I am pleased to have this Adjournment debate and while I am conscious that I could go on for an hour and a quarter, that might not encourage you to call me again, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will make sure that my remarks are to the point.
Most people in Northampton, as in other parts of the country, own their own home and have done very well, in no small part owing to low mortgage rates resulting from the Government's economic stewardship. Northampton is a growing town, so we have a lot of new housing, some of it to very high standards because of the development of new design standards. For those people, housing is not a problem but an economic asset.
However, there is also a group in my constituency for whom things have got quite considerably worse; the people who are dependent on social housing, particularly in certain parts of the constituency where the housing is deteriorating and there is pressure on that housing. We tend to see a widening gap between people doing quite well and those for whom things are very difficult. It gives me real concern that for some, during my time as an MP, things have not improved and different pressures have arisen. I want some assurances as to how things might progress for them.
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will say that most of these matters are down to the local authority, and I would agree, but she and the Department know that there are particular difficulties in Northampton in terms of the borough council. It is hard to stand by and watch my constituents being left in a worse position because they have a bad council.
I want to focus on some particular housing problems, such as the actual number of people who are homeless. We often think of homeless people as rough sleepers, but there are a lot of hidden homeless who are doubling up in the houses of parents, aunts and uncles or friends. Some are sleeping on sofas or in crowded conditions and some are moving from place to place. Those pressures still exist in my constituency.
In addition, instead of being helped into council housing or other social housing, those people are being pushed into private sector rented accommodation. This has produced some real difficulties, with people finding it impossible to get back on to the housing ladder.
The best way to illustrate the point is with a story about a teenage couple with a charming little girl; I will not mention their names. The mother was vulnerable for a number of reasons—it is not appropriate to go into those here—and they needed extra support. They were living with his parents. His mother was being very supportive and helpful to them. It was she who brought them to me to see whether we could sort something out for their accommodation.
I have no doubt that, in previous times, that couple would have been put into council accommodation. They may have spent some time in temporary accommodation, but they certainly would have been straight into the council system given their circumstances: she had been involved in the care system; they were teenagers; they had a young child; they were very committed to looking after the child; and determined to make a go of things in quite difficult circumstances. They were, however, directed into private sector rented housing and refused access to council accommodation.
The next time we heard from the family, they had to move because they had only a six-month tenancy. Therefore, they were forced to move. The mother was expecting another baby. They managed to do the next move but then things got very difficult. As often happens, because rents are high, they got into arrears. Then real disaster struck. With all the rushing around that he was having to do, the boy lost his job. He had been working to support the family. They had been doing a really good job of holding things together and then he lost his job.
It seems that, because of their record of rent arrears, it is unlikely that the couple would be accepted for council housing. In any ordinary circumstances, they should have been supported by the council and put into social housing. With just a little support, and because they were so committed and they had the support of his parents, they would have probably established and maintained a successful family unit and would have looked forward to a good-quality, happy life. Instead, they are faced with a series of extra problems to cope with, when they already face challenges.
We have been through the subject before, but the couple were directed down the road of private sector housing before a full assessment was done, or else the assessment must have missed a few points. To me, that seems to be wrong. For a number of people, private sector rented accommodation is not a good idea because they cannot afford the rent, or they cannot afford the top-ups of the rent if the landlord is charging above what is covered by housing benefit. For a lot of people, the insecurity of six-month tenancies, with the reality, not just the prospect, of moves each six months, is inappropriate.
Another issue is about the use of bed and breakfast. I know that the number of families with children in bed and breakfast has gone down since the Government said that it should be used for six weeks only and then only in case of emergency. However, it still seems from the cases that I see in my advice surgeries that the prospect of being put into bed and breakfast effectively acts as a deterrent for people who would otherwise properly claim support with housing and then be placed into council housing. I would like my hon. Friend the Minister to say whether it is right that, once someone has given a notice to quit, which then gives 28 days for the assessment to be done, that should be regarded as an emergency. It seems to me that, if someone has given a notice to quit and they know that there will be 28 days for the assessment, that should not be regarded as an emergency.
Housing repairs is a real problem in my constituency. That is something else that I am concerned about in terms of certain areas in my constituency. As always, nice private housing goes up and people move into that as they can. Because there is a buoyant economy, people have jobs and can by and large move, but there is a residue of deteriorating public sector housing that continues to decline in quality. I am concerned that, if nothing is done to deal with some substantial problems of disrepair, a few years down the line, the gap will have widened between people who have very nice private sector housing and people who are stuck in housing that is going down in value.
When the original stock survey for Northampton was done, it was said that the council could achieve the decent homes standard for all housing within existing resources, and therefore it did not go for stock transfer or the other options. However, it was also recognised—finally—that the housing on the east side of town, or in the eastern district as it is called and which is in my constituency, was deteriorating. The standard of housing there was declining as other housing was improving, and it was acknowledged that the two paths would soon cross and that there would be a problem.
That deterioration has continued apace, and I have to deal with some serious problems to do with disrepair, in particular damp. That is often attributed to condensation, although some of it does not look like condensation to me. Condensation is normally accompanied by certain types of mould growth and certain quantities of water, and some of what I see appears to be worse than that, although I am not an expert. A young woman explained to me that she was told that her ground-floor flat had condensation and that she should leave her windows open, and she said that she wondered who in their right mind would leave the windows open of a ground-floor flat on an estate such as hers, which has a high crime level, so all the contents of the flat could rapidly disappear as a result of burglaries.
Some properties do not have central heating. In some instances, that is simply unacceptable. A man who lives in a disability bungalow came to me. He had a couple of storage heaters and he had been given a couple of electric heaters. Not only are they expensive to keep running, but in such domestic circumstances people with a disability, who need a constant and reasonable level of heat, cannot use parts of their home at certain times because they are not warm enough. Does the decent homes standard include the requirement to have central heating? What type of heating are people supposed to have? Also, what will happen in respect of the decent homes standard in future—I ask that especially in the context of the deteriorating housing that I have mentioned?
Adaptations for disabilities is an issue. There is a general problem to do with the disabled facilities grant and the amount of money in it. I am concerned as a number of my constituents who are disabled—or, more importantly and more frequently, who have children who are disabled—have real difficulties in using their accommodation. I was called to see a family with a boy who was almost trapped on the ground floor in his wheelchair because they could not have a stairlift and he had become too big to carry up the stairs, and also the design of the property was quite awkward. He had not had a bath for quite some time, because they had no way of getting him up the stairs. What is regarded as being acceptable in terms of disabled children and their accommodation?
Let me give another example. A woman lives with her partner and two children. One of them is a boy aged 4 who is thought to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—he is being assessed. There is also a little girl of one and a half years of age who cannot walk and faces major surgery to her legs and feet. During the time of the recovery, she will need major splints—a frame around her legs—to help with the treatment. They are living in a second-floor flat with no lift. The family find it hard now to get her up two flights of stairs, but that will become very difficult after she has had her surgery and she is in her recovery time. The children's bedroom has a very old gas heater, and because of the boy's behavioural difficulties, the parents feel that it is not safe for him to use; I am not surprised at that. They put the wardrobe in front of it so that he cannot get at it, but of course, that means that the room has no heating at all. There is also a hole in the outer wall, which they asked to be filled in.
On considering the information in the application, the medical panel assessed that
"the current accommodation is reasonable on medical grounds", so no award of medical points was made. I find that very surprising. What is the guidance on providing accommodation for families with children with disabilities? Getting such children up and down stairs is hard enough, but it is even harder when equipment also needs be carried up and down. The type of accommodation provided for children with behavioural difficulties is also a real issue. If a child is fidgety and fiddling because of ADHD, should they be placed somewhere where there is a gas heater, particularly the older type, which as we know presents problems?
In addition to the disrepair of such properties, there is the wider issue of estate management. If a housing estate is not generally managed well, it becomes a haven for antisocial behaviour. That can, and has, made life very difficult for some of my constituents. The safer community teams have played a really important role, providing a fresh impetus for some of these difficult estates. However, it is quite wrong, as has sometimes happened, to expect the police to deal with problems that housing management should resolve. It is a waste of the police's function to do work that should be done by housing management. I shall bring one such case to my hon. Friend's attention a little later.
A fourth issue is overcrowding. I pay tribute to the way in which my hon. Friend has dealt with this issue on the Government's behalf—I know that standards on overcrowding are due to be published shortly—but I should point out that it is a very real problem not just in the big cities, but in middle England constituencies such as mine. Let me give an example from my constituency. A man, his wife and five children are living in a single bedsit in a hostel that is supposed to be for homeless single people. He was a homeless single person when he came to this country as a refugee, but now that his wife and children are also here, they really need something a bit bigger.
Let me read a letter that I received today—I promise that it is not a plant—that is perhaps a much better example of the typical cases of overcrowding that I hear about. I shall take out some of the detail, so that hopefully, the woman in question cannot be identified:
"My partner and I have four children and I am pregnant with my fifth and we live in a small two-bedroom house and it is very stressful because we don't have a lot of room. The three older children sleep on just a mattress on the floor in what people would call a box room. They can't even have wardrobes or toys because there is no room."
What she wants is a bigger property
"where we can live as a family which will be good because me and my kids have been through enough due to the violent and aggressive relationship that we suffered with the older children's dad. My kids mean a lot to me and it means a lot to me that they are happy."
That is the general sentiment of most of my constituents and it is not an unreasonable aspiration. It is important that women who suffer domestic violence can move on and try to establish a stable family unit, in my constituent's case with a partner who is playing a positive role in her life and the lives of her children. They need a decent start in life.
Another example also concerns the problems related to disability. A woman was living with her husband and their five children, three of whom have special needs, including physical disabilities, in a three-bedroom house. That is a reasonable size, but given the children's difficulties it was hard. On top of that they were being bullied by other children on the estate. Because of the children's disabilities, they were targeted and harassed. That raises two issues, one about the standard of accommodation and another about how to manage harassment and bullying when it comes to housing provision. I hope that my hon. Friend can say something about when the standards for overcrowding will come out. What cognisance will be given to children with special needs and disabilities?
As Northampton grows, the existing properties need to be improved along with the new build, because it will not help community cohesion if some people move into nice new properties while others see their personal circumstances, living standards and neighbourhoods deteriorate. If a town is to grow and be successful, everybody needs to share in the good fortune of its growth and development.
In all the discussion about "Every Child Matters", attention was paid to many issues, but there was no focus on housing, which has always been a slight problem. Unless the problems that I have identified are resolved, we will not be able to deal with some of the issues of vulnerability and social exclusion. Those under particular housing pressure are disabled people, young parents, single parents, victims of domestic violence and children, especially disabled children. For the most part, those are the very people whom social housing was designed to support. I expect that my hon. Friend the Minister will say that it is the local authority's responsibility, and I accept that, but it is important that pressure is put on the local authority and steps are taken to ensure that my constituents get better housing services. They need to see the prospect of improvements in their lives and a constructive future for their families.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Ms Keeble on securing this debate and choosing to raise a series of issues that are hugely important to families in her constituency. She told the House some heart-rending tales of the experiences of families in her constituency and she is right that poor housing, in different forms, can have a devastating impact on family life and on people's chances in life. I wish to try to address some of the points that my hon. Friend has made and to refer to some of the national issues, as well as the local issues that she raised.
We are clear that we face housing pressures across the country as a result of not having built—over a 30-year period—enough homes to meet rising demand, with the growing number of single households and people living longer. We are clear, too, that if we are to address the pressures of affordability for the next generation, we need to ensure that we build more market housing, shared ownership housing and social housing. That means that we need to address pressures around social housing in my hon. Friend's constituency and across the region. When there is demand for social housing, it is even more important that the social housing in place is well and sensitively managed, including issues of allocation and quality. For those reasons, the cases that my hon. Friend raised are of concern.
My hon. Friend will be aware that we have set standards for decent homes. There was a shocking £19 billion backlog of repairs and maintenance in 1997. Every council and social housing tenant has a right to live in a decent home. We have given local authorities an additional 30 per cent. in real terms funding per home compared with 1997 to invest in improvements and refurbishment to council housing. We urge them to ensure that it is well used to improve housing standards. Some local authorities need additional resources, given the backlog of repairs that they face. That is why we have made available additional resources through arm's length management organisations and stock transfers.
My hon. Friend and I have met people from her local council at her instigation to urge them to look at the deteriorating stock that she identified and what more needed to be done to meet the decent homes target. It is important that councils take account of areas where the age of homes means that they may be able to anticipate the need for further work over the next few years and ensure that that is properly taken account of as part of the decent homes programme.
Given my hon. Friend's concerns about the continuing deterioration of the stock in a particular area of her constituency, I will ask the Government Office to review the position for her area against the decent homes programme and to look into heating issues. It is certainly part of the decent homes standard that they should be heated to a proper modern standard. Local authorities need to make sure that they have appropriate heating systems in place.
My hon. Friend spoke about overcrowding. She has campaigned on this issue over many years and has been responsible for raising it up the political agenda and ensuring that it is addressed. The standards have not changed for 70 years and they need to be updated. We have consulted on a new approach but, as she will be aware, it is not enough simply to change the standards; we need a programme to address overcrowding. That is why we are looking not simply at standards, but at how to combine that with the appropriate work to prevent overcrowding through building larger family homes and better management of our stock to ensure that we can better address the needs of large families.
My hon. Friend asked about homelessness. It is important that housing authorities have a sensitive approach to the particular needs of families who are becoming homeless. It may be that all kinds of measures can be taken to prevent them from becoming homeless in the first place and to support them. Councils should take into account the vulnerability of different families and their particular needs. They should carry out proper assessments to ensure that people get the right kind of support.
My hon. Friend raised issues concerning families with disabilities and children with behavioural difficulties. There is a wider issue here around children in poor housing that we need to look at further, particularly around children with disabilities and the links between housing and child poverty. It is interesting that the Fabian Society's recent report on life chances, which looked into the issue of life chances and child poverty, did not consider housing very much. There is a tendency for people to think about child poverty simply in terms of the income that a family receives, but the quality of the housing that people live in, and that children grow up in, can be critical to their future.
The decent homes programme has already lifted 1.4 million children out of bad housing since 1997. We have made substantial progress in improving the quality of housing for many children across the country, but there are issues, particularly to do with overcrowding, that my hon. Friend is right to highlight, and we need to do more on some families' special needs. She raised a series of other questions, too. She pointed to the fact that many of the issues are matters for the local council. We need to do more in a series of areas at national level if we are to continue the progress that we have made, both through the decent homes programme, and through the recent increases in the amount of social housing built. However, there are clearly responsibilities at local level, too.
We recognise that Northampton borough council's housing service has considerable room for improvement, and the Audit Commission's progress report, published earlier this year, indicated that its housing service was poor. Programmes of work are under way to try to improve the service in different areas, but we want those improvements to be sustained. There is considerably more work to do in a series of areas, and Northampton borough council needs to do more to improve its housing services in the interests of local tenants and local people across the board. We have asked officials at the Government office for the east midlands to work closely with Northampton borough council to improve its housing services before the next Audit Commission inspection, which is planned for this autumn. I will raise the concerns that my hon. Friend has mentioned this afternoon with officials, so that they are included in that improvement process. May I again thank my hon. Friend for raising such important issues, and wish her and the House a happy Easter?
Before we rise, perhaps I might in turn wish right hon. and hon. Members—those who are here, and those who are not here—and members of staff across the House, who support us so well, a happy Easter.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Six o'clock.