Nurses protesting against rent increases of up to 22 per cent plan to spend tonight in cardboard boxes outside the office of their central London hospital's administration block.

Some of the nurses from Middlesex and University College hospitals claim the increases mean that they will take home less pay than when they started training two or three years ago. The protest will take place outside the office of Charles Marshall, the chief exeuctive of the governing trust.

Student nurses, who earn pounds 5,000 a year and who have not had a pay increase for more than a year, say their rent is going up 16 per cent from pounds 96 to pounds 112 a month. The money will be deducted from their wages.

Other nursing and ancillary staff living in the hospital's halls of residence face a 22 per cent hike in rents.

Rent levels are calculated in proportion to salaries. A staff nurse, on about pounds 12,000 a year, faces an increase of pounds 32 a month increase, while ancillary workers, who are paid about pounds 9,000 a year, face the highest increase of all, from pounds 172 to pounds 211. Many are refusing to pay the extra.

The nurses say the accommodation is of an appalling standard and that, despite the proposed rent increase, the trust has no plans to redecorate their rooms. Some rooms have bare floorboards, damp patches and have been infested with cockroaches in the past.

Penny Fletcher, 21, a third-year student nurse, pays pounds 96.94 for her room, which is the size of a small box room. 'There is a wardrobe, sink, a bed and a pull-out desk. There is no room for anything else, she said.

'After the rent, I end up with just pounds 323 a month to live on. That is for food and travel and whatever else I need. The trust have said her rent will go up by pounds 15 a month to pounds 112.

'If they do that, it will mean in my third year of training I will be earning less money than when I started in 1992. All the nurses are disgusted at the plan. We can't afford it.

'If management had been able to give us any good reason why they were putting the rent up, we could understand it. But all we have heard is that it is in order to make the hospital more cost effective. The money won't be spent on improvements.

Some of the other halls are even worse than hers, she said. 'We have carpets and curtains in John Astor at the Middlesex, but there are no carpets in the Rockerfeller Nurses' Home at UCH. It is just bare floorboards.

'They have no cupboards in the kitchens to store their food, 25 people have to share one cooker, and there is only one common room, which is used by everybody including the general hospital staff.

Ms Fletcher said she and other student nurses have little choice but to live in the halls. 'I couldn't afford to live anywhere else. pounds 220 a month is the average rent per month. There's no way I could afford that on my grant with the bills as well.

However, a spokesman for both hospitals said they had no intention of increasing student nurse rents by any more than 10 per cent in the coming year. If student nurses were facing an increase of more than that, they should contact their hospital's housing department, he said.

According to the trust, the increase brings their rents in line with the average of pounds 196 a month charged by other nurses' homes.

They have just spent pounds 4m on improving one of the homes and, if there is any surplus cash left at the end of the year, it would be spent improving the other home, the trust's spokesman said.

(Photograph omitted)