[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair] — Decent Homes

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:55 pm on 27th January 2011.

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Photo of Chris Williamson Chris Williamson Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 4:55 pm, 27th January 2011

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification, which I welcome, and I apologise for misunderstanding him. I was making the point that many local authorities do an excellent job and do not necessarily need an ALMO to improve the housing stock for which they are responsible.

The hon. Gentleman also pointed out that successive Governments have neglected council housing. That was probably true of the previous Administration during their first four years, but the biggest problems built up over the 18 years of the previous Conservative Administration, and the decent homes programme went a long way towards addressing the backlog of dilapidation that was created by the under-investment from 1979 to 1997. He was hopeful that all the homes that are not currently decent will be brought up to standard by the end of this Parliament. I share his hope, but it is unlikely to be fulfilled.

My hon. Friend Ann Coffey stressed the importance of good housing management. From my own experience of representing Derby North and as a councillor on Derby city council, I know that that is key to ensuring that people enjoy a good quality of life on their housing estate. Poor housing management can lead to a whole range of problems, and I am sure that there is cross-party agreement on that issue. My hon. Friend's concern that the shortage of housing should be a key priority, if not the top priority, is again one that I share. However, the decision made by the Government to remove housing targets by getting rid of the regional spatial strategies will make it a more significant problem in years to come. Forcing people into the private sector is not a good way of proceeding, as my hon. Friend pointed out.

Paul Uppal referred to apprenticeships and to how it is a good thing to use the decent homes programme to build up jobs by offering training and opportunities through apprenticeships for people to take advantage of the investment in construction. That is another important angle, but to some extent it will be undermined by the cuts made to the decent homes programme.

My hon. Friend Heidi Alexander said that too many people still live in substandard accommodation. She spoke eloquently about the impact that that has on people's lives, and she referred to the embarrassment and shame that people feel, because they live in substandard accommodation. It is not their fault, and we have an obligation to people to ensure that they can enjoy their home. Nobody should be forced to endure that feeling of embarrassment and shame, because of inadequate investment by their local authority and central Government. I share her belief that, in certain circumstances, demolition is the only option. In numerous examples around the country, we have seen that selective demolition has had a significant impact and improved the overall standard of the housing estate, where it has taken place. She concluded by discussing the uncertainty about whether Lewisham will be able to deliver its decent homes standard.

Simon Hughes referred to authorities having to have a two-star rating. In a letter to the Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, the Minister said:

"To improve fairness in allocating local authority decent homes funding, we will no longer require ALMOs to have passed a housing inspection with a 2* rating".

Hopefully the Minister will confirm that that is the case and that consequently Lewisham will be able to access the funding that it needs and deserves.

My hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn made a number of important points and referred to the cuts building up problems for the future. I share my hon. Friend's concern that it is short-sighted to make deep cuts now, because, in the long term, everyone pays a bigger price, both in human and financial terms. My hon. Friend also congratulated-I want to share in offering those congratulations-people such as caretakers, street cleaners and other public sector workers on doing an excellent job. They are all too often castigated, and they are not celebrated enough. I welcome his comments in that regard.

My hon. Friend also made an important point about high rents in the private sector, people being forced into the private sector and the problems associated with the quality of private-rented accommodation, because of inadequate regulation. The decision of the Government to impose restrictions on housing benefit is a blunt instrument, which penalises people who have, through no fault of their own, been forced to live in the private-rented sector. A better route may have been to restrict the level of rents that landlords can charge, as well as looking at restricting housing benefit. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that. It is wrong to penalise people because they are poor. This impacts not only on poorer people, but on people on middle incomes as well. He rightly pointed out the impact that poor quality housing has on health, education and general quality of life. He referred to the need for greater protection, regulation and security for people living in the rented sector.

Nicky Morgan referred to the danger-she repeated the point that other hon. Members have made-of the housing stock deteriorating if we do not invest appropriately. She is right to worry, and she is right to be more worried by the cuts being pushed through, ironically enough, by her own Government. Interestingly, she made the point about the need for adaptations as well. That is another area for disabled people that is extremely important. More people are living longer now, and there is a greater need for disabled facilities grants. It is another area where local authorities will struggle to meet the demand. They are already struggling, but the problem will become even more acute, because of the cuts that are being pushed through.

My hon. Friend Kate Hoey referred to the first four years of the Labour Government-I have already touched on this point-where housing was not given sufficient priority. She said that housing is the most important issue in her constituency, and she also repeated the impact of poor housing on health. She also stressed the importance of insuring that in any investment programme we secure value for money. She said that if we are not careful, there is a danger of cartels being created and the public sector not getting good value for money. We could actually get more bang for our buck, as it were, if we were to bear down more severely on that. My hon. Friend also made a good point about the use of empty homes and being more flexible, and she referred to the GLC. That is a good example to cite, and I am interested in the Minister's remarks about it.

My hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood referred to the withdrawal of a huge PFI scheme that would have dealt with the problems in the Meadows estate. I know that area well, given that it is close to my constituency. Indeed, I had a job with Henry Boot plc as a bricklayer on the Meadows estate when it was being built, but I must say that I am not responsible for it, as I took a job on another building site.

My hon. Friend eloquently outlined the impact of the decent homes programme on her constituents. She discussed not only bricks and mortar, important though they are, but how such matters impact on the lives of ordinary people and improve the quality of their life. Indeed, she said that 80 apprenticeships have been created, and as a result of the cuts to the programme in Nottingham, fewer apprenticeships will be taken on now than would have otherwise been the case.

The right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark said that the largest proportion of council tenants is located in his constituency. He also had the good grace to refer to the legacy of previous, progressive Labour councils going back as far as the 1920s. Those councils set an excellent standard. I share his view about ALMOs being down to a local decision. When that is appropriate and tenants want it, that is fine, but it should not be forced on them. He, too, made the point about the private rented sector and the fact that most of the overall housing stock in the country that is not up to a decent standard is in the private-rented sector. Only 56% of privately rented accommodation comes up to the decent homes threshold. That matter needs urgent attention, and I hope that the Minister will deal with it in his concluding remarks.