Commons Gate

Decent Homes

ODPM Committee 16 Dec 2003

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Q167 Chairman: Good morning, may I welcome you to the second session of this inquiry into decent homes and ask you to identify yourselves for the record.

Ms Miller: I am Clare Miller. I am Director of Regulation Policy, Housing Corporation.

Dr Perry: Norman Perry, Chief Executive of the Housing Corporation.

Mr Irwin: Roy Irwin, Chief Inspector of Housing for the Audit Commission.

Mr Jarmon: I am Roger Jarmon, Strategic Policy Advisor at the Audit Commission.

Chairman: Is there anything you want to say by way of introduction, or are you happy to go straight to questions? Straight to questions. David Clelland.

Q168 Mr. David Clelland: Do you feel the Decent Homes Standard is sufficiently broad. Is the level required by the standard high enough?

Dr Perry: On behalf of the Housing Corporation: the Decent Homes Standard itself was set by ministers and the exact dimensions they use are clearly a matter for them.

Q169 Mr. David Clelland: Yes, but you must have an opinion.

Dr Perry: When housing associations are investing in the Decent Homes Standard, by and large they are improving their homes to a higher standard than the Decent Homes Standard requires.

Q170 Mr. David Clelland: So you do not believe it is high enough.

Dr Perry: It is not a very demanding standard.

Q171 Chairman: Did you make representations to government to tell them that they should set a higher standard?

Dr Perry: No, we have not.

Mr Irwin: I think that, given where social housing has come from, it is quite a demanding standard relative to resources, but, in terms of a market position, in terms of what people would aspire to, it might be seen as acceptable just about in 2003 but by 2010 it will be seen as old hat.

Q172 Chairman: Which bits particularly are wrong with it?

Mr Irwin: The energy efficiency issues will be seen as out of date. Not just from a heat perspective, but, depending on which way you think the climate is going to change, it is also about protecting people from excessively hot weather as well. So issues like insulation, over time; issues around water supply and how that will be managed over that long period of time; and also probably issues around electronic communications being a standard part of how any house will be seen to be meeting any normal market standard, so internet connection.

Q173 Mr. David Clelland: Do you think the standard as defined is sufficiently clear? Is there adequate methodology for measuring compliance?

Mr Irwin: I would have thought there is room for people to misinterpret the standard, either to over-interpret it and do more and think they have only just hit the target, or for people to do less than required and hit the target. It is not target specified. I am not advocating that it should be, but there is room for interpretation.

Dr Perry: The definition, as Mr Irwin says, is not absolutely rigid, but there are common understandings of how it should be measured - indeed, there need to be, otherwise we would not be able to gather the statistics.

Q174 Mr. David Clelland: Is it feasible to make changes to the breadth or the level of the Decent Homes definition at this stage?

Dr Perry: My own view is that it would not be wise to do so. In terms of being able to monitor the performance against the standard, you are talking about several hundred local authorities and a couple of thousand housing associations, and it has taken quite a big effort to get them all pointing in the same direction in terms of collecting data and submitting that on a regular basis. To change now, I think, would have a time lag for the quality of data.

Q175 Mr. David Clelland: On issues like accessibility and neighbourhood requirements, is there room to improve the definition, by giving definitions of the standards we require in this area?

Dr Perry: I think there is a distinction between what we are trying to do and what decent landlords, social landlords, are trying to do in their neighbourhoods and on their estates. There is a distinction between that and the precise definition of Decent Homes in order to meet the public service agreement standard agreed between the Treasury and ODPM.


Q217 Mr. David Clelland: Mr Irwin mentioned earlier the importance of maintaining a good general environment, a decent neighbourhood, in order to justify the investment in maintaining decent stocks. Of course there are other reasons for doing that, not least the welfare and well-being of the people who live there. Is there a danger that by prioritising resources in order to meet the decent homes target that we will actually end up neglecting the neighbourhoods themselves?

Mr Irwin: There is always that risk, that an organisation makes a wrong purchasing decision. It is about understanding how the customers feel about their neighbourhood. Given that the money for local authorities is ring-fenced to housing revenue account functions, therefore it is around maintaining tenancies both as a mandatory task and also as an investment task, the skill for the organisation is to link it with other funding streams which are not housing revenue account but lift the neighbourhood. Therefore, it is not always the choice between spending the rent money and however it is financed on the neighbourhood or the house; it is spending the rent money on the neighbourhood and general fund money on the house because council tenants pay council tax. It is not always a straight choice between the housing capital programme invested in new street lights, better pavements, more security arrangements - although, if it is in the stock, then that clearly is a decision - it is about co-ordinating council action, so that the streetlight programme and the housing investment programme and the education investment programme all link together and local transport makes a real difference.


Q246 Chairman: May I welcome you to our third session this morning and ask you to introduce yourselves for the record.

Mr Atherton: Mike Atherton, Head of Strategic Housing Services at Telford and Wrekin Council.

Ms Pennington: Lynne Pennington, Corporate Director at Nottingham City Council.

Cllr Bagnall: Ruth Bagnall, Chair of the Housing Executive of the Local Government Association.

Ms O'Brien: Maria O'Brien, Divisional Manager for Housing Strategy, Liverpool City Council.

Ms Mansfield: Sue Mansfield, Housing Investment Manager, Liverpool City Council.

Q247 Chairman: Thank you very much. Is there anything you would like to say by way of introduction, or you are happy to go straight to questions?

Cllr Bagnall: May I have a starter, and only a very quick one. I know we will be talking in a lot of technical detail about Decent Homes as such, but I think it is important that we do see that within the context, embedded as it is now, in the overall approach to housing in the Sustainable Communities Plan. The whole commitment to Decent Homes has put a lid on the state of council housing: it showed the amount of investment which was going to be necessary. But when you look at it embedded now in the documentation for Sustainable Communities, I think our sights have been raised since that first commitment to Decent Homes, particularly in council housing. Standards have been raised and expectations have been raised, so what we are looking to achieving out of the Sustainable Communities Plan goes quite a lot further, in the sense of expectations and aspirations, than the strictest definition of Decent Homes. I think it is important to see it in that context, as well as what it is in terms of PSA targets and whether we are going to meet them.

Chairman: Thank you very much.

Q248 Mr. David Clelland: Is the Decent Homes Standard sufficiently broad and is the level high enough?

Ms Pennington: As Corporate Director of the Housing Department in Nottingham City Council, a lot of what we have heard today reflects where we are up to. We are currently going through major organisational change. Major programmes have been set up for consulting tenants across the city on the range of investment options and clearly the Decent Homes Standard is part of that debate. It is very clear from the tenants that it is decent homes and decent neighbourhoods that are important to them. Nottingham has a very successful track record of maintaining decent neighbourhoods. In terms of our evidence, the tenants have very strong views about the Decent Homes Standard and the need for decent neighbourhoods, and of the need for a level playing field to enable them to exercise informed choices that are not dictated by linkages with options. In terms of the Decent Homes Standard, whilst we do not have a problem with the minimum standard, we do think it is a minimum standard. We are one of the authorities that will be struggling to meet that, and we are clearly looking at options for meeting that gap, but actually what is important for us is the decent homes and decent neighbourhoods' gap. As an example, our decent homes and decent neighbourhoods' gap is £141 million but for the Decent Homes Standard it is £36 million.

Ms O'Brien: From Liverpool's perspective, I would agree with a lot of what has been said. Some of the stock we have within the city is probably in the worst condition but is actually in our most sustainable neighbourhoods. Liverpool is one of the low-demand pathfinders for the housing market renewable initiative. Fifty per cent of council stock is in that area where there are issues around the sustainability of that stock. If you just look at Decent Homes as a straightforward number basis - which is really how it is applied - some of that stock is not sustainable even though it meets Decent Homes, because it is in an area that is in a low-demand pathfinder and therefore is unpopular and in unpopular neighbourhoods.

Cllr Bagnall: Your question was whether the definition was broad enough or high enough. I think it depends on: broad enough or high enough for what? In terms of very basic asset management it probably is, and it is probably achievable, but in terms of sustainable communities it probably is not.

Q249 Mr. David Clelland: Do you think the standard is defined sufficiently clearly? Is there adequate methodology for measuring outputs?

Cllr Bagnall: My guess is yes. I personally have not gone through in any detail the acres of guidance that go to my offices and the offices of other councils. I would expect there is every bit as much as is needed, if not more so, just in terms of definition of the standards. There will still be people who interpret those standards flexibly, people who are very keen to be seen to meet the targets, who will maybe do a job of work on a particular estate which another authority or even another estate might not see or feel is meeting the targets. I think there is always going to be some local flexibility, local interpretation and local understanding of what it is that people are trying to achieve even with a full set of guidance.

Q250 Chairman: An awful lot of the evidence which we have received, which I assume you have had a look at, makes it quite clear on a whole broad range of things that people are dissatisfied with the standards.

Cllr Bagnall: When you start talking about minimum standards, it is a gloomy thing. In principle, it is quite a good thing, because it is a basic level beyond which you aspire and the level at which no one should be suffering from standards below that minimum, but it allows people to say there must be something better beyond this. A tenant, a housing officer, a councillor would be able to identify what beyond that minimum they aspire to from day one. I think that is the way that minimum standards work, and so I would expect there to be a whole long list of things to which people would immediately want to aspire, once they have a confidence, which I think people are gaining, that the very basics will be met. I now have very few people coming to me personally, as a councillor, who are anxious about when their plastic windows will be replaced because they can see the substance of the resource is double what it was five years ago. It means that programme will be out of the way and they can think about something which is perhaps a bit softer, perhaps a bit more to do with the environment and social issues. But, on the basis of the minimum standards being met, then they will have higher aspirations. I think that is right and that is the way minimum standards work.

Mr Atherton: Could I endorse that. We carry out a biennial survey. Consistently at the top of that list are issues of crime and issues of the fear of crime, issues around neighbourhood management. Issues around the quality of the housing and the affordability of housing sit right the way down the list. People's perceptions are not necessarily focused on housing conditions.

Q251 Mr. David Clelland: Would you think it is feasible to make changes to the breadth and the level required by the standard to include things like decent neighbourhoods and accessibility?

Mr Atherton: We would very much welcome that.

Cllr Chapman: I think you have a problem ----

Q252 Chairman: I am sorry, you were not here at the beginning. Would you like to explain why not and introduce yourself?

Cllr Chapman: Yes, I will do. Midland mainline: a 50 minute delay from Nottingham. I apologise. Graham Chapman. May I continue?

Q253 Chairman: Yes.

Cllr Chapman: Thank you. I represent a ward which is probably one of the toughest in the East Midlands. We are beginning to turn that ward around. The reason we are turning it round is to do with some sensitive environmental work as well as a very tough attitude towards anti-social behaviour. My problem with the Decent Homes Standard is that it is not giving people what they want; in fact, it may be diverting resources from what they want. In the hierarchy of needs, a top hierarchy of need is to do with security before it is to do with plastic windows. My worry is that it is actually diverting resources from where it should be going. The difficulty is the ODPM have no real idea of how much it does cost to provide decent environmental support for housing. It is a very expensive business. There are two separate types of council estates on the whole: those built in the '30s, which were not made for cars particularly - so you have very difficult problems with roads - and those in the '60s which were open plan. In both cases you are going to need quite a lot of structural reorganisation, which is a very expensive business, but that is the sort of thing that people want, because very often you cannot let some homes because you cannot put your car anywhere near your home.

Q254 Mr. David Clelland: Are you suggesting the Government has its priorities wrong?

Cllr Chapman: Yes.

Q255 Mr. David Clelland: And what we ought to be looking at is decent neighbourhood standards before we go on to decent housing standards?

Cllr Chapman: There is a simple test. Any person in the private sector would go for a house in a decent area before it went for a decent house in a poor area. I think that is the ultimate test. It is the same with the council tenants, it is probably the same for any other tenant. If we are not making the areas decent, we are going to end up with a lot of homes which are very well appointed but not lettable. There are examples throughout the country - and I can give you examples of parts of Hull that I know very well, where they have spent a lot of money on the houses and they cannot let them because they are in the wrong area. So the priority has to making the area decent first.

Q256 Mr. David Clelland: Could I just turn to another issue, having listened to what you have said and having some sympathy with it; on the other hand, we are looking at housing standards. The Government intends to replace the Fitness Standard with the Housing Health and Safety Rating System. Do you think this is going to improve the Decent Homes Standard?

Ms Pennington: To a degree, but it is marginal. If this is about the quality of life for people in neighbourhoods, it is more than just a bricks and mortar standard. Councillor Chapman has made it clear that our tenants have articulated very, very strongly and through 18 months of intensive consultation that what is important to them is the quality of life. They are no different from owner-occupiers.


Q300 Mr. David Clelland: Can I just return to the question asked by Chris Mole to the last set of witnesses about the private sector, as only those inhabited by vulnerable households are going to come under the target and as that can change from day-to-day and week to week is there really going to be any meaningful way we can monitor progress towards the target in the private sector?

Ms Mapstone: I very much share some of the concerns that were raised by the previous delegation, as you have mentioned that can move from week to week and month to month. However, certainly in the Westminster context there are clear geographical areas where vulnerable people are more likely to be living in the private rented centre and there is a very clear link to housing benefit entitlement. There is a way of targeting that work which has been our approach for the past ten years through our environmental health inspections which are far more proactive in those areas than in others which we know are low risk. I can perhaps understand why there is an initial focus on vulnerability but I do think there are going to be some very real issues about tracking that and evidencing that you have made a difference. I would also very much echo that I think there is a real risk that landlords will not want to engage with that particular client group in future.

Q301 Mr. David Clelland: Given the fact these are three of the four criteria not statutory requirements what sort of enforcement mechanisms would you suggest?

Ms Mapstone: The kind of enforcement mechanisms we have been using for quite some time including the most onerous being compulsive purchase orders. Westminster does more compulsory purchase orders than the rest of London put together, which is perhaps a surprising statistic to people. We will go from that end. Again there is the carrot and the stick. We also have a very high level of statutory homelessness, we have approaching 3,000 units of temporary accommodation. A lot of the work that we are doing in those geographical areas is trying to procure good quality temporary accommodation. With the use of targeted grants we have been able to improve those properties and secure nomination rights for five years for the statutory homeless. There has been a range of tools we have been able to utilise.

Q302 Mr. David Clelland: If enforcement works and landlords think that they are going to be obliged to put their own money into improving properties because they are housing vulnerable tenants does this not mean they will avoid housing vulnerable tenants?

Ms Mapstone: It is very much linked to the market. One of the interesting things that has been happening in the central London market over the last two years which has had the by-product of allowing us to make very good progress on the bed and breakfast target, to get families out of B&B, has been the change in the market, particularly with those who are entering buy to let and they are very keen to work with local authority, they see that as a very secure way of retaining a guaranteed income. The market has allowed us to get into parts of the borough that we have not been able to previously. My concern would really be that if there is an upturn and it is back to company lets as being standard then that is going to be a very different market to intervene and manage.

Mr. David Clelland: Thank you.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

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