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Decent Homes Programme (Nottingham)

Volume 547: debated on Tuesday 26 June 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stephen Crabb.)

I feel a mixture of pride and anxiety speaking about Nottingham’s decent homes programme. I am proud of the difference it has made to the lives of my constituents, but anxious for the future, because the final two years of investment have yet to be confirmed.

I want to explain my pride that, thanks to a unique study produced through the knowledge transfer partnership between Nottingham City Homes and Nottingham business school, we can measure the impact of Nottingham’s decent homes programme. I shall also set out exactly what is at stake for my constituents, including tenants, their neighbours and the wider city of Nottingham. If the promised funding is not delivered, the objective of bringing all council homes in Nottingham up to a decent standard is at risk.

Twelve years ago, the Labour Government set out their vision in a housing Green Paper and made a commitment to tackle chronic under-investment and to bring all housing up to an acceptable standard. In 2010, the National Audit Office found that, although the decent homes programme had probably had a wider beneficial impact, a lack

“of data on these wider benefits means that it is not possible to identify the Programme’s true impact throughout its life.”

The impact study helps to prove what MPs knew: that the programme was making a difference on the ground.

In January 2011, the House debated “Beyond Decent Homes”, a report from the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government. MPs on both sides of the House, including me, described what good-quality housing meant for their constituents. NCH was awarded funding by the Department for Communities and Local Government in 2008 and work began to complete £187 million-worth of planned investment to tackle the 32% of council homes in Nottingham classified as non-decent. The work was carried out under three streams to maximise efficiency and match tenants’ priorities. The secure stream was to replace all single-glazed windows with secured-by-design double-glazed units and replace any old or damaged doors; the warm stream was to improve heating and insulation; and the modern stream was to make internal improvements, including replacing outdated kitchens and bathrooms. Adaptations to meet the special needs of some tenants, including level-access showers or wet rooms, would also be undertaken alongside the secure, warm and modern—SWM—programme.

When the 2010 general election brought new uncertainty, tenants and leaseholders launched their “Nott Decent” campaign, and I was proud to join them in presenting a petition to No. 10 to ask the new Government to honour the commitment that had been made to them. We were pleased and relieved when the Minister re-allocated funding—albeit reduced funding over a longer period—to complete the programme. By January 2012, 15,900 properties—more than half of all council homes—had new windows; 3,400 doors had been replaced; 10,200 heating systems had been upgraded; 2,900 lofts were properly insulated; 9,000 kitchens and 7,200 bathrooms had been replaced; and 284 aids and adaptations had been made to make properties more accessible for their disabled tenants.

The impact study measured the effect of those changes to tenants’ homes. On crime and security, the results are dramatic: burglary fell by 42% between 2007 and 2010 on two sample estates where single-glazed windows were replaced, compared with a 21% reduction across the city. The study identified that timber doors were a weak spot in houses’ overall security, which provided evidence to support replacing all external doors, not just those that were especially old or damaged. Tenants reported feeling safer in their homes—an important contribution to improved mental health and general well-being.

Together with the installation of energy-efficient central heating systems and loft insulation, the new windows have raised the average energy efficiency rating of NCH homes from 60 to 68 points. That represents a 15% decrease in carbon emissions from NCH properties, which is equivalent to taking 2,700 cars off the road or planting 360,000 trees and growing them for 10 years. By the time the SWM programme is completed in 2015, energy efficiency from NCH homes will be saving 43,500 tonnes of carbon per year and achieving 17% of the city’s target for carbon reduction from domestic properties.

Of course, not only are energy-efficient and better-insulated homes good for the environment; they have a real and immediate benefit to the people who live in them. Tenants not only report that their homes are warmer, suffer less damp and condensation and give them pride in their neighbourhood, but that they are saving money—and given that an estimated 12% of all city residents were in fuel poverty before the programme began, that is money they desperately needed.

The Energy Saving Trust estimates that new windows alone can save £95 to £223 a year, and new boilers up to £225 a year. In total, improved homes are saving Nottingham tenants £3.5 million each year, making a significant contribution to reducing fuel poverty, which fell to 6.8% of city residents by 2010-11—after the programme upgraded thousands of properties. The improvements also enable tenants to get rid of extra appliances such as old electric heaters, which can often present a health and safety hazard. Combined with better security, these changes to the physical fabric of their homes have a marked effect on the health and well-being of NCH tenants.

The impact study estimates that, as a result of the SWM programme, two lives a year are saved by protecting vulnerable tenants from the cold; that the respiratory health of 1,000 children is improved; that, every year, 12 hospital admissions resulting from falls are avoided; that 144 accidents requiring medical attention are prevented; and that, as a result of providing warmer homes and reduced fuel bills, more than 1,400 tenants have better mental health. Based on just those examples, where a measurable change and cost impact for the NHS in Nottingham could be calculated, the savings are almost £700,000 per year.

In a time of economic austerity and public sector spending cuts, the benefits accruing from public capital investment matter more than ever. Nottingham, along with the rest of the country, is feeling the devastating impact of a double-dip recession: 19,000 people are out of work and there are six jobseekers for every vacancy. Construction, the fifth largest employment sector in the city, has been badly hit by the economic downturn and reduction in house building. The decent homes programme is providing vital work, and of the 560 people currently delivering SWM in Nottingham, about one third live in the city and over half in Nottinghamshire.

Investment in decent homes is not only providing much-needed jobs for joiners, plumbers, and other workers in the construction industry; the analysis shows that every £1 of investment in the programme generates £1.36 in Nottingham city or £1.46 in Nottinghamshire as a whole, which means that the £37.6 million spent on the decent homes programme in 2010-11 generated an extra £17.3 million of additional spending in Nottinghamshire, £13.5 million of which came into the city.

The SWM programme also makes an important contribution to training and skills development through the “One in a Million” scheme, which requires contractors to take on an apprentice for every £1 million of their contract. That has already created 105 apprenticeships, with a target of creating a total of 200 by 2015. In addition, staff on the SWM team have completed 2,000 hours of training, including externally accredited qualifications. As a result of this investment in skills, these staff can expect to earn an extra £13 million in additional lifetime earnings.

The impact study shows that investment in decent housing works both for tenants and the wider community. However, the benefits accruing from decent homes are not secure. The funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government for the decent homes programme remains indicative for the final two years of Nottingham’s programme. In the reallocation of funding in January 2011, 53% of NCH’s allocation was weighted towards those two final years, amounting to a total of £45.6 million.

If that investment does not go ahead, the consequences for our city will be dire. For every £1 million spent, 21 jobs are created, so cutting the funding could result in more than 950 job losses over the two years. Furthermore, NCH is committed to taking on an apprentice for every £1 million spent, so the reduction in funding would result in 45 fewer local people starting apprenticeships. If remaining heating upgrades are not completed, savings of 2,440 tonnes of carbon and £600,000 from tenants’ fuel bills will no longer be made, and a cut in funding would mean the loss not only of the original investment of £45 million into the construction industry, but of an additional £21 million of re-spending in the local economy. Most importantly, of course, if the funding is not confirmed, 7,000 tenants and their families would be left living in substandard housing.

The loss of the investment would hit some harder than others, and one neighbourhood in Nottingham that stands to lose most is the Meadows in my constituency. Before the last election, the Meadows, one of the 5% most deprived wards in the country, was due to benefit from £200 million of new investment, which would have transformed the area. The incoming coalition Government cancelled the housing PFI scheme, and I raised my concerns about that decision back in December 2010. Subsequently, together with representatives of the local community and the council’s regeneration team, I met the Minister for Housing and Local Government to discuss the impact of his decision, and he agreed to visit the Meadows to see for himself the needs of our neighbourhood. Unfortunately, he has not found time in his diary to make good on that commitment, so I would like to use this opportunity to reissue that invitation.

Nottingham City Homes was forced to reallocate funding within its decent homes budget so that Meadows residents were not left behind—to ensure that, having been let down by the new Government, they would still get their new doors and windows, boilers and insulation, kitchens and bathrooms, even though their hopes of transforming their neighbourhood were dashed. Thanks to the hard work of the SWM team, every NCH property in the Meadows has new windows, a third of the homes have better heating and insulation, and NCH hopes to complete the other two thirds before the end of this financial year. Those promised doors, kitchens and bathrooms, however, rely on those last two years of funding. The Minister really should come to Nottingham and meet some of those families in my constituency so that he can understand what his decision will mean to them.

I also want to touch on the wider impacts. A cut to this funding would also have knock-on effects on NCH’s self-financing position under the housing revenue account, and on other investment programmes that need to be match funded by investment from the decent homes programme. Nottingham City Homes and Nottingham city council are currently making proactive use of the community energy saving programme started by the last Labour Government to insulate hard-to-heat properties in our most deprived neighbourhoods.

Although it was right to focus resources, individual low-income householders in more affluent areas also face fuel poverty. These are often social housing tenants, and social landlords such as NCH have a strong track record of working with utility companies to help stop such homes leaking heat, making a huge contribution to the country’s carbon reduction obligations. Social housing providers need the maximum ability to retrofit their homes under the new green deal with its associated new energy company obligation arrangements. This will include the ability to match fund ECO money with housing investment programmes to get better value in tackling excess cold, helping reduce fuel poverty and reducing carbon emissions from domestic properties.

I hope the Minister will address the following questions in his response. In 2008, a third of Nottingham’s council housing failed to meet the decent homes standard, but if funding is confirmed, all council homes will meet it by 2015. Can he confirm that the £45.6 million of indicative funding for Nottingham City Homes for the last two years of the decent homes programme will be forthcoming? If he cannot provide that assurance tonight, can he tell us when housing providers will know, so that they can plan work, keep contractors on schedule and avoid the waste of winding down programmes only to have to start them up again? Can he explain how the Government will ensure that social housing tenants benefit from the green deal and ECO work to improve hard-to-heat homes and to tackle fuel poverty?

The Minister has said outside this House today that Nottingham receives substantial housing funding. The truth is that, as a deprived city that suffered from a lack of investment during the ’80s and ’90s, this funding is needed. The impact study proves that the money has been well spent. Our homes should be the places where we can shut out the world and feel safe, but if our home is cold, damp, overcrowded and outdated, there is no escape.

Decent housing matters; investment in good council housing changes lives. This study shows that investing in social housing delivers real, tangible benefits to whole communities, including jobs and growth. Surely the Government will not turn its back on this chance to do the right thing. Good council houses are not just bricks and mortar; they are homes to my constituents, who are entitled to a decent standard of living. I hope that the Minister will confirm the funding and enable Nottingham City Homes to finish this essential work.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on her speech, and on securing the debate. She spoke with great eloquence, and presented a very thorough picture of the circumstances in Nottingham and the value of the decent homes programme. I am very much on the same page as her, given the improvements that the programme can make to the health and well-being and security of tenants, and the impact that improvements in the insulation and energy performance of homes can have on carbon reduction. I also know that Nottingham has an excellent record of tackling climate change at local level.

I think that, before dealing with the intricacies of the situation in Nottingham, I should say something about the decent homes programme in general. The Government believe that all social housing should meet the decent homes standard, which, according to the technical wording of the definition, means that it should be free of category 1 hazards, should be in a reasonable state of repair, should have reasonably modern facilities and services, and should provide a reasonable degree of thermal comfort.

I must tell the hon. Lady that the present Government inherited not only a decent homes programme, but a huge deficit and a £3.2 billion backlog in capital investment in housing. The Government have already announced plans to invest £2.1 billion in the completion of the decent homes programme, of which £1.6 billion will be allocated to 46 local authorities—including Nottingham—and £500 million will go to registered social landlords in the form of gap funding. Those funds will make 127,000 council homes decent by the end of 2014-15, which will cover nearly 60% of the council housing that remains non-decent. The final slice of those non-decent homes will be made decent by local authorities using their own resources, and, as the hon. Lady said, Nottingham will be able to do that.

We have already been very successful in reducing the number of homes that are not fit for people to live in. In April 2010, shortly before the general election, local authorities had 291,600 non-decent dwellings. By April 2011 the number had fallen by 26%, to 217,000. Figures for the past year are being collated, and the Homes and Communities Agency predicts that we will prove to have reduced the number by about a further 20,000 during that period. As the hon. Lady said, more is being done even as we speak.

We believe that our funding—together with the introduction of self-financing for housing authorities and the increases in allowances that that brings them—will give local authorities the means to deal with any newly arising non-decent stock from within their own resources. In other words, they have the finances with which to maintain a steady state once we have achieved a high standard of decency.

Let me now deal with the position in Nottingham. Nottingham City Homes is a strongly performing arm’s length management organisation. Incidentally, my area of Stockport contains an ALMO which also performs very well. Only last year, Nottingham city council extended its agreement with Nottingham City Homes for a further 10 years, which I think constitutes a very good vote of confidence. That ALMO has been able to demonstrate an increase in tenant satisfaction; it has reduced rent arrears from £5 million to £1.8 million; and it was given a two-star rating under the old regime which unlocked its original decent homes funding programme.

When the time came for us to allocate funding to Nottingham, we recognised that the city had a significant backlog of non-decent homes—the hon. Lady has given the figures on that. That is why we allocated £86 million in indicative funding with the first two years confirmed—£40.5 million committed in the first two years. That is the largest award to any council outside London, and the Homes and Communities Agency is putting £78 million of additional investment into new housing and regeneration across Greater Nottingham by 2015, to produce 536 new homes.

As the hon. Lady said, the impact of the decent homes funding has been substantial. It has produced a big improvement in many people’s lives, not just in better homes, but in all that flows from that. The hon. Lady eloquently explained some of those benefits, and I entirely agree that this programme has brought, and can continue to bring, real benefits to tenants in Nottingham.

The hon. Lady referred to the study, undertaken by Nottingham City Homes with Nottingham Trent university, of the wider impact of decent homes. That study has made a very useful contribution to our knowledge, and ought to be required reading for those who doubt the importance of investing in our social housing stock. It shows why the coalition Government were right to fund authorities to make homes decent. As the hon. Lady said, every £1 million spent has created 21 jobs in Nottingham. The study gives a series of impressive statistics about the benefits that have been secured, not least reductions in crime. There are health benefits as well, of course, but some of those listed are, perhaps, a little tenuous; reductions in falls is one thing, but improvements in the respiratory health of children and in the mental health of tenants are more clear-cut.

We have already confirmed almost half the allocation we set out in the comprehensive spending review. I know that Nottingham and others are keen to get certainty on their budgets for April 2013 onwards.

The hon. Lady was, perhaps, wearing rose-tinted spectacles when she spoke of the performance of the previous Government. The Labour Government cut the decent homes programme by £150 million in July 2009, cannibalising one part of the housing programme to pay for new housing policies elsewhere. They also failed to meet their decent homes target. They pledged in 2000 that they would ensure that all social housing was of a decent standard within 10 years. Sadly, that was not the case by 2010.

Labour also made it clear in the general election campaign that they considered investment in housing, and social housing in particular, not to be a top priority. The then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), told “Newsnight”:

“Housing is essentially a private sector activity. Let’s be honest about this...I don’t see a need for us to continue with such a big renovation programme.”

Therefore, although Labour started the programme, it has to be reported that they were throttling it back and were planning to do so more.

When this Government came to power we were borrowing an additional £400 million every day in order to close the gap between what we were spending and what was coming in. It is absolutely right that the Government should keep a tight hold on all their spending. The economic circumstances that have unfolded since show the sense of taking that initial decision and the importance of continuing to keep a tight grip on what we spend and how we spend it. That does include the decent homes programme.

I can assure the hon. Lady that we are expecting to make an announcement on the decent homes allocation for the final years in due course. I very much take her point that it would be sensible to ensure that the timing of that allowed continuity of contracts and employment. That is a point I will take away from this debate.

I also want to say on behalf of the Minister for Housing and Local Government that his undertaking to visit the Meadows was given in good faith. He is very busy and very active, and I am happy to confirm that he will in due course visit the Meadows, as he undertook to do.

I understand the hon. Lady’s enthusiasm to get ahead, and I share it. The Government are still supportive of all the work that the decent homes programme is doing and all the benefits that it brings. We remain committed to supporting backlog authorities such as Nottingham in making its homes decent, and to supporting some of the most vulnerable in society who live in those homes.

I thank the Minister for giving way. I obviously listened carefully to his response, although I should say I am rather disappointed with its lack of clarity. Can he confirm how many tenants of Nottingham City Homes he expects to be living in non-decent housing by the time this Parliament comes to an end in 2015?

Like the hon. Lady, I very much hope that the programme we originally announced will have been completed and that the successes we predicted will have been achieved.

On that note, Mr Speaker, I am sitting down.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I ask that the House and you accept my apology? During a point of order I used the word “could”. You sensibly used the word “would”. I thought that you had said “should”. I was wrong and misrepresented what you had said, and I apologise.

The hon. Gentleman is courtesy and good grace itself. I did not think that an apology was necessary but it is very much appreciated, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he has said. This is the first time that the question of the Adjournment being moved has been punctuated in this way during my tenure, but I thank him.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.