HC Deb 26 June 1974 vol 875 cc1653-7
Mr. Teddy Taylor

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 3, line 16, leave out 'sufficient' and insert: 'appropriate in relation to interests of residents in the area'. We advanced this proposition in a different form of words in Committee. The Bill provides that a local authority may refuse an improvement grant on any grounds that seem sufficient. What worries us is that there is a very considerable difference in the ways in which different local authorities interpret the provision. Some are tough with improvement grants and some are generous with them. In Committee, we tried to find wording more appropriate and flexible than "sufficient", and we have had another shot at it for Report.

We suggest that, instead of the local authority simply having the power to turn down an improvement grant on grounds which appear to it to be "sufficient", we should specify that the grounds should be appropriate in relation to interests of residents in the area. We mean by this not just residents in the immediate vicinity but throughout the area of the local authority. We believe that our wording would be an improvement. The hon. Gentleman was unable to accept our amendment in Committee. I hope that he will accept this one or at least give an assurance that, in the event of any local authority appearing to act unreasonably or out of character with the general purposes of the Bill, he will look into the matter.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Berwick and East Lothian)

The amendment is important because there are cases where one house only will be found to be in need of improvement and where a grant might be made available by the local authority under the terms of the Bill. The presence of one bad house in an area may have a bad effect on other houses in the area, and the amendment would allow such circumstances to be taken into account by the local authority in determining whether to make an improvement grant.

Mr. James Dempsey (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

The difficulty in operating improvement grants is that they are discretionary. I do not know whether the words in the amendment are strong enough to deal with the situation. As the grants are discretionary, the matter is left to the mental approach that is adopted by individual local authorities. As a consequence we are never out of hot water in matters of interpretation concerning improvement grants. I have had stand-up arguments with some of the authorities in many areas about improvement grants. If a person renews the electricity wiring in a house that has been standing for 40 years, that work may not be interpreted as an improvement. In that event no grant will be given. However, I am assured that some of the authorities in Scotland interpret rewiring as a housing improvement and that they are willing to give a grant for it.

Obviously such different approaches create a great deal of trouble. Taxpayers all pay the same taxes and difficulty is created when it is seen in one area that a grant is made available for certain work when it is not available in another area. A friend of mine in Lanark County took over a house. The previous owner-occupier had put up a thin plastic board in one of the rooms so that for various purposes the family could be separated. That was not strictly a fixture, but the authority's interpretation was that the effect of the board was to make a separate apartment. The result was that the new owner-occupier was refused an improvement grant.

Improvement grants as we know are discretionary, and discretion rests with the local authorities. They can take different attitudes. A person under the jurisdiction of local authorities told me that the authority would be willing to give an improvement grant for electricity wiring to be renewed and that it would consider that to be a structural improvement, while another refused.

The local authorities are all at sixes and sevens in interpreting the meaning of an improvement grant. As a result, members of the public who purchase an old house with a view to remodelling are suffering. I hope that my hon. Friend will give us some guidance and will consider the problem which is created as a result of the differing attitudes taken by local authorities. This is a matter that is causing great concern not only in my constituency but in many others. I hope my hon. Friend will consider whether strict guidance can be given to local authorities. That would lead to some uniformity. I should like to see that guidance made mandatory so that development departments in Scotland could lay down the rules and say "These are the rules; obey them." The present degree of tomfoolery that is going on within the authorities in their interpretation of the improvement grant system must be stopped.

If it is not possible to make a set of rules mandatory, I should like my hon. Friend to indicate whether strict lines of guidance, advice and instruction can be given to local authorities to try to bring about a better measure of uniformity and a more generous interpretation of the improvement grant system.

Mr. Millan

I could not accede to the amendment which was tabled in Committee. I explained at that time why it was not possible to do so. We are now dealing with a similar amendment which uses a different set of words. We must basically decide whether we want to allow local authorities to have discretion. In Clause 7 there are standard grant provisions which pick up the provisions of earlier legislation but in this part of the Bill we are dealing with discretionary grants. The essence of such grants is that local authorities must be able to exercise a reasonable amount of judgment. If the central Government were to lay down rules there would no longer be discretionary grants but standard grants.

Mr. Dempsey

That would be a good thing.

Mr. Millan

That is my hon. Friend's opinion, but the local authorities are already complaining about getting far too many instructions from the central Government about what they should and should not do. That applied, for example, when the previous Government determined the rents that should be charged by local authorities. That might also happen if we were to attempt to lay down strict rules. We are willing to give guidance to local authorities on how they should exercise their powers under this kind of legislation. Indeed, we give such guidance.

The wording in the Bill has been in improvement grant legislation since the 1949 Act. As far as I am aware, that wording has not caused any particular difficulty. I do not believe that the wording suggested in the amendment would improve the situation. If cases are brought to my attention—I think I said this in Committee—which demonstrate that a local authority or local authorities generally are behaving unreasonably, I shall be willing to take them up with those authorities. I am not willing to lay down central directions because I think that that would be against the spirit of the clause.

8.15 p.m.

Miss Harvie Anderson (Renfrewshire, East)

Under the previous Government and certainly to date there has been great difficulty because, as the hon. Member for Coat bridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) has said, there are areas within wider areas. For example, there may be availability of discretionary grants in a burgh and not in a county. There is endless friction when two houses, one on each side of a boundary, receive a different response. This is a serious local matter.

Mr. Millan

I agree, but some of that sort of difficulty is inevitable in local democracy. I must rest on the general proposition that either the grants are discretionary or they are not. If they are discretionary, one local authority can legitimately and reasonably take a different view from another authority in exactly similar circumstances. I do not believe that that can be wholly avoided.

Guidance is already issued to local authorities. I am willing to consider again the guidance that is given, but I do not believe we can completely avoid the kind of difficulty that sometimes results from the system we are operating. As I said in Committee, I do not think that a change in the wording will make any difference. I cannot recommend the amendment because I do not believe that it would even take care of the difficulties that worry some Opposition Members. As I have said, as far as it is possible by guidance and by taking up individual difficulties with local authorities to obviate some of the problems, I will gladly do all I can if the evidence is presented to me.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

I think we fully appreciate that the purpose of the amendment has been served. We have had evidence from my right hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, East (Miss Harvie Anderson) and the hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) that this is a problem which exists in many areas. The Minister has given us an assurance that in the event of any general abuse he will consider giving more precise instructions. In those circumstances I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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