IN THE the 1960s and 1970s, housing grants from local authorities were two a penny and many middle-class home buyers gentrified their Victorian terrace or Edwardian semi at least partly at the expense of the council. But automatic grants were an early casualty of the Government's crackdown on local authority spending in the 1980s. Owners whose properties are unfit or need adaptation for disabled occupants are still entitled to improvement grants, but only if they meet low-income criteria.
Sub-standard housing is a real national problem. In the last comprehensive review of property conditions in England nine years ago, it was found that one in eight privately owned homes - a total of 1.5 million properties - was unfit for human habitation, lacked basic amenities, or was in bad repair.
The figure is estimated to have grown since then, as more properties have become unfit than have been renovated.
But the scandal in Birmingham - where it has been alleged that Labour Party members have been assisted to queue-jump - shows the grant system is badly flawed.
A residential property in England or Wales (the laws for Scotland are different) is regarded as unfit - and eligible for a grant - if it is not structurally stable; is in serious disrepair; is damp; is not properly lit, heated or ventilated; does not have a supply of wholesome water (for example if it has lead pipes); does not have a proper kitchen; does not have an indoor toilet; does not have a bath or shower with hot and cold water, or does not have a proper drainage system.
But grants are only mandatory if the owner - or tenant with a repairing obligation - has a low income. The test is similar to that for housing benefit, but is less severe for people with disabilities.
A large proportion of home owners with unfit homes are elderly, and many will be entitled to grants. There is a separate financial test for landlords, who may be entitled to additional assistance to convert a house for multiple occupancy.
Home owners who meet the income criteria are entitled to a grant for the full amount of the work, less the amount assessed that they can afford as a loan. Homes must be at least 10 years old to qualify for a grant, except in the case of disabled adaptations. Some local authorities give other grants, to replace rotten windows or doors, or for home insulation. The problem in Birmingham and many other older urban areas is that the council does not have the money to meet its legal obligations to improve run-down properties.
Renovation grants have been in place for just over a year, replacing a more complicated system, but the Government intends to announce a radical overhaul later this year. It had intended replacing grants with loans, and this is still being considered.
Home improvement agencies help home owners to assess if they are entitled to grants and benefits. The national co-ordinating body for these agencies, Care & Repair, can be contacted on 0115-279 9091.Reuse content