[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

A fantastic unity is developing: I see the Minister nodding; the hon. Member for Islington North, who is not regarded as a right-wing socialist, is making the point; and I agree with the hon. Member for Islington North, so we are all in it together. That is absolutely the point. Many people improve their council properties and make them really nice. If they move, there is absolutely no reason why the new tenants should not be offered the option to keep the property as it is. It might need a bit of a tweak, but the tenants should be offered the chance to find somebody to help them make whatever small changes they need before they move in. Let us be intelligent about such things rather than monolithic, prescriptive and centralised. That approach is frustrating; it wastes time and money; and it keeps people out of housing at a time when we are desperately short of it.

I want to finish in good time-we might even finish the debate early. I have argued for a flexible decent homes standard that is agreed locally, and it should be for local authorities to negotiate that. Possibly such a standard would need Government clearance, but I am relaxed about that. If the local authority is happy, provided that the minimum health and safety standards are met, that is fine.

I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Andrew Stunell, has made this point, and I, too, am keen to have a modern, green homes standards. If we refurbish, let us make the homes energy-efficient at the same time and save on bills, as well as just making them look nice with new windows and so on. Let us try to minimise the short turnaround.

This is not special pleading, because I have a reason for making this plea. When money is being allocated to local authorities, sometimes there are high expenditure issues that should be factored in so that councils are not disadvantaged as a result. We had a huge fire in Camberwell. It was not in my constituency but in the neighbouring constituency of Ms Harman. It was just a couple of years ago and there were six fatalities. It was in Lakanal house on the Sceaux Gardens estate.

We had a fire in my constituency two weeks ago. It was in a tower block-Brawne house-on the Brandon estate. Mercifully, there were no fatalities and no serious injuries. I visited the 12th floor with the local councillor and secretary of the local tenants and residents association. Sometimes there are unexpected bills, because a terrible event has occurred, and I hope that councils will not be not penalised when such disasters strike, because they need to ensure that the properties are put back into decent nick. The matter concerns not only the homes affected but the block, and the council might need to repaint or deal with fire damage or whatever. It is not right to tell a local authority that there are no circumstances in which it cannot be regarded as a special case for extra help. I am not suggesting that there should be a differential formula for special help, but occasionally there has to be special help for those who have such problems.

Decent homes work is a fantastic opportunity for enhancing local apprenticeships and skills in the local community. There should not be any local authority or local housing association-owned property where decent homes work is going on that does not engage people from the local community in apprenticeships, skills enhancement and training. I hope that that can be encouraged and that the experience is positive. I know that Southwark does it, and we could do more of it.

Colleagues have made the point that leaseholders have a huge interest in what is being done. We need a better system for consulting about works. I have twice tried to get a Bill through to improve the rights of leaseholders, otherwise the leaseholders get ridiculously high bills. Pensioners with no savings can get a bill for £27,000 for works that they never assented to. The work may include replacing windows after people have already replaced them themselves, which is nonsense. I am not aiming that point at one particular council. The City of London corporation owns estates in my constituency and has been guilty of that in the past, when I had to struggle to get the bills down.

We need to ensure that there is fairness across communities and estates as part of the decent homes programme. That is a matter for the local authority to lead. Nothing is more frustrating for tenants who have been on an estate for 30 years than seeing that blocks one, two, three and four have had all the work done and look like new builds, and then somebody says, "You can't have anything in block five for the next five years." Those are all matters for local management. There needs to be sensitivity about how we roll out the decent homes programme. We are at the beginning of a new Government and the decent homes programme will continue for the next four years, which is welcome.