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21 Nov 2007 : Column 169WH—continued

The reality for my constituents, who depend on the council’s housing services, is that things have got much worse. Over 10 years, the council’s housing stock, which should have improved under the national decent homes
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programme, has simply got 10 years more dilapidated. Homeless people have been driven into the inadequate private sector of rented housing; people with special needs, such as domestic violence victims or those waiting for aids and adaptations, have gone unheeded; and antisocial behaviour, which is the ultimate plague of badly managed housing stock, has made life a particular misery on some estates. The most recent assessment of housing services by the Audit Commission found that Northampton provided a poor housing service with uncertain prospects for improvement. Uncertain the prospects were indeed, because they have not improved.

On disrepair, the council’s housing stock condition survey found that about a third of the borough’s housing was in need of improvement to bring it up to the decent homes standard. However, the CPA’s overall assessment of the council’s performance found that although it had identified funds to bring the properties up to standard, there was a “very high risk” that the council will fail to meet the decent homes standard by 2010. It also found that although the council had made regular statements that its ambition is to achieve the decent homes standard, they amount to aspirations and not realistic, robust and deliverable objectives.

Between 2004-05 and 2005-06, the number of council properties that were deemed unfit fell by only 3 per cent. from 28.7 to 25 per cent. By my reckoning, therefore, it will take a further eight years to achieve the decent homes standard, which well misses the Government’s targets. That does not take into account the fact that some of the property is deteriorating at a substantial rate without receiving any kind of planned maintenance check from the council.

We are now less than three years away from the 2010 decent homes target. The experience of my constituents, which is reflected through my advice surgeries and my visits to their homes, is that some properties are deteriorating very quickly. The upgrading programme taking place up and down the country, which my hon. Friend the Minister must see when he looks at housing programmes, is simply not happening in Northampton. People come to my advice surgeries carrying plastic bags with belongings covered in green mould. On one estate, a woman, her husband and two children are unable to use one of their two bedrooms because of the damp and have had to throw away clothes affected by mould.

I cannot tell you the number of times, Mr. Atkinson, that I have visited homes to see the extent of the disrepair to find water pooling on floors and walls covered with mould. On one estate, I found little stalactites and stalagmites growing in the walkways as a result of long-term structural disrepair. In one home, I knelt down on the carpet to look at some mould on the wall in a corner of the room. When I got up, my clothes were soaking wet, as the carpet was completely sodden. Some properties are permeated by the smell of damp, and parents complain that their children have chest infections.

On one estate, partially completed repairs programmes had left serious holes and disrepair that had not been dealt with for many years. In the eastern Newtown district, major improvements are needed to housing that was not particularly well built to start with and that has deteriorated markedly in the past decade. Substantial reconfiguration is also needed.

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In other parts of the country, it has been well recognised that estate design can contribute greatly to problems of crime. Steps have been taken to remove rat runs, block off walkways and provide people with defensible space around their homes. Recently, councillors have been told that emergency repairs only will be carried out because of the need to focus on reducing the number of voids. Emergency repairs are extremely inefficient because they mean that planned maintenance does not get done. If they are dealt with on a call-out basis, they are also extremely expensive, which leads to a reduction in the number of repairs that are completed.

Another big problem is that of homelessness. The CPA assessment of the housing department commended the council’s housing and money advice service. Indeed, I used to refer homeless constituents to that service. Unfortunately, it was closed down, and homeless applicants now simply get referred to a general one-stop shop. The results for people with some of the most complex needs are truly appalling. Women who are fleeing domestic violence do not want to set out their concerns over a general counter in front of whoever else happens to be there. Therefore, they do not get the priority that they should be accorded under our homelessness legislation, which was hailed as such a milestone in supporting homeless people and in tackling real social problems.

Housing options interviews, which should be carried out after needs assessments to see if people can be housed in the private sector, are being used crudely to direct people into private sector housing that they cannot manage. For example, a pregnant and homeless 16-year-old girl who had spent a week applying for housing and being sent off to stay with friends for the night was then put into a bed-and-breakfast hostel in the red-light district. However, the hostel did not provide breakfast and the girl had a packet of Coco Pops in her little room, which she ate before she set off for school. She was then offered a two-bedroomed private rented flat, but her housing benefit would not cover the rent. I do not know how a young girl, newly homeless and pregnant and still at school, was supposed to manage a six-month tenancy without security of tenure and without the necessary money to pay the rent. There appeared to be no joint working with other agencies, so the girl’s midwife had no idea where she was. Her school, which could not get any response from the council, contacted me.

Recently, a young girl who had fled domestic violence with her child applied for housing and was told that she was intentionally homeless. She did not know how to get a review or how to appeal the decision. She moved in with her parents and has now ended up in a six-month tenancy with her parents having to pay the deposit and about a third of the rent each month. That type of position is not financially sustainable and puts the young woman and her child in a revolving door of homelessness.

People suffering racial harassment have an equally difficult time in getting the type of professional support that I had thought was now routine. For example, a woman of Somali origin has had her car attacked and has been followed to the shops by a gang of youths who shouted racist abuse at her and her
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eight-year-old child. When she went to the council, she was told that it would be years before she could get a move.

I note that the 2006 inspection report criticised the housing department’s record on diversity, yet with an increasingly diverse community, it is even more important that systems are in place to ensure that this dimension of housing is given due attention. That includes the need to provide proper support for people with disability needs. I recall one woman who came to see me because she had been promised a stair lift, two years before, so that she could get upstairs to the bathroom. Meanwhile, she was still sleeping in her front room in which she had a commode, and she washed in the kitchen sink.

We all know that estate management contributes to antisocial behaviour. An area that is run down, in which the planting is not maintained, the footpaths are not cleared and graffiti is left in place, attracts vandalism and crime. That is especially true in the eastern district of my constituency, where there is a major need for improved estate management, particularly of tree growth. The enthusiastic landscape planners who designed the estates planted too many trees and the wrong type of trees. They have confessed to that now. The result for many people is not enough light coming into their homes, and damp and damage from tree roots. In one instance, a branch fell on to a family’s home and demolished a child’s bedroom—fortunately during the daytime. It also means there are a lot of overgrown areas that harbour vandalism and antisocial behaviour.

On the Blackthorn estate in my constituency, the residents campaigned to get improvements and got the then Labour-controlled council to set up a special multi-agency project to tackle antisocial behaviour. That included blocking off rat runs, providing play areas in empty spaces and managing some of the more difficult tenancies. They found that a quarter of all local crimes were committed by children from one single family. People should not have to tolerate that type of severe antisocial behaviour from council tenants without the council taking action to enforce the tenancy conditions and ensure that people behave in a reasonable manner towards their neighbours. What happened on the Blackthorn estate shows what can be done if action to tackle antisocial behaviour is taken by all the agencies, not just the police, particularly on housing management. In cases in which a service is deteriorating, people plead a lack of resources, yet there are wasted resources in the council’s area.

There are three hostel-type units for single people in my constituency. They are completely counter-productive. Local authorities have a responsibility to advise and assist but, ultimately, not to house single people unless they are in some other way vulnerable. The duty is to house people who are vulnerable, in particular families with children.

The three hostels have become havens for some of the most appalling antisocial behaviour, drug dealing and violence. In many of the bedsits, the single tenants have long since become families. It is not unusual to find a couple and their child or even children living in a tiny bedsit. Successive council administrations have failed to take action over the hostels, in particular to convert them to family housing.

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We are now 10 years into a Labour Government and just under three years off the target date for the decent homes standard programme, yet the reality for many of my constituents in Northampton who are dependent on the council for housing is that they find themselves trapped in steadily decaying housing stock. Those who look to the council, as they are perfectly entitled to do, for support and help and also housing find that they are turned away or life is made very difficult and they are refused help.

Over the years, the council has shed many of its responsibilities. It lost its road maintenance service, which was taken back by the county council because of the borough’s poor performance. It lost its planning functions to the West Northamptonshire Development Corporation, which now also manages regeneration. It seems recently to have lost two of its major public events to the local rugby club. Housing is one of the few functions remaining to it, and it is easily the one that is most critical to the well-being of my constituents. I therefore ask the Minister to ensure that the regional office intervenes quickly and decisively to get improvements in housing services for my constituents.

The window of opportunity for large-scale public sector investment in social housing is likely to close without my constituents seeing any benefit at all. The target date for the decent homes standard programme will have come and gone, but the council will still be arguing over whether repairs and housing services should be run from one depot or another. My constituents cannot continue to wait indefinitely. The excuses have been that elections were just coming up, or that a new chief executive was just starting, yet two council elections have come and gone with changes of control, and two new chief executives have come and gone.

Frankly, I do not think that my constituents should have to wait any longer. In 21st century Britain, it is completely wrong that people should have to live in homes where green mould grows on their belongings, where they cannot walk across the estate without their child being called all the racist names under the sun, or where they have to go for months without a bath because they have no way of getting upstairs. I completely recognise that it is down to the council to deal with such problems, but, at the end of the day, the Government also have a responsibility to ensure that people get decent housing, as is their right. In this case, the council either cannot or will not get its houses in order, so I ask my hon. Friend to ensure that the regional office intervenes in the interests of my constituents.

4.33 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): As a fellow north-eastern MP, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) on securing this vital debate and on continuing to raise this crucial matter. Her commitment to housing in Northampton is shown by the fact that she has chosen to raise it for the second time this year. She had
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a debate on the topic in the House in March. I welcome the fact that she is a dedicated and assiduous Member of the House on behalf of her constituents.

My hon. Friend raised graphic—indeed, distressing—points, and I hope to cover many of them. Frankly, her first-class contribution also raised many wider issues about national policy, which I also hope to address in the time available.

Only last week we introduced the Housing and Regeneration Bill, which will help to deliver the Government’s pledge to build 3 million new homes in mixed and sustainable communities by 2020. My hon. Friend used the expression “solid communities”, which is a good turn of phrase. I shall continue to use it from now on, because it is very appropriate.

The Bill will help to address the shortage of affordable housing for first-time buyers and families, make new housing greener to tackle climate change and give social housing tenants a better deal. It will establish the new homes and communities agency, remove barriers to councils building their own social housing and make rating against the code for sustainable homes mandatory for new homes.

The Bill will also give tenants more choice and a stronger say over how their homes are managed by establishing a new social housing regulator, Oftenant, which will give tenants a stronger say in stock transfer decisions by making a tenant ballot mandatory and by giving local authority tenants greater powers over options for the future management and ownership of their homes.

I appreciate that, as the Bill stands and as we take it forward, there will be no provision for the social housing regulator to take on board local authority-owned stock, but the direction of travel set by the Government is clear on that. We hope to move towards it within two years. It is not in the Bill because of the differing performance management frameworks and the need to consult, but I hope that my hon. Friend will take some reassurance from the direction of travel and from the provision for tenants to take greater action over failures to manage property. That is a good step.

The Bill will also implement changes to improve the way in which housing services are provided, including creating a level playing field for members of the armed forces applying for local authority housing, and improving the operation of the right-to-buy scheme. Many of the proposals will have a direct effect on my hon. Friend’s constituents in Northampton, North, and I hope that the Bill will be the background to future housing improvements in the town.

Another vital policy area that is already having an effect on my hon. Friend’s constituents and that now falls within my direct responsibility is the Milton Keynes and south midlands growth area. Indeed, I attended my first meeting of its inter-regional board in my new role as chairman only last week. It was held in Bedford. Through that role, I look forward to getting out and about in the sub-region. I hope that I will be invited to my hon. Friend’s constituency to meet people on the ground and hear about their experiences. I shall take the opportunity to find out about their growth plans, see what they are delivering and hear about the challenges that they face.

It is vital that local authorities, regional assemblies, regional development agencies, local delivery vehicles
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and all the other partners in the sub-region work together on common problems to find common solutions and make the best case for the area. In my time as chairman, I will support the board but also challenge it to provide the housing that the people of Northampton and the wider area need and deserve.

At the meeting last week, I was impressed by the amount of energy, ambition and positive feeling that I witnessed. Such ambition is needed to ensure that we create places where people will want to live. I am keen to ensure that growth has a positive effect on the lives of the existing residents in areas such my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Tomorrow, I shall speak at the second annual Milton Keynes and south midlands conference in Kettering. I will take the opportunity to emphasise the challenge that faces the sub-region, and to pledge my support to champion what people in the area seek to achieve. This is a time of great promise and opportunity for Northampton, North. I want to ensure that my hon. Friend’s constituents have housing that is as decent as possible.

On the specific issues raised by my hon. Friend, I thought that it might be useful if I provided an update on the progress made in the areas that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing promised to look into during the debate in March. On the wider question of the supply of decent homes, the authority is being encouraged to take a broader view and to use the opportunity and resources provided by the growth agenda to help invest in existing stock. An event to look at the wider picture afforded to the authority by Government policy in the post-Green Paper agenda will be held in December.

On the subject of Northampton borough council’s review of its own stock, it has commissioned an asset management strategy to look in detail at the stock condition and the wider factors for each separate area of the town. I understand that good progress has been made in preparing that strategy, and that work will be used to develop the repairs programme for the next three years. It will be introduced at the beginning of the next financial year, and is, as my hon. Friend rightly said, vital for her constituents.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing also tasked the Government office to work closely with Northampton to improve its housing services before the next Audit Commission inspection, so I was particularly concerned to hear about the failure to improve housing repairs. I understand that since the March debate, Northampton borough council has commissioned an independent report into the efficiency of its direct service organisation, which includes the housing repair service. That will inform changes to the service, and the housing sub-board—I shall come to that in a moment—has continually emphasised the need for improvement in that area. A number of immediately implementable improvements were identified during the report’s preparation, and I understand that they have been implemented.

Ms Keeble: I understand that just this week the council agreed to do only emergency repairs, which is catastrophic in trying to obtain proper, sustained improvement to housing stock. It is also a big waste of money.

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