[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair] — Decent Homes

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 27th January 2011.

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Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee 2:30 pm, 27th January 2011

The evidence suggests that it probably did, but successes in general do not mean successes in every particular case. Clearly, there are some bad examples, and my hon. Friend has highlighted one from her constituency. Tenants should be free to choose their landlord, taking into account their own circumstances. If they want to revert back to council management, I see no reason why they cannot do that. The Minister may say a bit more about the funding possibilities. My understanding is that Government are now prepared to put money directly into councils for the decent homes programme. To be even-handed and balanced, I would suggest that to say that there should be funding irrespective of who manages the houses is a helpful move. Where we would disagree is over the amount of funding; there probably is not enough of it. At least Lambeth tenants now have the option to move back, if that is what they want.

Some authorities have seen ALMOs as a method of getting in the money, making the homes decent and then having the properties transferred back to them. In the end, what matters is not what the landlord or councillors think but what the tenants think. The Government's attitude so far is that when an authority wants to bring back the management in-house, it should go through the same process that tenants went through to create the ALMO in the first place. However, I would welcome something a bit stronger. The management of people's homes is almost as important as the ownership, so we should have a ballot to ensure that the proper will of tenants is carried out into practice.

I have Sheffield Homes in my constituency, so I see a different perspective. It is the only ALMO in the country which has had three stars three times running. It has improved the management and maintenance, reduced the costs and got tenants involved. There are still challenges to be faced, such as moving on to a more co-operative style of development in future. Sheffield Homes has been successful; it can be built on for the future and not reversed away from. At the end of the day, however, it is a matter for the tenants. I would like to think that, if there were any possibility of the council changing the management arrangements or the ownership arrangements, it would ballot the tenants, so that it will be the tenants' views that are taken into account; that is what matters at the end of the day.

I have mentioned the reductions in capital funding as a result of the CSR. Work worth some £3.5 billion is still to be done to bring all social housing up to a decent standard, and there will be about £1.6 billion in the programme for the next four years.

In other words, we are probably talking about 10 years before all homes are brought up to a decent standard. The Minister will, of course, say that councils can use their own resources, and indeed Sheffield Homes and Sheffield city council are planning to do just that. The real problem, however, is that if Sheffield Homes and Sheffield city council use all the funding they currently have to bring the remaining homes up to a decent standard by 2013-14, without additional Government funding they will still be about 7% of homes short, though by and large those will be properties on which people have not wanted the work done and others that have become non-decent since 2010 because of their age. With every bit of Sheffield city council and Sheffield Homes' capital expenditure being used for that, there will be an end to all heating replacement programmes in other properties that are crying out to have their heating replaced for energy efficiency and other reasons. Therefore, even when other money can be found, it will be at the expense of other important programmes. This is a three-star ALMO that has managed its money very well indeed.

On the decent homes standard, there has been a challenge and, as the report clearly spells out, there is also a challenge for the future. There is no point in bodies getting up to the standard if they then fall away from it. Another thing that we identified was the reform of the housing revenue account. I welcome, in principle, the Government's proposals to reform that account, to give a say and control back to local authorities. The reform will give some certainty for the future, and is based, with one or two changes, on the proposals that the previous Minister for Housing, my right hon. Friend John Healey, introduced under the Labour Government. One of those changes is that councils will now not be allowed to keep 100% of their right-to-buy receipts. There will also be extra borrowing controls, which are slightly worrying in that they will constraint councils' ability to expand their resources to maintain homes to a decent standard. On the other hand, the removal of the need for rents to converge might provide a bit more flexibility in rent increases. I am not talking about the rents necessarily increasing to 80% of market rents, but councils that have put in a new heating system or insulation measures that reduce tenants' heating bills, could put a bit extra on the rent. The tenants would contribute to the cost, but would probably pay less overall under the joint arrangement between landlord and tenant. That bit of flexibility might be welcome.

We have taken expert advice, which has indicated that under the Labour Government's proposals the major repairs allowance in the housing revenue account was due to rise by about 25%. We understand that this Government also propose that, but we have not yet seen the precise figures. To maintain homes at a decent standard, and in particular to keep repairs up to a proper standard and replace the sanitary and kitchen fittings that were included under the decent homes programme but would have worn out, the figures show that a 40% to 60% increase in the major repairs allowance is needed, not the 25% proposed. It is worrying that there is an inbuilt disrepair element in both the previous Government's proposal and that of this Government, and that sufficient funding might not be available to maintain the standards. Any future Government will have to address that challenge.

Other Members want to speak, so I shall conclude with some remarks on the private sector. The private sector was added to the decent homes programme as an afterthought, and it is often forgotten that it exists at all. It was not there at the beginning, in 2001, and adding it in has not been a great success. One fundamental problem was that the new fitness standards in the private sector, which came in in the middle of the programme, immediately added about 10% of private sector homes to the number of non-decent homes. The analysis showed that 3 million private homes with vulnerable households were non-decent when the programme began: 40% were homes with private tenants, and 65% were homes with owner-occupiers who were considered vulnerable because of the benefits they received. Those numbers are staggering. There was no general requirement to get all those homes up to a decent standard-only to do something to improve the numbers. While there probably has been some improvement in numbers, there has not been the same drive and the same co-ordinated programme as there has been with social housing tenants. Other problems come from many owner-occupiers of these homes not being able to afford the necessary repairs. They are potentially asset rich but income poor, and that is a real challenge for them.