Overall, in public and private sectors, local authorities reported at least 1.3 million unfit homes, according to an internal Department of the Environment report. The last official English House Condition Survey, in 1986, estimated that 900,000 properties were unfit.
But a report prepared for Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment, has warned: 'The renovation of the private housing stock will move into sharper focus with the emerging results of the 1991 English House Condition Survey towards the end of the year.'
The department told the Independent this week that the results of that survey would not be published until next June. However, the latest annual analysis of departmental work, the Ministerial Information System (MINIS), recently delivered to Mr Howard, gave a regional breakdown of unfit-housing estimates for 1991 submitted by local authorities.
Excluding the Eastern region, for which data was 'unreliable', they reported 1,186,913 unfit private sector homes, and 133,570 in the public sector.
According to the MINIS document, one of the objectives of the department's Housing Association and Private Sector Directorate is 'to encourage adequate maintenance of the private-sector housing stock and to ensure that where such housing is falling into poor condition through lack of resources, any public-sector funds are targeted on the poorest people and the areas where most can be achieved'.
Because of the limited resources made available by the Treasury, and the growing scope for maintenance work, Sir George Young, Minister of State for Housing, told the Commons earlier this month that the pounds 330m House Renovation Grants system was being changed to target it 'on the worst housing and those most in need'.
Under the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, essential works needed to bring a house or flat up to a new standard of fitness - the test that more than a million private homes are judged to have failed - 'generally attract mandatory grants' from the local authorities that administer the scheme.
Sir George said in a Commons written reply on 16 July that local authorities and others had expressed concern about 'the harshness of the means test for grant applicants on lower incomes, the scope for the system still to pay out large grants to those on relatively high incomes, and the resources available to meet demand for grants'.
Responding to those concerns, he announced changes in the means test for owner-occupiers and tenants, 'to give more help to those just above income support level, and less to the better-off', and an upper limit of pounds 50,000 on mandatory renovation grants.
Sir George added that the question of resources was 'a matter for the Public Expenditure Survey' - the current spending round negotiations which are expected to provide little scope for expansion of the programme.