Housing (Northampton)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:23 pm on 29th March 2007.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning) 5:23 pm, 29th March 2007

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?