ODPM Committee 13 Jan 2004
Uncorrected transcript of Oral Evidence given by A.D.C Greenwood, Chief Executive, Bethnal Green & Victoria Park Housing Association, Deborah Frances Shackleton, Group Chief Executive and Caroline Field, Head of Housing Policy, Riverside Housing Association; John Craggs, Group Strategic Executive and Andrew Taylor, Group Finance Director, Sunderland Housing Group and Dr David Smith, Chief Executive, Atlantic Housing Group; Phil Morgan, Chief Executive and Rich Warrington, Policy Officer, Tenant Participation Advisory Service (TPAS) and Mel Cairns, Environmental Health Consultant; Claire Astbury, Housing Policy & Research Officer and Greg Falvey, Head of Crawley Homes Borough Council: uploaded on 16 January 2004
Q346 Mr. David Clelland: How feasible do you think it would be to make changes to the Decent Homes Standard at this stage to things like accessibility and Decent Neighbourhood requirements?
Dr Smith: You have to bear in mind that the standard already includes terms like "reasonable" and "adequate" and I think the problem is measurability. My view is that the more we get into the areas of appropriate, adequate and reasonable, the more we get into difficulties of interpretation and we have already found an awful lot of house condition surveys which have to be done again and looked over again in a different light. I think the point I am making is that locally negotiated standards are what actually tenants experience because this Decent Homes Standard will not mean anything to our tenants. What will be important to our tenants is what they have negotiated locally which is well above this. In many ways, this basic standard could be added to but my view is that it is a basic standard and I think it would be accepted as that as easier to live with and we go away and renegotiate those additional things.
Q347 Mr. David Clelland: The Government of course have already made one important change and that is the introduction of the Housing Health and Safety Ratings System. How is that going to affect your efforts to bring stock up to a decent standard?
Dr Smith: My view is that there are far greater implications than some people realise. There is a huge amount of interpretation. A number of local officers have not been trained yet. The last material we got was about, can it apply in HMOs and all sorts of complicated things. We provide a lot of support in housing. We are right at the front of independent community living and we provide a lot of housing for people with dementia, for people with learning disabilities, for people recently discharged from mental institutions and people with recurring mental illnesses. A lot of those people live in supported housing which is shared and the Health and Safety Rating Standard will, I think, prove difficult to implement there and I think there is going to be a huge amount of training for people involved here, not just that environmental health officers who will have to impose it on the private sector because we will have our own surveillance staff who are going to say, in some years' time, "Yes, X number of our properties pass this standard" or "fail this standard with Category 1 hazards." My view is of course that, with the people we house, it is going to go like that. Mr A moves in, it is a Category 1 hazard; Mr A moves out, it is not a Category 1 hazard. I think there are a number of implications for this and I think there is a lot of thinking to be done about this standard.
Q348 Mr. David Clelland: You mentioned the question of difficulties in interpretation but have you any suggestions as to how this might be overcome?
Dr Smith: I think the problem is that the more you attempt to standardise, the more you end up with a one word standard and a 50-page interpretation document. I think you have to leave it to common-sense. Generally speaking, locally, most local authorities who have currently interpreted the current fitness standard do use their common-sense and I think that most housing associations always have scare stories about numerous tenants turning up and asking for something ridiculous, but that is one in a million. I think we ought to leave the interpretation to common-sense.
Q394 Mr. David Clelland: Could I ask about the Decent Homes Standard in the private sector. Why do you think it is that only 70 per cent of vulnerable households expect to be living in Decent Homes by 2010 in the private sector when it is 100 per cent in the public sector?
Mr Cairns: I could come up with theories for that, but my experience is that the worst conditions are always in the private sector and that, sadly, the state of the law is such that tenants have very few routes of recourse to put their houses in anything like a decent condition, hence my hope that if we come up with a decent definition of what is decent we can then attach it to the way in which tenants might access that. Whether they are private or public landlords, if the landlord is not dealing with the property then you should be able to take action. I am sure the local authority would want that power.
Q395 Mr. David Clelland: Do you think that is a challenging target, 70 per cent?
Mr Cairns: It is not challenging, no. I think it would be a very sad state of affairs if we only get that far.
Q396 Mr. David Clelland: Why should the Decent Homes target for the private sector be restricted to vulnerable households?
Mr Cairns: I do not think that should be the case. Sadly, I will go to properties in the coming weeks which have many of these features I have just been describing to you and although statistically there is a bias to vulnerable groups, I can find those conditions with any standard of tenants.
Q397 Mr. David Clelland: So you think it should apply to all homes?
Mr Cairns: Yes.
Q398 Mr. David Clelland: Given the fact that it is restricted to vulnerable households, do you think the definition is appropriate?
Mr Cairns: No. The definition is too low to serve as a suitable minimum.
Q399 Mr. David Clelland: Is there a risk that landlords will be reluctant to let to "vulnerable households"?
Mr Cairns: I can see that. If the definition relates to vulnerable households then that is a possible consequence and another argument for removing that particular distinction.
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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