To examine the associations between temperature, housing, deprivation and excess winter mortality using census variables as proxies for housing conditions. Small area ecological study at electoral ward level. Setting Great Britain between 1986 and 1996. Men and women aged 65 and over. Deaths from all causes (International Classification of Diseases, Ninth Revision [ICD-9] codes 0-999), coronary heart disease (ICD-9 410-414), stroke (ICD-9 430-438) and respiratory diseases (ICD-9 460-519). Odds of death occurring in winter period of the four months December to March compared to the rest of the year. During the study period (excluding the influenza epidemic year of 1989/90), a total of 1,682,687 deaths occurred in winter and 2,825,223 deaths occurred during the rest of the year among people aged > or =65 (around 30,000 excess winter deaths per year). A trend of higher excess winter mortality with age was apparent across all disease categories (P < 0.01). There was a significant association between winter mortality and temperature with a 1.5% higher odds of dying in winter for every 1 degrees C reduction in 24-h mean winter temperature. The amount of rain, wind and hours of sunshine were inversely associated with excess winter mortality. Selected housing variables derived from the English House Condition Survey showed little agreement with census-derived variables at electoral ward level. For all-cause mortality there was little association between deprivation and excess winter mortality, although lack of central heating was associated with a higher risk of dying in winter (odds ratio [OR] = 1.016, 95% CI : 1.009-1.022). Excess winter mortality continues to be an important public health problem in Great Britain. There was a strong inverse association with temperature. Lack of central heating was associated with higher excess winter mortality. Further work is needed to disentangle the complex relationships between different indicators of housing quality and other measures of socioeconomic deprivation and their relationship to the high number of excess winter deaths in Great Britain.