If 1.7 million homes are 'not decent', that means that something like the entire population of London is living in squalor. What on earth can we do?
I received a letter from the minister for housing the other day telling me about the prime minister's Better Public Building Award. The objective of the award, Lord Falconer said, was to recognise "a publicly funded construction project that has met the highest standards in the three-stranded package of design, construction and delivery".

Last year, the inaugural award went (rather boringly, in my opinion) to the Tate Modern; I am not a great admirer. This year, Lord Falconer told me, the prime minister "is keen that the award should celebrate successes right across the country". He suggested that maybe there was such a project in my constituency.

Obviously, in principle this award is a good idea.

Sir Terry Farrell's magnificent aquarium in Hull might well qualify. And, while there is no new project in my own Manchester constituency that would qualify, nearby we have the magnificent Commonwealth Games stadium, which is a wonderful sight by day and night. It has the further merit that, unlike certain other much discussed stadiums, it actually exists.

There is no doubt that public building projects can enhance the environment, fulfil social or artistic needs and, not least of their qualities, cheer us up. However, at the same time as Lord Falconer's letter, there arrived information that demonstrated a depressing underside to public sector projects. Lord Falconer's office released information about public sector dwellings that fail to meet what is called the "decent home standard" – which may include having a roof that doesn't leak or a bathroom less than 30 years old.

It was admitted that in April last year 1.7 million homes failed to meet the standard. About 1.2 million of these were local authority homes – what we used to call council houses – and another half million were owned by housing associations.

The cost of achieving even this target is monumental: £9.5bn. Where on earth is this money to come from?

Lord Falconer's office announced that local authorities had plans to reduce their "non-decent stock" a third by March 2004. That target, if achieved, would still leave more than a million local authority homes unfit to live in. Even that figure is over-cheerful, because the local authority non-decent total would be partly reduced by dumping them on housing associations which would then have the job – and need the money – to do the improvements.

The cost of achieving even this target is monumental: £9.5bn. Where on earth is this money to come from? Not all of it from the public sector, that's for sure, since Lord Falconer talks about investment through arm's-length management organisations and the PFI.

What is more, that figure covers the problem we know about now. Even if not one single public sector house deteriorated from today on, it would be extremely fortunate if all public sector dwellings could be made decent by the end of this decade. But it goes without saying that a large number of dwellings are going to continue to deteriorate.

The housing minister's office, honestly but depressingly, lists two factors that need to be taken into account. First, there will be the cost of putting right the dwellings that fall below a decent standard between 2001 and 2004. Second, there is the cost of investment to prevent further homes becoming non-decent between 2001 and 2004. Talk about the labour of Sisyphus.

Of course, this awful situation is not this Labour government's fault. The deterioration in public sector housing is overwhelmingly due to the Tory government starving local authority housing of money – subsidies were abolished, loan sanction denied, housing revenue accounts ringfenced. Labour has helped to remedy the problem by releasing cash from the sale of council houses, which the Tories forced councils to keep locked up.