a review of reviews of interventions for improving health - National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) (2005)

The impact of overcrowding on health and education: a review of the evidence and literature - Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) (2004)


Faisal Butt, Principal Housing Policy Officer

London Borough of Tower Hamlets

Telephone: 0207364 6149

Email: [email protected]