Responsibility for administering the home improvement grant system rests with local authorities. The Department does not collate information in the form requested on the grant approval practices of individual authorities.
The Minister's answer shows how little interest the Government have in repairs. May I inform the hon. Gentleman that only a handful of local authorities now deal with new applications for improvement and repair grants because of the cuts in housing investment programmes and the freezing of capital receipts? There was a pre-election boom in improvement grants, but there are now thousands of disillusioned people — many of whom are poor—who cannot have any repairs carried out because they cannot obtain help from the local authority. If Environment Ministers are to be more than just the Treasury's errand boys, when will there be a resumption of a reasonable level of repair grants? According to the Minister's own figures, there are 3·5 million unsatisfactory dwellings in this country.
The local authority is obliged by law to process and award mandatory grants. In Lambeth, discretionary grants are being considered by the local authority. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this year the likely spend on improvement grants will be well in excess of the £90 million spent when he and his Government were last in office.
Is not Waltham Forest, which incidentally is Tory-controlled with Liberal support, one of the increasing number of local authorities putting a block on improvement grants? Does that not mean that many people in Leyton are having the vital means to combat dilapidations cut off? What action will the Government take to restore grants, or will they openly confess that their policy is that good housing is expendable?
As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government make an allocation available to Waltham Forest for housing, and it is up to the authority to decide how much to allocate to improvement grants and how much to other aspects of housing policy. We have made it clear that we hope that it will give priority in improvement grants to those on low incomes, the disabled, and those living in statutory improvement areas. The expenditure on improvement grants in Waltham Forest is likely to be substantially in excess of that six years ago.
Is my hon. Friend aware that there is a problem in the midlands as well as in London? In the light of the Green Paper, which talks about loans, will my hon. Friend have another look at the basic implementation of improvement grants, and in particular at what the late Anthony Crosland introduced in the late 1960s, because that system worked and people who applied for grants got them?
As my hon. Friend knows, we have recently issued a Green Paper outlining some new proposals for improvement grants and that will provide the opportunity, which my hon. Friend is seeking, to inject some helpful comments on how we might improve the system. Until the system is changed, people are entitled to apply under the legislation as it is; and, as I have shown, that is a fairly generous regime.
Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the deteriorating condition of our housing stock will be adequately tackled through the system proposed in the Green Paper of replacing grants by loans that must be repaid when the owner moves? Will that not simply be a tax on moving and make it even more difficult for the unemployed to get on their bikes?
An essential component of the Green Paper is the suggestion that the private sector should play a far greater part in restoring the housing stock, together with the owner-occupier. It is not right to expect the public sector to bear the burden of modernising the housing stock. At the end of the day, the responsibility should rest with the owner of the property.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Green Paper on improvement grants contains much that is immensely worth while, particularly, for example, on the simplification of the designated areas and the definition of what is an unfit property? Therefore, is there any likelihood of early legislation on this important subject?
My hon. Friend will have to await the Queen's Speech to see our legislative proposals, but she is right to draw our attention to the suggestions in the Green Paper. The abolition of the rateable value, for example, will bring entitlement to many more people who are denied it at the moment, and there is a suggestion that there should be more generous compensation for those affected by clearance. There is much in the Green Paper that is worthy of support.
Is the Minister aware that in the Rotherham metropolitan borough more than 600 applicants for improvement grants have been disappointed in recent months, and that that is happening at a time when hundreds of building workers are unemployed? Does the hon. Gentleman accept that Green Papers are no answer to the urgent need for the improvement of Britain's housing stock and the creation of jobs?
It is up to the hon. Gentleman's local authority to decide how much of its resources to make available for improvement grants. I hope that it will take note of the hon. Gentleman's view that it should give greater priority to this than to other aspects of the programme. As to the Green Paper, if its proposals were followed up there would be better use of public money in that it would be targeted at the people and the buildings that need public sector help.