Mr Alan Simpson (Nottingham South, Labour)
Like several of my colleagues, I want to concentrate principally on several of the fuel poverty aspects addressed by the Bill—or, rather, not, at present, addressed by the Bill. I congratulate the Minister for Housing and Planning on the Bill and the listening process that has taken place throughout the consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny process. My only exhortation to Ministers would be to listen a bit more, so that we can get a landmark Housing Bill of which the House and the Government can rightly be proud. I shall concentrate on three aspects of the Bill that need to be strengthened: first, the absence of any reference to the decent home standard; secondly, home information packs; and, thirdly, the licensing of houses in multiple occupation.
There is a compelling case for including a new clause to set a consistent standard on decent housing that would apply both to existing properties and to new properties under construction. It is nonsensical to set standards for new housing construction yet not to set such standards for improvements required to existing housing stock. If we are to have a decent housing standard, it should be simple and consistent. The decent housing standard must be mandatory rather than something that figures only in ministerial guidelines.
The benchmark in relation to the incorporation in statute of such a standard can best be found in a piece of legislation that the Government have already passed and of which I am particularly proud. I refer to the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, which, for the first time in our history, included a commitment—a commitment by a Labour Government—to the complete eradication of fuel poverty in Britain in 15 years. The target is enormously ambitious and something of which the Government can be rightly proud.
The problem is that we are moving from a position in which we have a policy to one in which we require a strategy to deliver that policy. Recent advice from the Fuel Poverty Advisory Group shows that the Government will be unable to meet the legal targets on the warm homes programme that they have set themselves in the required time scale. That situation makes a compelling case for adopting a mandatory set of regulations and standards that would allow us to meet such targets by regulatory means, in addition to through direct Government funding programmes. The advisory levels that define the decent home standard are currently so low that many properties and households are left in fuel poverty even after they have benefited from the warm homes programme, so if we do not set consistent and high standards in this Bill, we will be obliged to revisit the matter and do that in a Bill in the next one or two years. If we do not set such standards, we will be in a complete housing mess, but we could avoid that if we addressed the matter now.
When the English house condition survey reported in 2001, it made it clear that we had 1.125 million local authority properties that failed to meet the current decent homes standard. Additionally, some 360,000 registered social landlord properties failed to meet the standard. Those figures do not take account of conditions in the private rental sector in which, as my hon. Friend Dr. Turner pointed out, there is the greatest concentration of properties with tenants whose lives are blighted by fuel poverty. That situation makes the case for addressing the matter in the current framework of the Bill, and I hope that that fact will be taken on board in Committee.
I praise the Government for clause 133(5)(e), which makes it clear that a property's energy efficiency rating should be part of the information to be included in home information packs. I make only one plea about the provision. Reference has been made to SAP ratings—the standard assessment procedure ratings—but they are mind-bogglingly complex. The public now understand what an energy efficiency rating system looks like, because domestic goods are rated on a band of efficiency from A to E. There is a compelling case for simplifying the process so that people can be aware of the quality of energy efficiency that they can expect in a home in much the same way as they currently understand the efficiency of electrical goods.
Finally, I shall focus on the licensing of houses in multiple occupation. There are 1.1 million HMOs in England. It is essential that we deliver our fuel poverty strategy so that it benefits those who live in wretched concentrations in such fuel-poor households. The regulatory system for achieving that must be inclusive rather than focusing only on the properties at greatest risk or in greatest need. That requires the definition in the Bill to be changed so that it is inclusive. It makes no sense to exclude properties with two storeys or five occupants.
My constituency contains two universities. The reality of the situation there is that huge tranches of it are areas in which traditional two-storey properties in working-class areas are being priced out of the reach of the poor because speculative landlords suck them up, fill them up and make huge profits out of them. It cannot be right to allow the exploitation of our housing stock to the exclusion of the poor. Local authorities such as mine which cover university cities require a social tool to allow them to maintain balanced areas in which schools are viable, communities exist and crime and disorder partnerships may deliver social stability for those who live there. If the measure in the Bill addresses only properties with three or more storeys, we will miss the opportunity to deliver a comprehensive package that would invite landlords to make a move toward properties outside the definitional net. We would not be thanked if we left that open.
One specific aspect of the problem is "studentification." That is a horrible word, and I wish we had a better one. It is also a pretty horrible experience for both students and those settled communities where landlords take over properties. It has not been set out more graphically for me than in a letter that I received last week from Nottingham's Lord Mayor, who said:
"The situation is made the worse because speculators have moved into Clifton"—
Clifton is the constituency that he represents as a councillor—
"in a big way, buying up houses to rent out, not only to locals but also to Nottingham Trent University students. A speculator, with several houses, can notch up a hefty income. Thanks to the insane increases in house values, many of these landlords have become 'millionaires'. It certainly beats working for a living! What they offer is destructive of community and that's why the Government should take action"—
and take action now. I do not have the subtleties of the Lord Mayor's turn of phrase, but I subscribe to the urgency of his view of why we need to include such a measure in the Bill. If we can do that in Committee, we will have a package for which the public will thank us. Perhaps even large numbers of Liberal Democrat supporters and Members would thank us for that. They oppose the inclusion of such measures in the home information pack, but no doubt they would welcome it in their daily lives.