As regular blog readers will know I am keen to see lots more done regarding the deeply shameful figures of fuel poverty in the District (see recent post here) - while they are not really worse than other Councils in the South West, at 15.6% of households that is far too many people being affected - and worse still it is usually the more vulnerable members of our communities. We can sort it. Well Thursday night was Scrutiny and as the lead member of the Task and Finish group I presented the paper below (which I largely wrote) to Scrutiny - it was accepted unanimously and will now go to Cabinet.
Photo: insulation on my front door - I recently removed those sticky strips that don't seem to work and replaced with these strips - what a difference in heat for such a small cost.
This is the first step. Once we get these measures in place it will be possible to establish a strategy to eradicate fuel poverty - can we be the first council to do that? Of course it will require political will and resources but this is such an important issue - how can others not support this? OK don't answer that - but I am nevertheless determined to see this through. If you click on read more you can see first a draft of some of what I said on Thursday and below that the report.
I note that last summer the Performance Overview and Scrutiny Committee established the Task and Finish Group, to consider the value of the Decent Homes Standard for our Council housing stock. Due to pressures on housing officers, the inquiry didn’t start until November. The inquiry group met 5 times with a number of officers.
In the past, there have been conflicting messages about whether the Decent Homes standard was a priority or not for this Council. In addition to this, it is known that the Decent Homes Standard is poor in terms of energy efficiency, yet the Council's Corporate Strategy has highlighted energy efficiency as a priority.
One question that came up, was should we be prioritising money on new baths and kitchens or on more energy efficiency measures?
Well as you will see, this inquiry did not answer that.
The picture is complex. What we have made are recommendations about the ways forward. Hence our first recommendation is that the Energy Strategy for our Council housing stock will go to Cabinet in November and be implemented this financial year with specific targets agreed.
I note that our last climate change inquiry started 2 years ago and identified the need for an energy strategy last February. It is clearly disappointing to all, that this has not progressed more quickly. We had also hoped in this inquiry that the energy strategy would be complete by the summer - but ensuring proper consultation means a more realistic option is November.
In the light of rising fuel prices this will be an important strategy that will help us address and prioritise many of the complex issues relating to energy.
The second recommendation is that consideration be given within 12 months time to a ‘Stroud Housing Standard’ that includes Decent Homes, Lettable Standards and measures relating to energy efficiency. It is clearly crucial that tenants – possibly through the new Tenants Scrutiny – play a key role.
There are many challenging questions, like should we spend more money on putting in showers that save energy rather than the baths? Clearly tenants need to have a say.
The more I have learnt about both Decent Homes and the Lettable Standards, the more I see them as poor in terms of energy efficiency standards. It is to this Council’s credit that we are already doing additional energy efficiency measures. However there is very much more needed particularly with the significant numbers of people in fuel poverty in the District
I did want to make a clarification regarding those fuel poverty figures in the report. The Stroud figure is 15.6% of households in fuel poverty – and these are often in some of our more vulnerable households. However this figure is about the same as the average for the South West which is 15.5% - but it is higher than Gloucestershire as a whole which has 13%.
Officers have suggested that is because Stroud has more properties ‘off gas’ - therefore the only heating system available is less efficient and more costly i.e. solid fuel, Night Storage. Another possibility is that we have less high-rise which can also be cheaper to heat. It is also worth noting that this figure of 15.6% in fuel poverty is likely to be lower for the social rented sector which averages around 10% for the South West.
It is nevertheless very concerning that the figures are so high – as I noted this is households not individuals so the number of people affected will be higher still and the forecasts are for rising fuel poverty. In Sweden this idea of fuel poverty doesn't exist - they don't know about it because their homes are energy efficient. I welcome that Chris Huhne has a couple of weeks ago launched a review into fuel poverty – to me it is shameful in an energy rich country that we see older and vulnerable people are skipping meals as Age UK have found, under-heating their homes, rationing their consumption of fuel – and increasing their exposure to ill-health, misery and depression.
I hope Stroud seeks with the Energy Strategy and proposed housing standard to take the lead to eradicate fuel poverty.
The other recommendations are for councillors to get a report about the significant changes and improvements that are underway in voids. And for the Council to continue to seek ways to fund improvements for example with the Green Deal, self-financing and through borrowing.
Recommendation 5 is that the role of the District Council in improving standards in the private sector should be considered. This is particularly an issue as we’ve seen regarding fuel poverty. What role can we play with limited resources?
The last recommendation is about trying to find away to measure success regarding fuel poverty locally. In January 2011 the Audit Commission deleted NI 187 regarding fuel poverty reduction so we now have no measure. I welcome that the Glos / S Glos Affordable Warmth Partnership looks set to do some work on this in September.
Lastly I would like to note particular thanks to the officers for their time and positive responses to this report - and in seeking to develop an improved vision for our housing stock. There is much enthusiasm and skills amongst officers and I hope that we will be able to better coordinate and focus our actions to improve housing in the District.
Here is the report that went to the Scrutiny Committee and know goes to Cabinet:
IS THE DECENT HOMES STANDARD SUFFICIENT?
To increase understanding about the Decent Homes standard and how this fits with the tenants and the Council's aims to tackle fuel poverty and climate change.
The Performance Overview and Scrutiny Committee RECOMMENDS to Cabinet that:-
1. An Energy Strategy for our Council housing stock to go to Cabinet in November and be implemented this financial year with specific targets agreed.
2. Consideration be given, with tenants possibly via the Tenants’ Scrutiny, within 12 months time to a ‘Stroud Housing Standard’ that includes Decent Homes, Lettable Standards and measures relating to energy efficiency.
3. A report be made on any changes to voids inspections.
4. The Council continue to seek ways to fund improvements, but also to specifically to explore possibilities with the Green Deal, self-financing options and through borrowing.
5. The role of the District Council in improving standards in the private sector be considered.
6. Tenants’ concerns regarding heating be recognised by finding an appropriate indicator for measuring fuel poverty.
1.1. The Performance Overview and Scrutiny Committee established the Task and Finish Group to consider the value of Decent Homes Standard for our Council housing stock. In the past, there have been conflicting messages about whether this standard was a priority or not for this Council. In addition to this it is known that the Decent Homes Standard is poor in terms of energy efficiency, yet the Council's Corporate Strategy has highlighted energy efficiency as a priority. Some tenants in the past have raised the issue as a priority and some councillors also expressed concerns about how the Decent Homes Standard was being met.
1.2. Stroud District Council's housing has been going through considerable changes and improvements, and more are on the horizon with the possibilities of self-financing, other changes to legislation and more tenant involvement. The Group was aware of the heavy workload that officers are already undertaking and have sought to make recommendations that include a degree of flexibility and will facilitate the work of the Council towards developing a vision for our Council housing stock. It was noted no conclusions could be drawn at this point regarding prioritisation of Council resources.
1.3. Private sector housing. It was noted by the Sustainability Officer that the Decent Homes concept is just as relevant to the private sector renewal practice, as it is to the Stroud social stock asset management programme. The Group also heard that more than half of private rented homes nationally fail the Decent Homes standard and that a quarter of private tenants live in fuel poverty (1). It is not a level playing field between rental tenures in our district. This matters because (i) legislation relating to us finding accommodation for people who are homeless is changing in 2012, when reliance on private rented sector will increase, and (ii) there is an increasing expectation that we will enforce housing standards and specifically energy efficiency standards in the private rented sector.
1.4. Climate Change, energy security and fuel poverty are all huge and growing concerns that have been recognised by the Council. The DECC report: Annual Report on Fuel Poverty Statistics 2010 notes that fuel poverty now affects 18% of households in the UK. In England 15.6% and Stroud 14.6% of households are considered to be in fuel poverty.
1.5. Stroud has embarked on considerable work around energy efficiency measures, but the challenge faced with the housing stock is huge: approximately 1,700 (30%) of SDC homes fall into the energy efficiency category of 'hard to treat'. In addition to this there are some considerable financial pressures on the Council due to the current economic situation.
1.6. The Scrutiny report "Tackling Climate Change inquiry: Financing Domestic Sustainable Energy Measures in the Stroud District" that was passed by Cabinet in March 2010 made a number of recommendations regarding housing, including the development of an energy strategy for our housing stock. A draft report, "Energy Matters", had been written by the Housing Asset Manager, but needed further work. Challenges to Council resources has meant that this is only now being developed into a final draft. The Task and Finish Group had a number of recommendations regarding this draft report in addition to those noted below, but these will be submitted to the consultation process on the energy strategy.
1.7. The Task and Finish Group was established in July 2010 but it was agreed that work would be postponed until the Autumn due to resources needed to implement the Housing Improvement Plan.
2.0. Housing Standards
2.1. Decent Homes in Stroud
2.1.1. The 'Decent Homes - Summary' report provided by Eric Sharpe outlines the standard and the position locally. Only 4% of the Council’s current [accessible] housing stock was considered not decent using a specified formula. The Council had been expected to achieve the Decent Homes standard by December 2010, but Stroud has always noted that it would be unable to achieve the Standard across 100% of our housing stock. Housing Management Forum recommended in July 2007 that the Council deal with the worst homes first (4).
2.1.2. Stroud is still working towards Decent Homes Standard, but also carries out some additional measures, including renewables on two sheltered accommodation schemes, fitting air-to-air heat pumps, additional cylinder insulation, thermostats on radiators, changing doors and replacing light bulbs with more energy- efficient ones for new tenants. There are also proposals in the recent budget to develop renewable energy options locally.
2.1.3. At present the additional measures are not captured directly and there is not a specific strategy for these additional measures. Officers also note that there are difficulties in delivering some energy measures, for example, gaining access to lofts in order to insulate them. There are 272 homes to which officers have not been able to gain entry, 226 of these have failed to respond to letters, visits and call cards and 46 are outright refusals. Owing to this these properties are not included in the Decent Homes statistics.
2.1.4. The Task and Finish Group welcome Stroud’s prompt and comprehensive application to the Department for Communities and Local Government for Decent Homes in the District for £8.9 million. We are delighted that it appears to have been successful for a potential £5.9 million in 2014/15, as this could be a significant boost to improving standards locally.
2.2. Local environment not taken into account
2.2.1. The Decent Homes Standard has led to improvements in the condition of social homes, but this has been focused on the individual building and does not take into account the quality of the local environment or neighbourhood. It is increasingly acknowledged that improvements to the local environment and community level infrastructure will be delivered most effectively where they address the needs and resources of existing communities.
2.3. Housing Asset Management Strategy
2.3.1. Cabinet approved this strategy in December 2010 and it includes dwellings’ energy performance as a consideration. The strategy notes plans to develop "an agreed standard to which properties will be maintained and improved" and "a standard for void properties". The strategy notes that these will be agreed in consultation with tenants and will be informed by an energy strategy.
2.4. Decent Homes Standard is not sufficient
2.4.1. It is acknowledged by many reports, (for example SDC's draft Energy Matters report, the Communities and Local Government (CLG) Select Committee (2007-8) and the Memorandum from the Sustainable Development Commission 'Decent Housing Standards post 2010' (Sept 2009) (2)) that in terms of energy efficiency the standard is low. Some social landlords (where resources permitted) have used these standards as a minimum rather than maximum and developed their own "Decent Homes Plus" standards.
2.5. Draft Energy Strategy
2.5.1. The importance of developing a vision of what is possible in the longer term was noted by the Task and Finish Group as crucial to developing a road map towards the significant improvements that are needed in our housing stock. The strategy acknowledges that sustainable refurbishment is about more than just energy efficiency. Consideration needs to be given to cover areas such as water (3), materials and construction/demolition waste, household waste and summer overheating. It is hoped that the report will have estimated costings added and there will have been consultation before it is presented to Strategic Scrutiny in October and Cabinet in November.
2.6. Equality Impact Assessment (EIA)
2.6.1. The "Spending Review 2010: EIA. Nationally funding for the Decent Homes Programme" highlights research showing 28% of non-decent social homes have residents from ethnic minorities, 26% are more than 60 years old, 27% of households include a member with a long-term illness or disability and 27% are families with children.
3.1. An Energy Strategy for our Council housing stock including specific targets needs to be implemented this year.
The Task and Finish Group gives a huge welcome to the comprehensive nature and vision of the draft Energy Strategy and looks forward to its implementation. It was noted that this strategy needs to fit with the Asset Management Strategy and take account of the Decent Homes Standard. The Task and Finish Group recognises the urgency of this report being accepted, as it will: (i) inform any moves towards self-financing which will be considered then for April 2012, (ii) inform the 5 year Capital programme, and (iii) help decisions regarding investment opportunities for the remainder of 2011-2012.
3.2. Consideration should be given, with tenants, to a 'Stroud Housing Standard' that includes measures relating to energy efficiency as well as Decent Homes. The term 'Decent Homes' does not recognise our corporate investment in energy efficiency measures nor issues like the local environment. Tenants have said heating homes is their top priority, and fuel poverty is a huge and growing problem. It is important that tenants have a key role in decisions about future maintenance and improvements. There are many challenging questions, like should we spend more money on putting in showers rather than the baths? The draft Energy Strategy has some realistic proposals and it would be important to develop these alongside the Housing Asset Management Strategy's plans to develop a local standard for housing.
3.3. A report should be made on changes to voids inspections. We understand work is being done within this team and would welcome the Energy Strategy being taken into full consideration when developing ways forward. Voids provide a particular opportunity for improved standards. We would welcome a brief report on changes coming out of the work around voids.
3.4. The Council should continue to seek ways to fund improvements, but also to specifically explore possibilities with the Green Deal, self-financing options and borrowing. Much work has been done to Stroud District Council's stock and we know that it now takes huge investment to achieve even tiny changes in average SAP (Standard Assessment Procedure, the Government's standard for home energy rating).
The Task and Finish Group recognises that the cost of delivering against new or additional standards is potentially large, but this might be balanced with the possibility that having clear and more complete standards might help secure the major delivery partnerships and finance that we need. Initially this could be for a PV / solar thermal programme focused on council homes (and some private homes), and subsequently for community wide schemes addressing energy performance of buildings. The cost of not doing anything about carbon emissions and fuel poverty should also be borne in mind. The Group would also welcome consideration being given to higher rental charges for warmer, cheaper-to-run homes, if circumstances allow.
3.5. The role of the District Council in improving standards in the private sector should be considered.
3.6. Tenants’ concerns regarding heating need to be recognised by finding an appropriate indicator for measuring fuel poverty. In January 2011 the Audit Commission deleted NI 187 regarding fuel poverty reduction.
The importance of this issue to tenants and health professionals means something may replace it but, if not, Stroud should develop our own measure.
4.1. The Task and Finish Group would like to note particular thanks to the officers for their time and positive responses to developing an improved vision for our housing stock.
5.1. This issue is recognised in a current parliamentary petition (EDM 653) backing a law to protect tenants. It states: "That this House is concerned that over half of private rented homes fail the Decent Homes standard and that a quarter of private tenants live in fuel poverty, that the proportion of private rented properties with the worst energy rating is twice that of the owner-occupied sector and that the private rented sector contains the highest proportion (65 per cent.) of hard to treat homes lacking cavity walls or mains gas; notes Government statements that additional measures beyond the Green Deal will be needed to deliver all the necessary improvements to hard to treat homes; also notes that the Committee on Climate Change and the Fuel Poverty Advisory Group has called for mandatory energy efficiency standards for private rented properties; understands concerns that the requirements of the Housing Health and Safety Rating System are difficult for landlords to understand and costly and complex for Councils to enforce; therefore believes that improved information, advice and financial incentives for tenants and landlords are needed; and calls on the Government to take the earliest legislative opportunity to give councils access to Energy Performance Certificate data and information about the rented properties in their area so that properties presenting the greatest health hazard, those with an energy efficiency rating of F or G, are given the highest priority for improvement, and to set a 2016 deadline after which such properties may not be let without improvement to a higher rating."
5.2. (i) The draft Energy Strategy notes "Efficient heating and effective insulation is a central plank of the Decent Homes Standard, and the health effects of poor heating is recognised." The report also notes that "The effective insulation standard is very low - requiring either cavity wall insulation or 50mm loft insulation for gas heated properties (not both) and cavity wall insulation plus 200mm loft insulation for electricity and solid fuel heated homes." All our gas heated homes pass this test and we are working towards compliance for other homes. http://www.decenthomesstandard.co.uk/about/standard
(ii) The CLG Select Committee report on existing homes and climate change (2007-8) notes that, whilst Decent Homes has had a positive impact on the energy efficiency of social housing, "more could have been achieved had energy efficiency improvement formed part of the Decent Homes standard directly, instead of arising as an incidental, if welcome, benefit."
(iii) Memorandum from the Sustainable Development Commission submitted for the Communities and Local Government Select Committee 'Decent Housing Standards post 2010' (SDC) (Sept 2009). It notes: "The Decent Homes standard is the Government's primary mechanism to improve standards in the social rented sector and over vulnerable private sector tenants. In the absence of a Code for Existing Homes, the Decent Homes standard must be expanded to include tougher energy efficiency standards. The existing Decent Homes heating and insulation standards have been criticised as being so low that they would not bring properties up to SAP35 (below which housing should be a Category 1 Health Hazard). Despite this, many forward thinking social landlords have used these standards as a minimum rather than maximum and developed their own "Decent Homes Plus" Standards. Since 1997 the average SAP ratings of social rented sector increased from 47 in 1997 to 57 in 2006, a faster rate than the private sector. As detailed in our submission the Government needs to explore how these works can be funded most effectively in order to deliver significant reductions in both carbon emissions and fuel poverty." From: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmcomloc/60/60we34.htm
5.3. Water Poverty. A report published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says that low-income households are at particular risk because of new methods being introduced to increase the efficient use and distribution of water. It defines "water poverty" as when households spend 3% or more of their income on water bills. The report, Vulnerability to Heat Waves and Drought: Adaptation to Climate Change, by the environmental consultancy AEA and a team from the University of Surrey, warns that water is becoming scarce as a result of climate change and increased consumer demand. An estimated four million households in the UK are already "water poor", according to the report, and the situation is likely to worsen, with bills predicted to rise by 5% a year for some customers.