Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) (DEC 37)

FOREWARD

  Founded in 1883, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) is a professional and education body, dedicated to the promotion of environmental health and to encouraging the highest possible standards in the training and the work of environmental health professionals.

  The Chartered Institute has approximately 9,500 members, most of whom work for local authorities (LAs) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. As well as providing services and information to its members, the Chartered Institute provides information to government departments and evidence to them on proposed legislation relevant to environmental health.

  In 1993 the Chartered Institute became the World Health Organisation (EURO) Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health Management in Europe.

  The charitable aim of the CIEH is to "promote Environmental Health for the benefit of the public"; to this end, the Chartered Institute seeks, among other things, to support and represent the interests of those, wherever they work, engaged in the practice of Environmental Health.

  In respect of private housing this consists of activities to secure the repair and improvement of properties in the private rented sector and activities to secure and promote the repair and improvement of owner occupied properties through the administration of various forms of financial assistance. Properties which require particular attention by Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) are those let in multiple occupation (HMOs).

  Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) employed by local housing authorities are well placed, by virtue of their qualifications, training and experience to address the day to day problems raised by poor housing standards; they can bring an holistic approach to enforcement using the following qualities:

    —  experience in risk assessment procedures and ability to take an holistic view of the health, safety and welfare of occupiers alongside traditional building and means of escape defects;

    —  skills in tenant liaison (in addition to dealing with the problems of bricks and mortar) which is vital to achieve the goals in privately rented premises where the inevitable disruption can cause severe problems for occupiers many of whom are the most disadvantaged members of the community;

    —  experience and training in administering prosecutions including Court appearances when litigation becomes necessary;

    —  control of a broad range of functions with consequent ability to resolve conflicts between them when they arise; and

    —  ability to provide a central unitary point of contact for all involved including local authority housing/rehousing officers, rent officers, social services, housing benefits, tenancy relations and voluntary agencies.

  Other specific activities include area renewal, clearance and demolition, compulsory purchase, the establishment and promotion of landlords forums and wide ranging partnership working.

  Any enquiries regarding this document should be addressed, in the first instance to

Andrew Griffiths,

Principal Policy Officer

Tel:  020 7827 5838

Fax:  020 7827 5831

E mail:  [email protected]

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  The role of the CIEH in housing is to seek to protect the health, safety and welfare of occupiers. Work undertaken by members of the Chartered Institute is primarily associated with the private sector and the rented sector in particular. The comments set out in this report concentrate therefore on the Decent Homes Standard (DHS) in respect of the target to increase the proportion of private sector housing in decent condition occupied by vulnerable groups.

  The CIEH fully supports the aims of the Decent Homes Standard to raise standards of domestic accommodation, but believes that the application of the standard is weighted too heavily in favour of the social sector.

  The CIEH is on record as supporting the principles of the proposed Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS) in the draft Housing Bill, but believes that the system as currently constituted will make very little contribution to increasing the number of Decent Homes. Such an increase will not be achieved without specific measures, linked to the DHS, that will enable local housing authorities (LHAs) to require the execution of work relevant to the standard.

  More effort and resources need to applied to address the needs of the major proportion of the housing stock—the private sector. The CIEH believes that occupiers, tenants in particular, in the private sector are not being treated equitably by virtue of the disproportionate distribution of resources in favour of the social sector. The current proposals do not represent "best value", as the investment is not being necessarily directed at where it could have most effect; furthermore they mitigate against the aspirations of Best Value Performance Indicators, particularly BVPI 62 (action to deal with unfit properties).

  The CIEH believes that the DHS addresses the appropriate issues necessary to raise standards but that the decent homes standard needs to be amended and adjusted to reflect the characteristics of the private sector. Statutory powers need to be in place to enable LHAs to tackle all aspects of the standard together with adequate funding mechanisms to enable these works to be carried out.

  The CIEH would be pleased to work with the Committee and the Government in developing an effective and enforceable standard to increase the number of decent homes in the private sector.

  1.  The Public Service Agreement (PSA) targets for the private sector stock were not subject to consultation and were announced without any contextual material. There is no explanation of how the targets have been arrived at and no projection of how much public expenditure will be needed to meet the targets. The CIEH can only conclude that the ODPM have made an estimate and set the targets accordingly.

  2.  There is no enforcement mechanism for achieving the decent homes standard at the level of the individual dwelling—the minimum housing standard is one of four components of the standard. For the standard to be attained, there should be a mechanism for requiring the achievement of the other elements, such as a compulsory improvement notice.

  3.  The use of powers in the Regulatory Reform Act 2003, set in the context of Government policy in respect of cash-poor, equity-rich owner-occupiers does not lend itself to the achievement of the standard. Owners releasing equity will choose to spend the money as they see fit with no regard to the decent homes standard, unless they receive considerable public financial support.

  4.  If the ODPM is planning to monitor progress towards the private sector decent homes standard through the English House Condition Survey (EHCS), the proposed Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS) will need to be used in the EHCS in anticipation of this being part of the decent homes standard.

  5.  It is likely that many properties in the private sector will fail on the age of the kitchen and bathroom and possibly insulation against noise (the issue of sound insulation needs to be properly addressed in the DHS). It is unclear how these issues will be addressed. For rented property there are no powers to require the replacement of a kitchen or bathroom because it is old. Owner occupiers will be reluctant to up date these facilities against their will and it is unlikely that there will be grant aid to cover this sort of work.

  6.  It is the experience of local housing authorities that many of their tenants are concerned with the common parts of the buildings they live in—lifts, stairwells, corridors (including issues relating to lighting and means of escape from fire). The Decent Homes Standard (DHS) does not address these aspects.

  7.  It appears that the order of priorities under the Sustainable Communities plan in practice is:

    —  New supply.

    —  Decent homes in the social housing sector.

    —  Decent homes in the private sector.

  The CIEH believes that these priorities are wrong and that little or no work has been done to establish the need issues between the private and public sector. In many areas of the country, the condition of the public stock is significantly better than the private stock in terms of repair, unfitness and decent homes. There seems to be an almost unspoken assumption that the public sector requires and deserves more resources than the private sector and this has been reflected in grant allocations over the last few years.

  8.  The CIEH believes that there is insufficient funding available to meet all three of the issues in paragraph seven above, and the Government should be more realistic in stating what the planned expenditure will achieve.

  9.  The thermal comfort criteria are low when set against Building Regulations requirements. It may not be appropriate for LHAs to require the provision of a full heating system in private sector properties. There is a need for guidance on what can be done. Full account needs to be taken of the issue of fuel poverty in determining the decency of homes.

  9.1.  The Decent Homes Standard has been successful in raising the profile of energy efficiency within investment strategies, particularly affecting the public sector stock. However there are some problems that are the product of the phrasing of the standard viz:-

  9.1.1.  Uncertainty as to what the objectives of the standard are. Is it:-

    —  To identify cost effective measures that are easy to install to generally improve domestic energy efficiency, or

    —  To reaffirm the government policy to combat fuel poverty

  9.1.2.  If it is the latter there is a significant chance that households will not escape from fuel poverty even if all of the stated measures are provided

  9.1.3.  The definitions are very vague and are open to different interpretations. Probably the most notable exception is whether those, often very large numbers of individual residential units served by a central boiler plant can be viewed as possessing programmable heating. The variety of central boiler plants in existence nationally will vary in their thermal efficiency and costs to individual households.

  9.1.4.  Can and should a home be deemed decent just because of the difficulties in remedial action. An exception is an unfilled cavity wall (U value 1.7) not meeting the standard but solid wall (U value 2.5) achieving it.

  9.1.5.  50mm of loft insulation is an extremely low specification when current standards are in excess of 250mm, including the governments own Warm Front scheme. This only serves to send a mixed message about the importance of loft insulation as a cost effective measure.

  9.1.6.  There are examples of masonry cavity walls where it is not deemed to be good practice to cavity fill with insulation so they are deemed to fail the standard. One example is black ash mortar where cavity insulation should only be undertaken in conjunction with wall tie replacement.

  9.1.7.  If the DHS is altered in the future, it must be remembered that alterations can radically affect monitoring and cause difficulties in revisiting historic data for updates.

  10.  The CIEH is concerned that it could be difficult for local housing authorities to require the replacement of components that are old and need replacing (under the DHS) but which do not cause a hazard under the HHSRS, in the absence of specific powers to deal with disrepair.

  11.  Stock condition surveys undertaken by many LHAs have shown that a large proportion of their stock would fail the DHS. Funds for grant aid are rapidly diminishing and equity release is suitable only for older home owners. This will represent an enormous challenge to LHAs.

  12.  Stock condition surveys have shown that the lack of modern facilities and thermal comfort are the principal reasons why dwellings are classified as non decent. It is in precisely these areas that LHAs have few powers to intervene.

  13.  A further difficulty associated with stock condition surveys is that most surveys guarantee anonymity for occupiers. This will necessitate further potentially resource intensive activity in order to identify and match up vulnerable occupiers and non-decent accommodation. The problems of establishing baseline information should not be underestimated. Many LHAs are experiencing a lot of difficulty in matching up information on decent homes with vulnerable groups

  14.  The CIEH is concerned that the emphasis on Decent Homes may draw attention (and resources) away from repairing and improving the worst properties towards dealing with those which are not in serious disrepair but which are nevertheless non-decent under the DHS. There will be a temptation (and an imperative) to address the latter first to the detriment of those living in the worst properties.

  15.  Most LHAs prioritise action to deal with the worst properties in their areas (usually those in multiple occupation); such properties are often occupied by vulnerable people on shorthold tenancies who are often the most mobile in terms of tenancies which will further exacerbate efforts to track the number of vulnerable people living in non-decent accommodation.

COMMENTS ON SPECIFIC ISSUES RELEVANT TO THE COMMITTEE'S INQUIRY

1.   The definition of "decent"

  1.1.  Criterion a:  It meets the current statutory minimum standard for housing

  1.1.1.  The focus on vulnerable households under HHSRS will be consistent with the proposed approach to applying the Decent Homes standard to the private sector. However, there is concern that the difference in approach between the present fitness regime and HHSRS may obscure the assessment of progress (or regress) in improving private sector housing conditions. Any effects of changing to the new system will need to be fully evaluated and clearly identified in the in the course of monitoring progress.

  1.2.  Criterion b:  It is in a reasonable state of repair

  1.2.1.  This criterion will be of particular relevance when the HHSRS is introduced, as disrepair will be evaluated in a totally different way.

  1.3.  Criterion c:  It has reasonably modern facilities and services

  1.3.1.  The general principles of this criterion are supported. The CIEH believes that a dwelling with an outside WC for example (or one that fails to provide suitable privacy), meets an adequate standard of decency. Failure of this aspect of Criterion c. should on its own constitute failure of the standard.

  1.3.2.  This criterion, and the recently circulated draft guidance on implementation, fails to adequately accommodate the situation encountered in houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) in which facilities (bathroom, WCs, and in some cases kitchens) are shared by a number of households. In such cases the provision of dedicated bathrooms, WCs (and kitchens) of whatever age or standard, is not a realistic prospect. Consequently, it is suggested that the standard requires some elaboration to suitably cover the situations found in non self-contained HMOs.

  1.4.  Criteria d:  It provides a reasonable degree of thermal comfort

  1.4.1.  The provision for a reduced standard of 50mm loft insulation for homes with gas/oil programmable heating is not considered to be at all adequate (particularly bearing in mind the fact that the Building Regulations standard is shortly to rise to 300mm). Allowing such a major trade-off might make the difference in whether or not an occupying family is living in fuel poverty. The requirement of a minimum of 200mm (plus cavity wall insulation where possible) should apply to all housing.

2.   The scale of the problem

  2.1.  In the private sector the scale of the problem can only be reliably determined through the process of combined house condition and housing needs surveys. Clearly, it will be necessary for the specifications for such surveys to include provision for the relevant data to be collected.

  2.2.  The various mechanisms for funding and delivery—stock transfer, PFI, Arms Length Management Organisations and council housing

  2.3.  It is not clear how stock transfer in itself can achieve any improvement in housing conditions.

  2.4.  None of the provisions identified appears to have a significant bearing on private sector housing. In this respect Private Sector Housing Renewal, plus Warm Front and Energy Efficiency Commitment are the most relevant forms of capital subsidy. In addition, equity release is intended to be a key element of the Government's Private Sector Renewal Policy. However, the current level of interest in equity release amongst householders appears to be very low. This could result in a significant deterioration in housing standards in the owner-occupied sector in the short and medium term.

  2.5.  In the private rented sector local authority Housing Act enforcement powers are undoubtedly the most important factor in improving standards, although these will only cover certain aspects of the DHS. Landlord Accreditation schemes could have a role in securing decent homes in the private rented sector, although this is likely to be limited.

3.   The role of tenant choice

  3.1.  It is assumed that this issue is being considered primarily in the context of the social housing sector.

  4.  The link between the decent homes target and other parts of the Government's sustainable communities agenda

  4.1.  The Decent Homes provisions should be considered in the context of the Government's priorities for Neighbourhood Renewal, and appropriate consideration should be given to providing relevant to local authorities when reviewing their private sector renewal policies.

  4.2.  The inclusion of a low standard of insulation for homes with more efficient heating is considered likely to hamper the aims of the Government's Fuel Poverty Strategy target to take all vulnerable households out of fuel poverty by 2010, and is contrary to the principles of sustainable energy use.

  4.3.  Suitable guidance should be provided to local authorities in the implementation of private sector house condition and housing needs surveys to measure progress in securing decent homes in the private sector. Consideration should be given to the need for additional Government funding to local authorities to cover the additional cost of collecting the data necessary for this purpose.





 
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