HC Deb 08 March 1960 vol 619 cc381-92

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Legh.]

10.26 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I want to draw the attention of the House to matters which are preventing the implementation of the House Purchase and Housing Act, 1959, so far as it relates to standard improvement grants and discretionary improvement grants.

The House will recall that the 1959 Act instituted a new system of standard grants and a simplification of the discretionary improvement grants and that the new standard grants are available towards baths, water closets and those amenities which are mentioned in the Act and are claimed as of right. The 1959 Act came into operation on 14th June, 1959, and just prior to that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government issued Circular No. 37 of 1959, in which he said: Much valuable improvement work has been carried out during the past few years, but the pace is too slow, and the Minister looks to local authorities to do everything in their power to make the new arrangements known, the help enquirers with their problems and to deal speedily and sympathetically with their applications. At the same time, my right hon. Friend issued a leaflet called "Improve Your House with a Grant" and, a little later, a booklet called "New Grants for Better Homes".

The force of the circular, the leaflet and the booklet was Chat my right hon. Friend was in effect saying to local authorities, "Unless your grants are made in accordance with what I say in these booklets and leaflets, you do not receive, towards the grant, the Exchequer contribution of 75 per cent. payable over a period of 20 years."

That position arises in this way. The improvement grants, that is to say the discretionary improvement grants, by a local authority to a private owner are made under Section 30 (1) of the Housing (Financial Provisions) Act, 1958, and by that Section they are made in respect of "improvement works" to a dwelling. To discover what the Act means by "improvement works" one turns to Section 42 (2), and in that Section improvements include such things as alteration or enlargement … works of repair … not being works of ordinary repair, or if of ordinary repair are … incidental to improvement, alteration or enlargement … This is a very wide definition, but if the local authority uses it as a wide definition in its literal sense it may well have to forgo the Exchequer contribution to which it is entitled in respect of the grants, because Section 36 (1) says no more than that the Minister may, and I repeat "may", make the 75 per cent. contribution. Unless the authority restricts its grants to the cases which involve the installation of a new amenity, it will not get a grant.

It is said in the booklet issued by the Ministry, "New Grants for Better Homes", that the grants will not cover ordinary repairs or replacements. That is an extraordinary interpretation of the word "improvements", which does not appear in the Statute at all, that it does not include replacements.

To the ordinary person the renewal of a worn out or obsolete amenity would, I think, be an improvement. The booklet gives an example such as that the renewal of old wiring or piping could not be regarded as an improvement. That example has been used by my right hon. Friend's Ministry to justify the refusal of a grant to join a house to a mains water supply in place of taking a supply from a contaminated well. The mains water supply was said to be a replacement of the well's supply. I quote from the Ministry's letter as follows: In the case under consideration the house has in the past had a source of supply and presumably before this deteriorated it could have been held that the house already complied with the defined standard. To this extent the proposed work for which grant aid has been sought is on all fours, say, with the rewiring of a house for electricity where, due to lapse of time, the wiring has become dangerous. Grant is not payable, however, for renewals or replacements; the scheme is designed to assist owners to provide facilities in houses which totally lack them. A similar argument has been used in my experience in the case of the owner desiring to install a boiler system for hot water in place of obsolete geysers. I would submit that there is nothing in the Act which restricts the definition of the word "improvements", but it is Ministerially restricted, if I may put it that way, in this booklet whereas it is not so statutorily defined.

There is yet another Ministerial definition which the local authority has to bear in mind, and that arises under Section 31 (2) of the 1958 Act. The local authority, when deciding whether or not to make a grant, has to satisfy itself that the house will conform with such requirements as to construction and physical condition and provision of services and amenities as may be specified by the Minister. That is laid down in the Statute —" as specified by the Minister".

The Minister has specified the requirements up to which the house shall come when the improvements have been made on page 13 of the booklet "New Grants for Better Homes" by what is called a twelve point standard. All those twelve points include such words as "substantial", "properly", "adequate", "suitable", and they are construed in various ways by various local authorities.

I must refer to the last four of those twelve points. These are points which the local authority is required to satisfy itself the house will have after the improvement has been carried out. The four points read: be provided in each room with adequate points for gas or electric lighting (where reasonably available); be provided with adequate facilities for heating; have satisfactory facilities for storing, preparing and cooking food; have proper provision for the storage of fuel where required. If the owner wants to put a bath into the property by means of a grant, he is faced with these requirements to put the property into this twelve point standard, whereas perhaps the existing amenities of the house appear neither to him as the owner-occupier nor to the tenant, if the applicant is a landlord, inadequate, improper or unsatisfactory. In this connection, there is an important difference between the discretionary improvement grant and the standard improvement grants which is often overlooked. I do not know whether that is overlooked by my hon. Friend's Ministry, but it is overlooked by many local authorities.

Section 31 (2) of the 1958 Act—that under which the Minister has laid down the twelve point standard—applies only to discretionary improvement grants. Under that, the Minister can specify the standard to be attained by a house after the improvements have been made. He can insist on that twelve point standard. But Section 31 (2) does not apply to standard grants. The corresponding Section for standard grants is Section 5 (2) of the 1959 Act, which says that the local authority must be satisfied that when the improvement has been done the house will be in such condition as not to be unfit for human habitation, and that it is likely to remain in that condition … for… not less than fifteen years. A local authority must satisfy itself that a house is so unfit and will still be so unfit after the improvement that it would condemn it for clearance or demolition.

The twelve points applying to discretionary grants are of a much higher standard than that applying to standard grants—"not unfit for human habitation"—and the Minister has no power to specify a twelve point standard in respect of standard grants. Yet I am sure that some local authorities are applying that twelve point standard to the standard grants and, therefore, requiring a much higher standard when making standard grants.

If Parliament had intended the Minister to specify what meant by unfitness in that Section relating to standard grants, it would have said so. For the Minister to use what might without disrespect be called back-door methods, saying that the local authority will not get the Exchequer contribution unless it applies that very high standard, is not a proper way to operate this Statute.

In passing, I might mention two other anomalous examples in relation to standard grants. Local authorities are refusing standard grants for flats over shop premises on the ground that there is no separate entrance. In reply to a Question the other day, the Minister said that that was the right rule to apply. Of course, there are many flat premises which are quite separate dwellings, although the approach to them is through some passage in or around the shop. That seems a quite artificial restriction to place on the making of standard grants.

The other anomaly arises where a lavatory is built just outside the back door of a house, there being a convenient gap in which to put, say, the dustbin. If the owner of a house like that wants to install a new bathroom with a standard grant, he cannot get such a grant because, when the bathroom has been installed, the lavatory will still not be contiguous to the house, but will be a few feet away. That again is one of the rather stupid restrictions which, I am sure, were never intended by the House when the Act was passed.

These restrictions originate in my hon. Friend's Ministry itself, but, in addition, there is great variety in the way the rules are applied by local authorities. For example, there are local authorities which will not make any grant, standard or improvement, unless a damp course is installed in the house, and yet the exhibition conversion houses of the Ministry at Wolverhampton had no damp course.

Further examples are provided by 12 houses in Gorton for which the Manchester Corporation refused a grant unless at the same time the owner would agree to insert a damp proof course throughout the entire thickness of the exterior walls of the front and back living rooms, to render scullery walls internally with approved water-proofed material to suitable height above floor level, to relay scullery floors with approved impervious material, and replace shallow worn sinks with approved glazed earthen-ware sinks. The landlord who is prepared to carry out some definite repairs and install amenities in the house is faced with this sort of demand from the local authority, whereas in the case of exactly similar houses nearby, the Failsworth Urban District Council put forward no such demands.

Speaking at Eastbourne on 29th February, the Minister said that he hoped landlords would take advantage of the grants. He said: In most cases, I think it is the owner-occupiers who are going in for these grants rather than the landlords of rented property. I hope that before long the landlords will start to see the advantage of them. I am sure that the majority of landlords do see the advantage of these grants. but many local authorities are showing discrimination between owner-occupiers and landlords. Grants are being allowed to owner-occupiers without question, but when a landlord applies for a standard grant, the local authority finds a whole set of minor repairs which it requires him to carry out.

I could quote a case at Leicester where a number of minor repairs were required to three tenanted houses, while for a house next door in exactly the same condition the owner-occupier was given a grant without there being any question of repairs. The repairs were the re-pointing round window frames and the renewal of bedroom ceiling plaster.

The landlord who has persuaded the tenant to allow him to provide the standard amenities and has worked out how he can get some return from the 8 per cent. he is allowed to charge, is met with this obstructive attitude on the part of the local authority and he gives up trying. The grants are not made and the amenities are not installed. I ask that the Minister shall have a review made and inquire from local authorities the reasons for their refusals of these grants or for imposing conditions on the grants being made. I am sure he will discover that there is severe obstruction, particularly to landlords who come forward with enthusiasm to try to carry out this work, wearing a sort of halo round their heads because they think they are being good citizens, which landlords are so often accused of not being, and they are then faced with these obstructions. I am sure my right hon. Friend will find that in many cases the grants are being refused for reasons which are quite unjustifiable under the Act.

10.53 p.m.

Sir Eric Errington (Aldershot)

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) with regard to the anomalies. I wish, however, to urge the Minister to push the facilities with the local authorities. I believe that they are excellent but that they have not been taken advantage of. Section 43 of the Housing (Financial Provisions) Act, 1958, contains a number of provisions regarding loans for constructing, converting, altering, enlarging, repairing or improving houses. Those are very wide terms, and, so far as I know, the provisions in that Section have hardly been used, in spite of their value. I believe the reason is that people do not know what can be done in that connection.

In many cases tenants desire to have improvements but, because of the way in which their houses are built, it is not always possible to bring the improvements exactly into accord with the building byelaws. Is it not possible in certain cases, without sacrificing amenities generally, to have a relaxation of the building byelaws to enable a tenant who has many people in a house not to suffer the complete loss of a room? I am certain that tenants' hesitation to lose space is one of the things that makes them unwilling to agree to improvements.

Another difficulty arises under the 8 per cent. which can be charged on the landlord's expenditure. If a hot water system or a lavatory system is installed, there will be increased maintenance costs, and no allowance for that is made in the 8 per cent., which is not a very good return on money invested.

These are the kind of things, I suggest, which are distracting from the value of these many excellent loans and grants

10.57 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Sir Keith Joseph)

We all want improvement grants to increase and multiply, and I am glad that these constructive criticisms have been made this evening in order that the answer to them can be given equal publicity. I am only sorry that my hon. Friends have left me rather too little time to deal adequately with everything they have raised.

My right hon. Friend is being accused of restricting administratively the wishes of Parliament in this connection. The fact is that Section 31 (2) of the Housing (Financial Provisions) Act, 1958, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) admits, expressly empowers the Minister to specify requirements with which dwellings must conform with respect to their construction if they are to qualify for grant. My right hon. Friend has specified for this purpose the "twelve point standard", to which my hon. Friend referred, which is set out in its latest form in paragraph 46 of "New Grants for Better Homes". The infinite variety of housing and of satisfactory conditions of housing cannot be encompassed in a precise schedule, hence the form of the twelve points, which must to some extent use adjectives for definition.

In addition, of course, there is the fact that contributions from the Exchequer in aid of discretionary grants paid by the local authority are entirely at the discretion of my right hon. Friend, as will be seen from Section 36 of the 1958 Act. It is, in fact, my right hon. Friend's job, imposed on him by the House, to see that any Exchequer money spent in making improvements is well spent.

What is the object of improvement grants? It is to ensure that structurally sound older dwellings which lack modern amenities are brought as nearly as may be up to the standard of a modern house and so given a new lease of life. That new lease of life is defined, as my hon. Friend said, as fifteen years for a standard grant and thirty years for a discretionary grant.

But improvement grants are not intended to relieve an owner of property of the responsibility for keeping it in repair and generally maintaining it. The purpose of improvement grants is to assist owners of property to equip houses with amenities which they have never possessed and as far as possible to bring them up to the standard of a modern house. It is the purpose of the twelve point standard to express this standard of a modern house.

The term "improvement" is not defined in the 1958 Act, except that it is expressed as excluding ordinary works of repair. In the simplest of language, repair comprehends everything which is necessary to prevent the deterioration of a property, including the replacement of its components as they wear out, even, indeed, the replacement of an item by its modern equivalent. Improvement signifies something which goes beyond replacement—not merely holding one's own, as it were, but a positive advance towards better conditions. In the slang sense, no doubt, the replacement of obsolete electric wiring or obsolete heating systems constitutes an improvement, but in the strict sense of the term it is merely part of maintenance, being action necessary to maintain the property in its previous condition.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby referred to a case in which the Ministry was not prepared to authorise the payment of grant in respect of connecting a house to a main water supply in place of taking the supply from a contaminated well. My hon. Friend did not go on to say, as was the case, that the property concerned was 900 yards from the nearest road and that it had been omitted from the local authority's water supply scheme because, in the opinion of the authority, the supply of piped water in that case over that distance would be uneconomic.

My hon. Friend may think that the Department is merely being pernickety and pedantic, if I may suggest words to him, in advising that replacements are not improvements, but an owner of property who can satisfy the simple conditions involved is entitled to a standard grant in respect of the cost of installing such standard amenities as his property lacks.

If replacements for worn-out baths and the like are potentially within the scope of the grant system, it follows that every owner of a pre-1945 house has a statutory right to be assisted from public funds in effecting a replacement. My hon. Friend will agree that that is nonsense, and rather expensive nonsense at that.

My hon. Friend went on as his next criticism to refer to what he called the anomaly arising from the insistence that any house which is improved with the aid of a standard grant must have a water closet in or contiguous to the dwelling. This requirement is in the Act. It was inserted in the Act as a result of Opposition pressure during the Committee stage of the Bill. The Bill originally required that a dwelling should possess a water closet for the exclusive use of its occupants. The words "contiguous" is not defined, but my right hon. Friend has advised local authorities that it should have its literal meaning of "touching". It appears to be this advice with which my hon. Friend is quarrelling.

However, my hon. Friend may like to know that the bulk of the criticism we receive is precisely to the contrary effect. Many people have argued that every dwelling with any pretensions to being adequate should possess a water closet which is either inside the dwelling or at the very least accessible under cover and that the Ministry was behind the times in countenancing outside water closets which adjoined the house but required the few steps across the yard to approach it. On this count, therefore, my hon. Friend is in conflict with the majority view.

My hon. Friend went on to criticise the application by local authorities of the repairs requirements. As he quite rightly said, here a distinction has to be drawn between discretionary grants and standard grants. In the case of discretionary grants, since the local authority has a discretion whether it will pay any grant or not, it is always in a position to insist on the carrying out of repairs as a condition of the making of a grant. In some cases, this insistence on repairs is very likely carried to excess, and indeed this proclivity of authorities to be a little over-zealous about repairs was one of the reasons which led to the introduction of standard grants. In the case of standard grants, authorities have no discretion, but they have to be satisfied before a grant is made that when the work is done the dwelling will not be unfit for human habitation and that it is likely to remain fit for at least fifteen years.

My right hon. Friend made it abundantly plain in paragraph 13 of Circular 37/59 that dwellings improved with the aid of standard grants are not required to conform to the twelve point standard, but there remains the condition about fifteen years' life and fitness for human habitation. If there are serious defects of repair which if neglected will lead to the speedy deterioration of the property, it is obviously the local authority's duty to insist on the work being done. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree with that. Conversely, it obviously ought not to trouble itself about instances of minor neglect which are not likely to threaten the future of the property for the fifteen years life.

The complaints which have been made are that some local authorities have been going too far in insisting on relatively minor defects being remedied. If the facts are as stated, that is regrettable, but there is no positive action which my right hon. Friend can take, because the question whether a standard grant shall be made is entirely regulated by statute. Without having a special inspection of the properties concerned, it is impossible to express any opinion in an individual case.

I have not time to deal with the suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir E. Errington), but I can promise him that they will be examined closely.

In conclusion, my right hon. Friend is extremely keen on spreading improvement grants, particularly among land- lords, and he loses no opportunity to stress this. I hope that the ventilation of what are considered to be obstacles and my reply may do something to enlarge the scope of improvement grants among landlords.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes past Eleven o'clock.