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Sheltered Accommodation (Bexley)

Volume 455: debated on Tuesday 9 January 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Liz Blackman.]

Let me start, Mr. Speaker, by thanking you for enabling me to have this brief debate to explain to the House an issue that is of great concern to us in Bexley. I am delighted to see in their places my colleagues who also represent the London borough of Bexley—the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (John Austin) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), whom I hope may have an opportunity to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, during the course of the debate. I am also pleased that the successor to my former seat, my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), is kindly supporting me tonight. He is a great champion of issues affecting the elderly in his constituency and a far more able Member for that constituency than I was.

It is appropriate that this debate should follow one that focused so much on the vulnerable because the Adjournment is also partly about them. The problem that I want to put before the House is the proposal by London and Quadrant, the housing association, and its sub-division, London and Quadrant Supported Living, to close several sheltered dwelling developments in the borough of Bexley.

Six of those developments are in my constituency, including four for closure— Frank Godley court has 41 dwellings; Heron crescent has 44; Mabel Crout court has 26, and Meadows court has 31. We therefore risk losing 142 dwellings, with a proposed upgrade for Bowes close and Wingfield court, which would leave us with only 62 dwellings. I want to present to the House the anxiety that that has caused in the constituency and I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), is in her place because I know her to be a decent and competent Minister and we look forward to her encouraging response.

The notice that London and Quadrant issued was crass and almost unbelievable. It was not addressed to individual tenants and was simply a circulated notice that made those who received it fear that they were about to lose their homes without any consultation. There was an understandable public outcry and a swift apology followed. However, the elderly residents of the developments were left feeling extraordinarily unhappy, scared and vulnerable. I cannot think of another issue that has made me so angry. I was incandescent at the insensitivity of L and Q towards those elderly residents.

L and Q tried to blame the cost of supported living but the accounts do not stand much scrutiny. For some reason, L and Q has high central group costs for the supported living developments. Admittedly, only 60 per cent. of the residents pay target rents but that will change. The condition of the properties reflects the acquisition price for L and Q in 1998 of less than £10,000 a unit. It therefore got a good deal for the amount of bricks and land that it acquired. L and Q management claims that upgrading the residences will cost approximately £11 million. For some reason, it shows that as part of a revenue charge. In public and private administration, one would more realistically consider capitalising the sum, which would cost about £700,000 per annum.

The supporting people grant comes from the Government to the boroughs to help supported living. For our borough, it is ring-fenced at £270,000 per annum. L and Q gets approximately £350,000 per annum and the balance therefore comes from Bexley council tax payers. L and Q now states that it needs £550,000 a year. No one can work out what it thinks it will do with that. It seems a remarkable amount of money for 16 wardens. They are superb people but they are not paid that generously. Where the sum is expected to go remains one of our unsolved mysteries in London.

I want to place on record my thanks to Bexley council, which took up the cudgels on the matter immediately. It transferred the property in 1998 and the new council leader, Ian Clements, who was already struggling with some difficult budget challenges, and his able chief executive, Nick Johnson, got a grip on the matter. They have gone to town on it and examined L and Q’s proposals in great detail. The local councillors, especially those for Frank Godley court, were newly elected—Cheryl Bacon, Ross Downing and Don Massey have been superb. They have encouraged the campaign group and ensured that the issue could not be swept under the carpet. I pay tribute especially to the chairman of the council’s working party of officers and members, Councillor John Waters, who brings experience and decency to the challenge. He has already devised some excellent proposals. Bexley council is therefore being positive about the matter. Age Concern Bexley—a superb outfit—has supported the council and all of us in the borough. It has spoken up well for the elderly residents.

Is the case for closure made? I do not believe that it is. No independent assessment would back closure. Is the financial plan sound? It is certainly not. If that is the way in which L and Q intends to conduct its business, God help the residents whom it supports. Are there alternative providers? L and Q might like to believe that it has Bexley council and its residents up against a wall but alternative providers are available to take on the stock. In another London borough, the property has been returned from a housing association—indeed, from L and Q—to the council for administration and perhaps thence to an alternative provider. There is therefore a way out.

There remains the question whether sufficient demand exists for sheltered accommodation. L and Q would argue that there is not but I do not believe that the council statistics back that up. However, there is a case for easing the criteria limitations, thus making sheltered accommodation more easily obtainable. People in their 70s are nervous about applying to go into a development, with all the upheaval that that entails, if it is going to close. It is little wonder that people are nervous about making a commitment to move into sheltered accommodation.

We look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. L and Q suggested that the Government no longer supported sheltered accommodation. I have not read or heard that anywhere else and I am sure that the Minister will put the record straight. I hope that the Housing Corporation will, if necessary, support the stock transfer to a new provider. It will be understandably eager not to start a bidding war among its housing associations, but I hope that it will support a transfer if that becomes the only alternative.

The supporting people grant levels are confusing to those of us who are not accountancy-minded, so I hope that the Minister will have an opportunity to enlighten us on the Government’s intentions in that regard. As long as it is personally based, and not borough based, it is a good scheme.

This has been a cruel and thoughtless exercise. L and Q says that it is shocked by the response to it, but I am not quite sure what it was expecting. Did it really think that people in their 70s and 80s who had been told just before Christmas that they were to be moved out of their homes would be ecstatic about it? I am surprised that L and Q’s representatives were shocked. Perhaps they should have been sacked, never mind shocked.

I should like to pay tribute to the Frank Godley campaigners. They have not taken this lightly; they have fought back very well indeed. They believe that the situation can be changed, and I absolutely agree with them. The residents’ demands are not unreasonable. People in that age group do not want a lot of bother or change. They do not want builders running about all over the place if they can avoid it. They are pretty content with their lot, and they are not over-demanding or unreasonable at all.

I have to confess, wisely or otherwise, that I sometimes find visiting residential and nursing homes a little depressing. There is a often temptation to say that that is not quite how I would want to end my days. There are some very good homes, but there are some mediocre ones as well, as we all know. However, I cannot think of a single visit to a sheltered accommodation development from which I have not come away admiring the balance that is struck between the privacy and independence that people get from having their own flat with its own living room, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom, and the companionship that they can find in the communal lounge when they want it. I am sure that striking that balance helps to slow down the ageing process for many people. They can have their time alone when they want it, but they can also have companionship when they need it.

I have always found visits to those developments very uplifting, and I believe that our elderly people deserve better than the treatment experienced by those I have talked about tonight. I hope, following this debate and the campaign that has been launched against L and Q, that London and Quadrant Supported Living will think again.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) and to the Minister for allowing me to participate in the debate. As the hon. Gentleman has said, the homes under threat are in his constituency and in Bexleyheath and Crayford. There is none in mine, because when the housing stock transfer took place, the social housing in my constituency was transferred to a different housing association, Orbit. Nevertheless, social housing represents a borough resource, and this action will result in a reduction in the availability of sheltered housing.

I accept that there might be occasions on which there is a need to close sheltered housing, perhaps for the refurbishment or redevelopment of poor quality stock or single bedsit accommodation. However, the case has not been made in regard to Mabel Crout court, Frank Godley court or any of the other residences that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. They offer reasonable accommodation. It could be brought up to a better standard, but not at the kind of cost that London and Quadrant is talking about. L and Q is sitting on a capital asset and believes that it can realise that asset for additional building. That might be of benefit to the borough in terms of additional housing, but it would be achieved at the expense of elderly and vulnerable people who should not be placed in this position.

I share the opinion of the hon. Gentleman on the crass consultation that took place. I opposed the housing stock transfer, although I do not want to go into that issue now, as that policy is supported by those on my Front Bench as well as by the Conservatives. However, this situation highlights the democratic deficit that exists in the management of social housing, and of sheltered housing in particular. The hon. Gentleman would probably confirm that the council representatives who sit on the board of L and Q were not consulted or informed about this decision, which was taken by a sub-committee. That illustrates the democratic deficit that needs to be addressed when stock is transferred.

I commend the residents of the various units, including Frank Godley court. They have behaved with the spirit of the person after whom their home was named—Sidney Frank Godley, the first private to be awarded the Victoria cross in the first world war—and they have run a magnificent campaign. This has been a good debate, and it does great credit to Parliament that Members of Parliament of opposing political parties on different sides of the Chamber can unite in their concern for their constituents in this way. I wish that this picture of Parliament could be seen more widely outside. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman not only on securing this debate but on the campaign that he has waged in the borough in support of the local community campaign by the residents of the affected homes.

I am pleased to take part in this debate about the future of sheltered accommodation for the elderly in our borough of Bexley. I congratulate my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) on securing this debate and on his excellent speech, which covered the points so well. I strongly support what he said, and want to add a little to it.

Like my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (John Austin), I am very angry about what has taken place in our borough. The issue, which has aroused such concern and anger across the borough, stems from proposals put forward by London and Quadrant last year, which came like a bolt from the blue. As Members of Parliament, we were not consulted or even advised about the plans; we were excluded completely. London and Quadrant was determined to close a number of sheltered homes.

The first that I knew of the plans was when residents and their relatives contacted me, having received the letter from London and Quadrant about the closure plans. Naturally, like my colleagues, we took up the matter with London and Quadrant and expressed our concerns and opposition to the approach and policies suggested. We are talking about people’s homes and the quality of their lives, and the views of elderly, vulnerable people were not being considered in London and Quadrant’s proposals. Matters should not be dealt with in that way, as I am sure that the Minister will agree.

I visited one of the threatened homes in my constituency, Elwick court in Crayford. I was given a conducted tour of the home, looked at the facilities, spoke at a meeting of residents and listened to their views. I was accompanied by Crayford Councillors Howard Marriner, Geraldine Lucia-Hennis and Melvin Seymour. The home is popular, well-maintained and friendly, and has a great atmosphere. All it needs is a lift to bring it up to the desired standards. That was originally a proposal of London and Quadrant, but it had taken it out of its schedule.

People were happy in the home, so why should it close? I met a number of elderly residents, including a sprightly 96-year-old who had lived at Elwick court since it opened 26 years ago and who was very worried. Fortunately—as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup—under pressure from councillors, the excellent leadership of our new council leader Councillor Ian Clement, the chief executive Nick Johnson and others on the council, local MPs, residents and their families and the local community, London and Quadrant was forced to cease implementing the proposals until after a Bexley council committee, chaired by the long-serving and experienced Councillor John Waters, had deliberated.

I hope that the facts and human interest issues will come more to the fore, and that London and Quadrant’s proposals will be abandoned. London and Quadrant had neither the interests of the residents at heart, nor demand within the borough, as Elwick court was one of the six homes designated for closure, but was not among the six least popular homes. London and Quadrant had to correct the mistake in information that it gave me when it admitted that Elwick court was not among the most unpopular sheltered homes in the borough.

In the interests of vulnerable and elderly people and their homes, I very much hope that the Minister will ensure that housing associations do not behave in such a way in future.

Let me congratulate the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) on securing this debate on an important constituency issue, and the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) and my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (John Austin) on supporting his concerns.

The Government are mindful of the problems and concerns of older people in relation to housing. We recognise the growing challenges and opportunities posed by demographic changes and our ageing population. We know that older age groups will grow more rapidly than the population as a whole, and that there are significant implications for housing-related care and support. The population aged over 80 will grow from 2.3 million in 1998 to 3.2 million by 2021, and long-term projections show a more rapid growth to 4.3 million by 2031 and 6 million by 2050. I would be one of those 6 million if I lived that long.

Meeting the needs of this group of people is becoming an increasing priority in Government, especially as pressure grows on the small amount of housing stock that is appropriate for older people with support needs—although it should be said that only a minority of older people currently live in sheltered accommodation. The figure of about 3 per cent. of those aged 65 to 69 rises to 19 per cent. of those aged 85 and over. We need to build more homes across the board to meet the increasing needs of our growing ageing population.

Although London generally has a much younger age profile than the rest of the United Kingdom, it still contains more than 1 million people over the state retirement age. Given the increasing tendency of affluent London owner-occupiers to capitalise on their housing assets and leave London at around retirement age, older people in London are far more likely to be on low incomes, with related poor health, than older people in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The proportion of people of retirement age in Bexley is relatively high. It was 18 per cent. in 2004 and is projected to rise to 20 per cent. by 2011, along with a 10 per cent. increase in the number of people aged 85 and over. The significance of that group is recognised in the borough’s “supporting people” strategy and in its emerging local area agreement, which is currently being negotiated with the Government office for London.

Along with the London boroughs of Bromley, Greenwich, Lewisham and Southwark, Bexley is a member of the South East London Housing Partnership. The partnership has its own housing strategy, which is the basis for the delivery of new affordable housing through Housing Corporation investment and investment in private-sector housing through the London Housing Board in south-east London. The partnership is assessing and reviewing the needs of older people in a sub-regional context, including demand for sheltered accommodation, domiciliary support and the role of the private sector. The findings will be used to develop a sub-regional action plan for the provision of housing and support for older people.

Sheltered housing continues to be popular and an excellent range of accommodation is available, but in some areas there is over-supply and under-demand. Some sheltered housing stock is outmoded, and may need remodelling or change of use to be fit for current or future needs and expectations. Some, indeed, may need to be demolished. As the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup pointed out, care homes are often perceived as dated and not what most of us would choose for our later years. They tend to be associated with dependency rather than independence.

As for the future and value of sheltered housing, the Government recognise the valuable contribution that it can and is likely to continue to make in offering safe and comfortable accommodation—with its own front door, as the hon. Gentleman said—for older people. Where there is a realistic need and a genuine demand for continued provision of sheltered accommodation, some existing schemes will need to be remodelled or converted to meet more modern and acceptable standards of accommodation and fulfil the needs and aspirations of today’s and future generations of older people.

I agree with other Members that when changes are envisaged—whether to meet the needs of people in the area or because of concern about the condition of accommodation—it is enormously important for any consultation on proposals affecting the homes of elderly and vulnerable people in particular to be undertaken in a sensitive and proper manner. We need to get the balance right, so that more older people have the opportunity and means to stay in their own homes, where they have been for many years—with the right support and adaptations where needed—as long as they want, if that is a realistic option. We also need to look at other options, such as what I understand is now beginning to be called floating support. I worked for many years in social services, and we probably called it something else, but such names and terms change. We have measures such as telecare, community alarm systems, adaptations and disability facility grants. They are all important measures that can support people to remain living comfortably and happily in their family home if they want to do so.

The supporting people programme is enormously important. It provides help to more than 1 million people nationally per year through a £1.7 billion programme. Among other activities, it enables vulnerable people to move into, or stay independent in, their own home in their own communities. Supporting people funding of £350 million has been allocated for London administrative authorities for 2007-08, of which Bexley will receive £3 million.

There are some 1,350 social sector sheltered accommodation units in the London borough of Bexley, which are run by a mixture of local housing associations, with just under a third owned by London and Quadrant Group, which is the largest provider. I understand that, like many other local authorities, Bexley has been undertaking a review of housing and support for older people. The review includes an assessment of the supply and type of, and demand for, sheltered housing, and the findings are due to be reported in the spring.

As the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford mentioned, Bexley council set up a member working group specifically to review London and Quadrant housing association’s plans for its sheltered housing in the borough. The review was launched after residents of the schemes and their relatives contacted local councillors to express their concerns about proposals to close some schemes in the borough and remodel others. Following discussions with council officers, London and Quadrant agreed not to take any decisions until after the council had carried out a thorough examination of the issues.

I understand that members of the group have now visited each of the sheltered schemes to hear the views of residents and to see the physical condition of the buildings, and that it has been agreed that independent, specialist consultants should go into each scheme to find out in confidence what residents want for the future, so that their views can be fully taken into account in any decisions that are eventually made. Every resident of sheltered accommodation will be offered the chance to contribute and will be able to have relatives or friends with them when the interviews are conducted. The consultation and research exercise will be carried out over the coming months. That means that no decisions will be taken about the future of the schemes until the spring.

The council is also using its community strategy and emerging local area agreement—LAA—to address the needs of older people. Proposals include increasing the proportion of older people supported to live in their own home and assisting vulnerable people, including the elderly, to access good-quality and affordable housing. I am sure that Bexley’s aspirations in respect of the housing needs of its older people are not unique and I encourage the council to consider the way forward in the context of national and regional policy developments, which are raising the profile of the issues facing this important section of the population. The council’s ongoing review of housing and support for older people appears to be a valuable first step in determining the way ahead for Bexley.

One of the key issues that Members will be concerned about is the sustainability of whatever options Bexley and its partners choose to pursue, and the scrutiny arrangements that are put in place. The future of housing provision for older people is a key strategic issue, and one which I would expect the local strategic partnership to address in taking forward the local area agreement for Bexley, which we expect to agree in the next month or so. The issue of alternative providers was raised; I cannot comment on those issues today, but they obviously can be discussed in the wider context. It will be important for the Government office for London to work closely with Bexley in reviewing and, if necessary, refreshing the agreement to ensure that the needs of this section of the community are properly addressed. The Government office is already in dialogue with the council about how it intends to develop its local area agreement in the light of the recently published local government White Paper in order to deliver improved levels of accountability and services that reflect those local aspirations. I expect that dialogue to continue and to address the sort of issues that hon. Members have raised on the Floor of the House tonight.

I conclude by congratulating the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup and other hon. Gentlemen on raising these issues. It is right for all of us, as constituency MPs, to put forward issues that have affected and will affect the people whom we represent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead said, that has been reflected well in the House tonight, so I congratulate all those involved in the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o’clock.