Decent homes, mixed communities

Ruth Kelly MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, outlines the future for the Decent Homes scheme

The way that the community works as a whole also matters. What is happening round the corner. Whether the area has a decent mix of housing tenures and house types Whether there are good neighbourhood shops and jobs, transport links and things to do for everyone, both young and old. Whether parents feel that the neighbourhood is safe and secure for their kids. Whether design has given us buildings to be proud of that are environmentally sound, and have public spaces that encourage social interaction but discourage anti-social behaviour. Of course getting your windows fixed matters enormously, but these decent homes also need to be part of mixed and sustainable communities.

In many areas the decent homes programme has already made a real difference to the lives of tenants by modest improvements to essentially good quality housing alongside improved services. But in other areas more radical action has been necessary with major demolition, remodelling and rebuilding programmes taking place such as the one you have just heard about in Manchester. And also, as you have heard, the programme has supported a much wider range of activity where, with the involvement of the community, great strides have been made in tackling antisocial behaviour, and training and jobs opportunities have been created. A huge amount has been achieved and there is a lot more to do and in some areas it will need more time to get this right.

We know that radical solutions are needed to transform some of our most deprived neighbourhoods. That means local authorities and housing associations, harnessing the energy and direction of the decent homes programme and the potential of their assets to create decent communities not just decent homes. Combining funding streams and working with other agencies to really raise the quality of life for all.

This takes time to get right. It also needs flexibility to allow local authorities to decide what their local community really needs. That is why I am content to see us move forward, getting as much as possible of the basic decent homes work done by 2010 but recognising that some will take - and must be allowed to take - a little longer. So the constraint of 2010 will be relaxed in a limited number of cases for those local authorities engaged in or wishing to pursue major transformations of their estates - or where it is clear that we could secure better communities, and so better long term value for money by taking a little longer.

I am well aware that the decent homes programme has often given rise to a lot of passion, not because of its objectives, but because some have felt it was biased against councils. A few have even argued that we should give local authorities the same resources that housing associations can lever in from private finance. But we can’t do that. It would be irresponsible to jeopardise the public finances. So we simply cannot fund the fourth option some people have called for. But I am not anti-councils - far from it. I want to see councils playing a bigger role in making sure that we develop successful, mixed communities and neighbourhoods.

In fact, and despite what some of the debates suggest, Labour has been giving councils more to invest directly. Since 1997 we have increased by 30% - in real not just cash terms - the amount of money being spent directly by local authorities on refurbishing and improving council homes. This year it is around £1,100 per home compared with spend equivalent of £800 in 1997. And I see the local authority as being key to my agenda of giving as much attention to new build and mixed communities over the next period as we have done to decent homes since 1997. That is one of the reasons for making this the last bidding round within the decent homes programme. In future, I want decisions on investment for improving social housing to be considered alongside those other investments necessary to deliver sustainable, mixed communities, and not as a separate programme.

Of course we at DCLG will continue to set out a vision for housing and sustainable communities, and provide a framework for delivery. But it is at the local level that priorities should be determined and delivery actually secured. Just as I saw a major and increasing role for the local authority leading the way in schools, albeit it as a commissioner and strategic leader rather than a provider per se, I want to see local authorities taking an increasingly powerful strategic role on housing across all tenures, putting housing at the heart of economic, social and environmental objectives.

So I want these decisions to be made locally by councils, along with residents and local partners, including ALMOs and RSLs. Local Area Agreements I think could offer the best opportunity to do this and to ensure cross-agency working and I want us to explore fully how to achieve as much as we possibly can in this area as part of the CSR. I also want to see no stone unturned in our search for innovative approaches that deliver for citizens and make sure we use our resources efficiently. I know that there are creative ideas out there and I want us to harness them, within a sensible framework, not stifle them where we don’t have to. We are issuing a discussion document to see what ideas you have.