[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair] — Decent Homes

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:31 pm on 27th January 2011.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Deputy Leader, Liberal Democrats 4:31 pm, 27th January 2011

I appreciate how difficult the decision was. Prefab homes are often really popular-they were in Southwark-and there are not many left. That prefab estate was the iconic last redoubt of the post-war London prefab.

I make a plea to the Minister and, through him and his colleagues, to local councils. The decent homes programme must always be re-evaluated on the basis of an up-to-date stock condition survey, but other flexibilities are needed as well. The first is the flexibility to which my friend the hon. Member for Vauxhall referred; I heard the exchange between her and the Chair of the Select Committee. It is nonsense that Lambeth has 600 empty council properties-that is the figure that I was given-because they are allegedly not decent homes, so after tenants leave, the council cannot put another tenant in. There must be a non-bureaucratic, non-municipalist way to engage people from the voluntary sector and community groups to make those homes liveable. There are always people willing to do so. We cannot allow only builders and plumbers in; there are lots of people. I can think of a mate of mine who has just retired-he worked in the bus garage in Catford, as it happens-who is a really good handyman. He is looking for things to do in his early retirement, and he has fantastic construction skills. Lots of people are willing to do it. We must engage the community and ensure that homes do not sit empty just because they are not in the council's programme for 2011.

The other thing that is needed is decent common spaces such as entrance halls, lift lobbies and landings. It makes all the difference. Like my colleagues, whether in Nottingham or London, I can go to two tower blocks in the same borough of identical build and identical height, one of which is clean and pleasant, smells nice, looks nice and has had a touch of paint, the other of which, of the same age, is dreadful and unkempt with peeling paint. We must ensure that councils understand that they should be able to get on with the quick and easy bits of work that can improve people's quality of life hugely for five years without massive spend: it is not about putting in new lifts or redoing the whole building; it is not about having scaffolding up to the 20th floor for half a year; it is about little things.

Much more inventiveness is needed to make homes in the public and socially rented sector the same quality as we would want our places to be. For me, the test is always, "Would I want to live here and invite my family to come into this flat?" If the flat is great but getting there is like going through a sewer, to be blunt, that is not acceptable.