With the development of community care, the number of National Health Service psychiatric beds in England has been reduced to between one-fifth and one-quarter of those provided in the mid-1950s. Psychiatric bed numbers are close to the irreducible minimum if they have not already reached it. The problems facing today's acute psychiatric admission wards include: poor design, maintenance and ambience; a lack of therapeutic and leisure activities for patients leading to inactivity and boredom; frequent incidents of aggression and low-level violence and problems with staffing. It is suggested that there are a number of underlying causes: First, there has been failure to plan inpatient services, or to define their role, as attention has focused on new developments in community care. Second, the reduction in bed numbers has led to a change in the casemix of inpatients with a concentration on admission wards of a more challenging group of patients. Third, admission ward environments are permeable to the adverse effects of local street life, including drug taking. After years of neglect, acute inpatient psychiatric services in England are now high on the UK Government agenda. The paper lists a number of national initiatives designed to improve their quality and safety. A recent review of qualitative research suggests that acute psychiatric wards in other countries face similar problems to those reported in England. It is suggested that there might be a need for joint action which might take the form either of international research about acute inpatient care or the development of international standards and a common quality improvement system.