Is the Minister aware that the existing stock well exceeds the number of households? Does he not agree that the best service which he can provide for hard-pressed taxpayers—and certainly to assist many young families and young people who require accommodation—is to increase improvement grants and also to increase the allowances to local authorities to enable them to grant more local authority mortgages?
I accept that the question of maintaining and improving the existing housing stock is of vital and central importance, alongside additions to stock as a matter of public policy and practice. We shall issue policy guidelines as soon as we are able to do so. This does not mean that we are not taking administrative action on a day-to-day basis with local authorities in increasing the variety of steps which they can take in this area. We are concerned about the drop in the number of improvement grants. We are discussing these matters in various quarters and are examining ways in which to improve the situation. Indeed, we have taken some steps recently.
On the subject of loans to local authorities, apart from the mortgage famine period of 1973–75, we are now running at a level that is somewhat above normal, although it is still too low. However, to increase the figure would mean that we should have to increase public expenditure, and we cannot do so at present.
Is my hon. Friend aware that his recent decision to enable local authorities to purchase houses that are unoccupied without good reason for two months is much appreciated, because it will prevent the destruction of many good homes by vandals? Will he now consider stepping up the compulsory purchase order procedure so that these matters can be completed within six weeks, as he has done in certain other cases?
We are prepared to examine more efficient processing of CPOs in the Department. I shall examine that matter further. However, we must bear in mind that the vast bulk of houses purchased by local authorities under municipalisation and rehabilitation programmes are handled through negotiation. A small number indeed are the subject of CPOs—a matter of a few hundred compared with something like 17,000 to 20,000 purchased by negotiation. This matter is not as important in terms of policy as it may sometimes appear to be.
The sale of housing association houses is subject to the legislative framework rather than to policy guidelines issued in circulars. The future rôle of housing associations could possibly include the building of houses for low-income families, including shared equity schemes. We are examining these matters.
In preparing his circular, will the Minister include two other matters? First, will he give guidance to local authorities to adopt the North Wiltshire scheme, which would bring more privately-rented accommodation into use, and also have regard to the model form of lease, which is at present a problem? Secondly, will he encourage local authorities to prepare more accurate and comprehensive lists of empty properties in their ownership, having regard to short-life properties which are not included in annual returns?
In the first place short-life properties are included, unless they are classified as slums for demolition. The relet survey covers the purchase as well as the erection of purpose-built properties, with the one qualification I have mentioned. Over 40 authorities, with our encouragement and backing, are undertaking various kinds of listing arrangements. They are not all modelled on the North Wiltshire scheme. Some authorities are giving five- and seven-year leases rather than monthly or short-term arrangements. A special study is being conducted into the leasing arrangements generally, and I hope that it will produce good results.