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Lord Rooker: I was almost going to say to the noble Lord, Lord Gray, that I expect to have quite detailed debates on energy and heating during the course of the Bill, but not today. That is not to devalue at all what he said; I certainly pay tribute to his work and that of all those involved in the energy action organisations. As he rightly said, the issue has always been an all-party one. I have spoken in many groups myself, sharing platforms with colleagues from other parties when I was a humble Back-Bencher and, indeed, a campaigning Front-Bencher. It is more difficult now as a Minister, being expected to have all the answers.
The clause is an important part of the Bill. It replaces, with modifications, Section 605 of the Housing Act 1985, which had its origins in the Housing Act 1969. It provides part of the strategic context for the work that local
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authorities need to do to tackle poor housing conditions in their area. Subsection (1) places a duty on local authorities to keep the housing conditions in their area under review, with a view to identifying any action that they ought to take under the provisions mentioned in subsection (2). The provisions are those in Parts 1 to 4 of the Bill, together with those in other legislation relating to demolition, clearance and renewal.
As introduced in the other place, Clause 3 replicated the requirement in the 1989 Act to review housing conditions annually. There was some misunderstanding in the other place about what was meant by that, and we amended the clause to reflect more closely the current approach to local housing strategies, which local authorities are now expected to update periodically to cover a three-year to five-year period. The requirement in Clause 3 to keep the housing stock under review remains important, but the obligation to do so annually was out of kilter with that approach to strategies.
The purpose of the clause is to ensure that a local authority maintains a current awareness of the state of the housing stock in its area, so that it can come to a well-informed judgment on the action that it needs to take. The purpose of the clause is not to require an authority to produce reports at particular intervals, although we expect them to keep records which can be made available.
Amendment No. 11 seeks to insert into Clause 3 an extra duty on local authorities, when they are reviewing housing conditions in their area, to have regard to the decent homes targets or any other non-statutory targets set by the Government. As many colleagues will be aware, the decent homes standard and associated targets for both socially rented and private sector stock are important policy issues for the Government, and are vital in ensuring that the overall objective of housing policythat everyone has the opportunity to live in a decent homeis met. However, the standard and targets are non-statutory. The basis on which they are being delivered is through the public sector service agreements between the Treasury and my departmentthe Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Flowing from that is a framework of policy guidance and financial support to local authorities, to enable them to deliver.
The guidance that we have issued to local authorities on the decent homes target already sets out in detail the monitoring requirements that should be undertaken at local level to ensure that various milestones towards meeting the targets will be achieved. For private sector housing, we are asking local authorities to undertake periodic stock-condition surveys, to assess progress in making decent the homes of vulnerable households. As one of the noble Baronesses said, the biggest percentage of non-decent homes in the country is in the private sector. Local authorities are also required for the purposes of best-value indicators to measure progress in improving housing conditions in their area. Such progress will be monitored closely by my department, working with the government offices and the Audit Commission to ensure that the targets are met.
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In the light of that very substantial policy framework for delivering decent homes which already exists, it would not be right to make the amendment to Clause 3. The framework is non-standard, and the Government do not intend to change that. I do not want to open up another debate at the moment, as I have no doubt that we will come to it later. However, we do not want to open any door to a fourth way for local authorities, people who might want to kid themselves, or people who are lying through their teeth to local authority council tenants about there being a fourth wayextra moneyto meet the decent homes standard. There are only three ways, as everyone knows. They are: large-scale voluntary stock transfer; private finance initiative, in which the houses or homes remain under the ownership of the local authority; and arm's-length management organisations, again at which point the houses or homes remain in the ownership of the local authority.
Those are the three ways. There is no fourth option. I want to get that on record, for the avoidance of any doubt in future with campaigning noble Lords or noble Baronesses who might have other views. I have to make that clear, because I was at a local authority on Friday and was handed a leafletnot by the authority, but by some of the local people campaigningthat said that there were four ways for decent homes, one of which was for them to remain council tenants. People can remain tenants in homes with ownership by the council, but there is no fourth way. I want to make sure that there is no back door to a fourth way. I hope that that is useful for further debates on the Bill.
Amendment No. 12 attaches to the duty to review housing conditions a requirement to publish a report of the review. Those reviews are ongoing, however. The amendment also asks authorities to publish details of the action that they propose to take, and details of their intentions as regards any discretionary licensing. The amendments somewhat miss the point. Clause 3 is a strategic rather than an enforcement provision. In respect of discretionary licensing, Clauses 55 and 77 already make substantial provision, including consultation before the designation of additional or selective licensing. Amendment No. 13 adds a requirement for local housing authorities to publish an annual report in relation to review of housing conditions. It is not clear whether that is the report already referred to in Amendment No. 12.
As I said, local-authority housing strategies are now on a more statutory basis following the Local Government Act 2003. Section 87 of that Act enables the Secretary of State to require an authority to have a strategy in place, to require it to produce a statement and to influence the content of that statement. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, through the government offices, works with local authorities to ensure the production of "fit for purpose" housing strategies which are current for at least three years. The plans are expected to include effective delivery of decent homesnow extended to the private sector, which is absolutely crucial because of the large number of vulnerable people involved.
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Baroness Hanham: I hear what the Minister says. As he got to his feet, it occurred to me that the housing strategy was applicable to the issue and that we needed to take note of it. None the less, the reviews will not take place very quickly, simply because of the extent of the work that will be required and the number of environmental health officers who will need to be employed.
Perhaps I should declare my interest as a member of the local authority for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Having been chairman of the housing committee, I remember the condition surveys that used to have to be undertaken, and the fact that they were lamentably slow. That was in an authority that was really well funded and resourced. One could see that, whether the issue had priority or not, it could be a slow job, especially in areas where property is in relatively poor condition anyway. It would seem sensible that there should be some review of what was being undertaken and why, if there were so many properties to be dealt with that there was some slowing down. We were interested to know how many properties were being surveyed, what the outcome was and, if there were targets, whether they were or were not met. That was the purpose of the amendment. I hear what the Minister says, and we may or may not return to that at a later stage.
Baroness Maddock: As usual, the Minister gave a full and clear explanation of how the Government will monitor progress towards a decent home standard. I particularly spoke about a decent home standard in the private sector because of the issues that we are talking about. I had no intention of raising the fourth way, but perhaps we will do that another time. As the Minister said, decent homes and the warmth and thermal capacity of a home are very important and I am sure that we will return to those issues. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
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