HC Deb 15 November 1972 vol 846 cc393-7
5. Mr. Skinner

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what estimate he has made of the number of discretionary improvement grants allocated to development and property companies and those received by owner-occupiers.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Geoffrey Rippon)

During the first six months of this year about 57,000 grants were approved in England and Wales for owner-occupiers and about 30,000 for others, including landlords. Information is not collected about the numbers approved for development and property companies and no estimate can be made.

Mr. Skinner

Is the Minister aware that this is turning into the biggest racket of the 1970s? There is a new phrase for it in the property world. It is called "prop and cop". Does he realise that tenants are being turned out by the thousand and that profits are being made by the million, freeze or no freeze? When will he do something about this matter?

Mr. Rippon

It is important to remember that tenants cannot be deprived of their legal rights. During the debate on the Queen's Speech my predecessor emphasised that he was to send out a circular to local authorities—I will do the same—stressing the importance of ensuring that tenants understand their rights.

On the general position, the increase in the number of improvement grants and the improvement of homes is a success story. At the same time, I am well aware of the anxieties which have been expressed in many quarters about particular cases. These are for the discretion of local authorities, which must be allowed to exercise their judgment as to what is required in their own areas. However, I will certainly keep a close eye on this matter.

Mr. Sydney Chapman

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his new appointment. Will he confirm that the whole purpose of improvement grants is to see that as far as possible and practicable buildings are renovated and not demolished, and that in any case local authorities can use their discretion to turn down applications for improvement grants if they feel that the system is being abused in their areas and there is therefore no need for national regulations?

Mr. Rippon

I believe that if local authorities think there is abuse they should act accordingly. For the rest, it is right that they should continue to have a discretion. I think we are all agreed that improvement grants make a great contribution towards providing homes for people at fair rents in the best possible way.

Mr. Crosland

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that many of us on this side of the House have continually expressed the view that the abuse of this grant, in inner London in particular, has got to the point where some governmental action is needed? May I take the opportunity of welcoming the right hon. and learned Gentleman to his new job, and express the hope and—I should like to think—conviction, that as compared with his predecessor we shall have fewer Press releases and rather more action?

Mr. Rippon

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words about myself but he is being less than fair to my predecessor. I am aware of the anxiety that has been expressed on this matter, and I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I am studying the position very carefully.

Mr. Simeons

Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider whether the machinery is adequate to ensure that grants given to owners of private dwellinghouses reach the builders?

Mr. Rippon

If I had any evidence to the contrary I should pursue the matter most energetically.

Mr. Ron Lewis

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman able to give any indication of the number of local authorities which have complained to him about this racket?

Mr. Rippon

No one has complained to me before this afternoon, but I have no doubt that representations have been made. I am looking into the whole question, because I am aware of the various anxieties that have been expressed about the way in which these improvement grants are being used. I think that, generally, it is a success story, but I am prepared to investigate any complaints of abuse that arise.

23. Mr. William Hamilton

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether, in view of the increasing evidence indicating widespread use of house improvement grants for speculative purposes, he will introduce legislation to eliminate such use of the grants.

Mr. Rippon

No. If a local authority takes the view that the approval of a particular grant application will result in abuse and will not help to solve local housing problems, it has powers to refuse to make a grant, and should exercise them.

Mr. Hamilton

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman take steps to ensure that the London boroughs in particular publish the figures for grants, as between private owner-occupiers and the land speculators, because quite clearly they are seen to exist in the Department? More important, will he do it because there may well be a senior Minister in the Government who is at this game?

Mr. Rippon

It is true that in the inner London area there is a higher proportion of grants in respect of tenanted accommodation than in respect of owner-occupiers. The figures that I gave earlier covered the whole country. It is important not to make these wild allegations about speculation, and it is important that particular cases of abuse should be looked at. We ought to get this in the right perspective. Last year 199,000 improvement grants were given. That was 23 per cent. more than the year before and 83 per cent. more than the year before that. In the first nine months of this year local authorities have approved 226,000 improvement grants. This is an enormous contribution to providing better homes for more people. I will certainly consider very carefully any evidence of abuse, but the prime responsibility rests with the local authority. The figures that I have given prove what progress has been made.

Mr. Evelyn King

Is it not true that if over the last 30 or 40 years a number of people—call them speculators if hon. Members wish—had not purchased old and under-used houses and turned them into flats there would now be tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, more homeless people?

Mr. Rippon

That is so. We have also to ensure that in an area like London the tenants of larger landlords have the opportunity for improvements as well as owner-occupiers or the tenants of small landlords.

Mr. Milne

Is the Minister aware that his refusal to introduce legislation dealing with this matter make it imperative that we have an inquiry into the points that have been raised? Is he aware that it is no use talking about the number of grants? What we want to know about is the quality and the standard, and to whom and by whom these grants have been allocated.

Mr. Rippon

This is primarily a matter for the discretion of the local authority.

in the light of its housing needs. In view of the large number of grants that are being readily given that is the only way to proceed. Where there is evidence of abuse we must look at it. It is easy to say that we need more legislation, but we have passed a lot of legislation in the past and a lot of powers exist. The important thing is that the powers should be used properly and with discretion.