Mark Henderson is the Chief Executive of the Home Group, one of the UK’s largest providers of homes for sale and affordable rent, and a leader in long-term integrated health and housing.
Considerable time has been spent on the debate about building more homes, which is absolutely right. But at the same time, it shouldn’t come at the expense of our current customers. Their expectations and needs can’t be put on hold because the issue of provision is dominating proceedings.
Even though the Grenfell disaster happened over two years ago, we mustn’t lose sight of the impact it had on our sector. As many have stated, it shook us to the core. Post-Grenfell there has been a renewed focus and debate around housing standards. But, there is still so much the housing sector must do to guarantee the decency of the homes we provide.
That’s not to say nothing is being done – we are making progress. Since 2001, for example, the number of homes meeting the Government’s official definition on non-decent homes fell from 39 per cent to 15 per cent with 1.4 million homes made habitable. Huge strides have been made to improve the lives of those in social housing and the number of dwellings that failed to meet the standard (13 per cent) remains significantly lower than private rented (25 per cent) and owner-occupied homes (19 per cent).
Yet progress has stalled. The Decent Homes Standard (DHS) hasn’t been reviewed since 2006. That’s quite remarkable given the speed of change in this modern world. In 2006, for instance, we could still walk into a Woolworths, we were besotted with My Space and Friends Reunited, and we all had Blockbuster membership. That seems like another lifetime. Yet, that was the last time we looked at the DHS.
Today, for Woolworths see Amazon, for My Space and Friends Reunited see Facebook, and for Blockbuster see Netflix. Things have moved on – the DHS isn’t one of them. Given its 13-year dormancy period, it isn’t a surprise to learn that the DHS falls short of the most basic expectations of what a decent home should look like today, if it ever did, some might say. Can we honestly tell a customer that their house with damp is decent because it isn’t life threatening? Is a home with poor insulation decent when it costs households an extra £650 per year to heat? It is essential that the DHS is revised in order to alleviate issues like these, which are having a significant impact on peoples’ quality of lives. We can’t stall anymore.
Let Home Group offer a starter for ten. We have identified three areas which would materially improve the lives of customers.
The ‘new’ Decent Homes Standard should eradicate damp from social housing.
Damp isn’t always dangerous enough to be considered a Category 1 hazard under current guidelines – emphasised by the fact there are still 897,000 homes with damp in England with no improvement since 2011.
We propose that the existence of penetrating or rising damp be an automatic fail within the new standard and that mechanical ventilation ought to be mandatory in the kitchen and bathroom if damp levels are above five per cent.
A commitment to upgrade the minimum EPC rating from E to C and introduce minimum standards of insulation.
DHS currently sets a low basic minimum standard for heating and insulation with a commitment to provide a “reasonable degree of thermal comfort”.
While housing associations have almost eliminated properties that have a rating of F-G, it’s still significantly below what is needed to reduce fuel poverty. We now need to target the 48 per cent of housing association stock that is EPC rating D-E which is costing the average Band E household an extra £650 year in heating bills.
We support the outcome of the Government’s consultation on ‘The Clean Growth Strategy’ which anticipates that all fuel-poor homes will be upgraded to EPC Band C by 2030 where practical, cost effective, and affordable. The ‘new’ Decent Homes Standard should incorporate this with an appropriate commitment to deliver energy efficiency and reduce fuel poverty.
Guaranteed minimum standards for each aspect of a decent home as informed by the experience and expectation of customers.
The use of the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS), the risk-based evaluation tool used within the Decent Homes Standard to enforce minimum standards, is failing households. The central issue is that we are using a system designed to assess risk and prevent harm rather than meet standards of decency.
Take the example of a house that has damp in the bathroom, a loose handrail, and old-kitchen facilities that lead to food hygiene problems. By no definition should this be considered decent, and yet the HHSRS guidance uses this as an example of a house that is not hazardous enough to fail.
Our proposed solution is a new hybrid system, joining guaranteed minimum standards to ensure the decency of homes with HHSRS to protect households from severe hazards. The Government should consult widely and put together a set of minimum standards that provides a clear set of criteria as to what passes and fails each element of a decent home based on the experience and expectation of customers.
It would be harsh to criticise the Decent Homes Standard too much as it has done a good job in lifting housing standards to a tolerable level. But surely, we can’t be comfortable with the premise that decent should mean something most people would consider to be indecent. We are now well past the point where the standard should have caught up.
The ‘new’ Decent Homes Standard will not grab the headlines like, say the housing crisis does, but its positive impact could be felt in homes the length and breadth of Britain. Therefore, it’s time it was revised, rejuvenated, and reinforced.