Is the decent homes standard a valuable targeting tool or just more bureaucracy? Jeffrey Adams thinks it can work, but Ben Derbyshire is underwhelmed
Pf course everyone deserves a decent home and, of course, contractors are unlikely to argue against an initiative that creates work. Bringing all social housing up to the set standards of decency by 2010 is a creditable ambition, but the question is whether the policies now driving this ambition will deliver. We believe they can – though not without imagination, co-operation and determination from all parties involved.

Of course there will be setbacks. What effect, for example, will the recent failure of several proposed stock transfers have on funding? The government had expected about 240,000 properties to transfer every year for five years, releasing a steady, useful and budgeted stream of private money. But although the interim targets for 2004 may possibly be in jeopardy, 2010 should still be achievable providing, of course, contractors and clients alike can plan with a degree of predictability. Yes, funds intended for other areas of improvement will have to be redirected in the short term and yes, this enforced reprioritising may prove unpopular, but the impact of short-term disappointments can be reduced, even overcome.

So how are we making it work? One way is through the formation of strategic partnerships with clients. The first benefit of partnering is that it turns residents into informed participants, able to understand and appreciate the constraints and opportunities the government has placed in front of their landlord. If programmes must be reprioritised, let it be through mutual consent. Second, within a partnered environment all parties can work together to exploit the system's remaining flexibility. Third, partnering is predicated on continuous improvement and cost savings – essential for long-term best value. Finally, partnerships take a strategic view – highly desirable with a target date eight years away. Providers will find it harder to deliver the standard through short-term, ad hoc arrangements with a succession of contractors. A long-term relationship allows the contractor to plan and invest to deliver the quality and service required.

Furthermore, the introduction of social housing PFI has offered an additional means of delivering the standard by harnessing private sector finance and expertise. Part of our success in this area has undoubtedly been due to the incorporation of decent home targets in our proposals.

it’s a creditable ambition

Jeffrey Adams, Managing Director, United House Limited

Decent home standards are achievable and the prize of improved "social cohesion, well-being and self-dependence" should encourage us all to make it work.

Jeffrey Adams

Homes fit for heroes! Almost 100 years ago, Lloyd George coined a rousing slogan as a spur to improve homes for the deserving poor. Nowadays, the much more anodyne, even downbeat, "decent homes standards" is all we can muster as a rallying cry. We are faced with different, but sometimes equally severe problems of supply and management, but the political primacy of good housing has given way to education, health and economic development.

does it improve quality of life for residents

Ben Derbyshire, design director of HTA Architects

I don't want to be the one to criticise motherhood and apple pie, but I do argue for an intelligent and, where appropriate, inspired approach to providing people with good places to live. And I would argue for real caution where there is a risk of the blanket application of bureaucratic initiatives to mass housing. Much of the stock that the initiative is intended to improve was itself the product of mass housing solutions, sometimes unthinkingly applied. Now neglect and long-term deterioration adds to the problems of buildings originally conceived in a spirit that was, at best, utilitarian.

I would like to urge sensitivity in the application of decent homes standards, and in particular offer the following pointers to delivery:

  • Don't spread the jam too thin. It is better to concentrate investment where it can make an impact. You can have very little to show for a great deal of disruption if you try to stretch resources too far.
  • Think strategically. Social housing landlords are now required to nurture the asset value of their stock. Investing in decent homes standards should be set within a strategy for maximising the yield of the portfolio.
  • Think about making good places. You could all too easily deliver the standard to the letter without improving quality of life for inhabitants one jot. Worse, inappropriate investment can merely cement misery in place.
  • Think holistically, not elementally. Does the investment plan, seen in the round, add to the quality of life for residents? Securing an economic future for window frames does not do the same for people.
  • Employ designers. People deserve an attractive, stimulating environment. A purely technocratic approach can lead to some very ugly and unfortunate outcomes.
  • Always ask the occupants. The guidance on decent homes standards advises against foisting improvements on unwilling inhabitants. Don't just ask, "Do you want it?" Be sure also to ask, "Is it worth the upheaval?"