What constitutes a 'decent home'? To what extent do current policies help to achieve this objective?
The aim of this essay is to define what the Government believe constitutes a 'decent home' and to determine to what extent current policies and legislations help to accomplish this. The essay will first of all look at a definition of what is needed in order for a home to be considered a 'decent home'. It will consider the developments of housing policies over the years and will discuss to what extent what improvements have been made to housing conditions if any. It will critically examine some current issues surrounding housing situations and will examine the measures put forwards in current policies and guidance in order to tackle the problems.
What is a "decent home? - According to the new 'Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Guidance' (2004) a 'decent home' must firstly meet existing minimum standards for housing; it must offer a reasonable degree of warmth; it must be in a reasonable state of repair and have reasonably up to date facilities and services. However, the Decent Homes Standard does not embrace many other significant work, such as environmental and safety improvements, and the renovation or replacement of lifts in tall blocks. The Government believes that by setting a target nationally and by introducing a general description of what represents a suitable standard will help all social landlords to aim for the same ultimate goal.
Following the 1st World War, there were shortages of housing. In the 1930s poorer members of those who worked were re homed into multi-storey dwellings in the cities. Even since the middle of the nineteenth century, a series of Government Schemes have been introduced to encourage improvements in the housing market.
1988 brought in a policy whereby local authorities were not allowed to build any more new homes and the responsibility for building new homes were given to housing associations. Although it is important to note that the right to appoint new tenants was ultimately given to the local authority.
At the same time there was a reduction in development grants to housing associations and as a consequence they were forced to borrow money. The reduction in the grant meant smaller homes, poor standards, and higher rents in order to pay back what they owed to their lenders. To date, Registered Social Landlords have built bigger estates, and have also joined up with other housing associations so that one estate could have many landlords.
Although housing on the whole is accepted as being generally old nearly fifty per cent are more than fifty years old, and nearly a quarter of them dates back to before the First World War, less than 1% doesn't have any of the fundamental requirements such as a kitchen sink, a bath or shower and a hand basin, with access to hot and cold water to each of these and an indoor toilet. Figures also show that the number of households living in non-decent social homes has fallen by over a millionand people's homes have been modernized and made more energy efficient. Research shows that nearly 90% of homes are now centrally heated.
None the less, in April 2000 the Housing Green Paper entitled 'Quality and Choice: a Decent Home for All' was launched which was considered to be the first wide-ranging review of issues surrounding housing for over 23 years. It believed that every person should have the right to live in a decent home and thus promote social cohesion, well-being and self-dependence. In 1997, the government owned 2.1 million homes that did not meet the decent homes criteria, and because of this, local authorities had nearly £19 billion backlog for home improvements.
The Green Paper set out a plan of how Government was going to achieve the aim of ensuring that everyone should have the opportunity to rent or buy decent homes in areas they chose to live or work. Decent housing is also considered pivotal to strengthening communities and provides a better setting in which to bring up a family. It is also believed that decent housing is fundamental in improving the health and educational achievement of individuals and families. The paper set two targets namely: to reduce by a third the number of social housing properties which fail the Standard by 2004 and to have all social rented homes meeting the Standard by 2010
Recent figures show that the many people in Britain own their own homes, however, a high proportion also rent from local authority, private landlords and housing association. The Government believes that local authorities and registered landlords provide housing at affordable rents but in spite of this, many people would suggest otherwise and would continue to have issues and concerns about the cost and the state of their houses.
Many of those people, who took part in the consultation previous to the launch of the Green Paper, stated that they had bad experiences relating to housing issues. Therefore, regardless of the upgrading and improvements that have taken place over the last 150 years, a large number of people continue to have problems with housing. Some would argue that there are too many people who live in poor-quality housing or find that their social landlord, public or private, does not provide a proper service.
Amongst these people would be those who live on housing estates, which have been ignored and left to decline for too long and as a consequence, could be a real factor to ill health, poverty and crime. Most public-sector tenants have not been given a choice; they are offered housing on a take-it-or-leave-it basis and charged high rents. The most disadvantaged have often been concentrated in the poorest housing.
"The oldest and the poorest are being housed in the worst property"
(Forrest and Murie "Selling the Welfare State" - 1988).
These households also accommodate families with dependant children, pregnant women, and those who are vulnerable for example those who are mentally ill, or have a physical disability. In 2002, the vulnerable or at risk groups where extended to include those aged 16 or 17, aged between 18 and 20 and previously been in care, applicants who have spent time in care, in the HM forces, in custody and those who have left home due to violence. (youth crime briefing 2005)
On a positive note nevertheless, and between 1997 and 2002, there have been many initiatives where the Government has helped to improve poor housing conditions, especially council housing. Amongst these were plans for a compulsory licensing scheme to safeguard tenants in houses in multiple occupations, where it was considered the worst health and safety conditions are often found. The introduction of Tenant Participation options -'Communities in Control: real people, real power' (2008 ) has also helped to give council tenants a say in the way their homes are managed and as a result the rights and conditions for those renting have been strengthened and increased.
As previously noted the Green Paper, when it was introduced, invited views from the public and the end result of this consultation secured a considerable increase in housing investment. During 2003/4 the annual capital investment in housing reached £4 billion as compared to £1.5 billion during 1997/98. The Green Paper proposed that the local authority would play a more strategic role across all housing in their area to include private and public. Measures to raise the standards of private rented housing were introduced as were measures to deliver new affordable housing in line with local needs. Programmes such as Disabled Facilities Grant and Warm Front have also been introduced to help people obtain the crucial and practical improvements they require in order to have the best possible home environment. It included a range of measures and investments to ensure that all social housing would be brought to a decent standard by 2010 and tackle fuel poverty. Both of these steps are crucial in tackling the effects of climate change. It also put down steps to tackle other forms of social exclusion, such as homelessness, anti-social behaviour, crime etc.
The new 'Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Guidance a 'decent home' the definition and guidance for implementation' (2004) states that the Government established a target to:
'ensure that all social housing meets set standards of decency by 2010, by reducing the number of households living in social housing that does not meet these standards by a third between 2001 and 2004, with most of the improvements taking place in the most deprived local authority areas'.
It also refers to the fact that the 2002 Spending Review renewed the promise to making all social housing decent by 2010. The target was extended to include vulnerable households in the private sector. This amendment target now is;
'by 2010, to bring all social housing into decent condition, with most of the improvement taking place in deprived areas, and increase the proportion of private housing in decent condition occupied by vulnerable groups.'
Another documents, namely, Sustainable Communities: building for the future' (2003) 'reiterated this promise. In order for the Government to ensure that this target is reached, all social landlords are expected to quantify the number of non-decent houses in their stock and to produce a plan in order to tackle the problem. However, the approach taken with the private landlord will be somewhat different. Achieving the decent homes standards in private sector homes will be delivered through assistance, advice and encouragement and enforcement powers will only be used as a last resort.
It is generally acknowledged that more homes will be required in order to meet the growing demand of a population that is increasing and ageing.It is noted in the 'ODPM Guidance' that the Decent Homes Standard is a minimum standard and that landlords will also have to think about other issues when they take on the work of improving their properties to include making homes more accessible to people with disabilities and to consider how they can make their improvements more sustainable. It is also suggested in the same guidance that more investment should be put into improving homes in the more deprived areas or where more vulnerable people live. These investments should include things like upgrading heating and insulation for the elderly. Furthermore the Government has stated that all new homes should be zero carbonby 2016.
It is widely acknowledge that many individuals and families, including the elderly and vulnerable people, live in housing that continues to be non energy efficient and in which it is difficult to keep warm. It is widely believed that the recent hike in the cost of heating oil could mean that families will be finding it hard to pay their fuel bills. Mains gas prices however, are considered to be more stable.
According to an article in the Daily Post, dated November 11th 2009, council tenants are forced to meet higher fuel bills, and thousands of the most vulnerable are reliant on the most expensive forms of heating.
Sam Lister, Parliamentary Correspondent for the Daily Post, states that:
"Almost 7,000 homes in council and housing association ownership across North Wales are not connected to mains gas........Gwynedd has 2,402 homes without a mains supply, 38% - Fuel poverty- tenants whose fuel bills account for more that 10% of their income is rocketing across the UK.
(Sam Lister, Parliamentary Correspondent, Daily Post, November 11, 2009)
The introduction of the Decent Homes Standard should go some way towards ensuring a decrease in the number of tenants experiencing fuel poverty.
The Government has set a target to provide three million more homes in England by 2020 due to an acute shortage of housing which will include more affordable homes to rent or buy and as previously stated local authorities have been given the responsibility to tackle housing problems in their areas.
As a response to this problem locally, Gwynedd Council have produced a strategy to deal with the empty dwellings that are scattered throughout the county. Figures within the strategy show that in Gwynedd alone there are approximately 3300 (5.5%) of unoccupied properties which have been vacant for more than 6 months. Although they acknowledge that this is not going to answer the whole problem they state that:
'local authorities cannot ignore the potential and the need to ensure that owners are both encouraged, and where appropriate, required to unlock the potential of this wasted resources'
(Gwynedd Council's Empty Homes Strategy 2009-2012.)
By undertaking this strategy, Gwynedd Council believe that they will be able to reduce vandalism, litter and other anti-social behaviour and will bring the market value of houses up to a decent level. Recent research suggest that up to 18% of a property's value is lost if a neighboring house has been unoccupied for a long time. The benefits presented for this type of strategy are greater availability of decent houses, reduced dependence on short term accommodation and could also be a resource for accommodating people in the time of crisis. The advantage for the wider community would include a reduced demand for the public services such as fire, police in dealing with unsociable behaviour.
Tackling homelessness is also a key priority for both Central Government and local authorities. In 1980 there were nearly 80,000 people considered to be homeless. Homelessness doubled by the 1990 to approximately 170,000, and by 2003 the figure was to rise even more.
However recent figures by 'Communities and Local Government ' states that thenumber of households that became homeless in England between Apriland June 2009 was 32 per cent lower than for the same period in 2008 it is still considered a problem that needs to be tackled. It is also acknowledged that fewer people are sleeping rough.
According to the 'National Rough Sleeping Count' for 2009 published in September 2009 there were 464 people sleeping rough on the streets of England on any single night. This represents a 75 per cent reduction in rough sleeping since 1998. The Government is committed to reducing rough sleeping to as near to zero as possible.
By implementing the strategy of the Government's Rough Sleepers Unit 'Coming in from the Cold' the Government hopes to further reduce these figures.
Local strategies also regard homelessness as a priority and the Gwynedd Supporting People Programme for 2009-2010 is committed to:
"optimise the ability of housing-related support services to prevent homelessness by encouraing greater corporate ownership by local authorities and supporting the commissioning role
(Gwynedd Supporting People Programme for 2009-2010)
Even though the Government is dedicated to providing the essential infrastructure to generate sustainable communities and decent homes, the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) has expressed some concerns that the delay of public funding could mean that tenants in social housing and vulnerable tenants in private houses will not see their homes modernised in order to meet the standards required by 2010.
CIH Chief Executive- Sarah Webb and Director of Policy and Practice - Richard Capie reported to the Communities and Local Government (CLG) Select Committee on the 26th October, 2009 for ministers to make known the assessment of development against the 'decent homes' objectives and targets and to discover other means of funding to clear the backlog and finish the Plan.
Staff working within the field of housing have also expressed concerns and have recommended that there is a need for a quick amendment to the council housing finance system (the Housing Revenue Account) in order that councils can become financially self sufficient. It is believed that a change in borrowing regulations would allow local authorities and arms length management organizations (ALMOs) to have access to other source of funding to upgrade housing stock.
CIH also expressed their wishes that a 'Decent Homes Two' be developed after 2010 to look at issues such as making homes more energy efficient coupled with a more detailed investment plan. A survey undertaken amongst the members of CIH, showed that a high percentage were in agreement that a 'Decent Homes Two' should have a specifically 'green' focus and should include measures to deal with energy efficiency and fuel poverty. It is believed that this kind of programme would help in meeting the Government Carbon Reduction Targets. The Government has promised by 2016, that all new homes will be zero carbon, which is a crucial step towards tackling climate change.
On reflection therefore, the aim of this paper was to define what the Government believed represented a 'decent home' and to establish to what extent current policies and legislations have assisted in achieving this goal. In order to do this reference has been made to locally and centrally published documents.
Many would argue that the state of the housing stock across the country has improved dramatically; however, others would continue to dispute that this was not the case. Essentially a decent home is really important for the health and well-being of the people living in them and according to the definition given it should be warm, should have modern facilities and should be waterproof. Literature on the whole seems to suggest that the majority of house do come very near to reaching these standards.
It is hoped that the launching of the Green Paper 'Quality and Choice: a Decent Home for All', will lead to a major improvement in the housing stock and as a consequence raise the standard of living for many people. The Government sees the delivery of decent homes as part of a more extensive strategy for regeneration. It is believed that the broader issues such as improving the delivery of other services and raising the standard of living for vulnerable people and disadvantaged groups of people form part of this goal. The essay makes reference to other wider objectives, such as reducing health inequalities, tacking fuel poverty, and indirectly reducing crime and unsociable behaviour. The essay also makes reference to local strategies and it is considered very important that Local Strategic Partnerships should play a vital role in bring all local stakeholders together to tackle these problems and deliver their services jointly and locally.
(Forrest and Murie "Selling the Welfare State" - 1988).
Sam Lister, Parliamentary Correspondent, Daily Post, November 11, 2009
Communities in Control: real people, real power (2008 : Presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government by Command of Her Majesty
Gwynedd Council's Empty Homes Strategy - (2009-2012)
Gwynedd Supporting People Programme (2009-2010)
Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Guidance a 'decent home' the definition and guidance for implementation' (2004)
Quality and Choice: a Decent Home for All: Housing Green Paper (April 2000)
Sustainable Communities: building for the future (2003) Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, LONDON
(Gwynedd Council's Empty Homes Strategy 2009-2012.)
Gwynedd Supporting People Programme for 2009-2010
(Gwynedd and Anglesey Move on Strategy by SP Solutions, October 2009)