State 'should spend pounds 7bn on private home works': One property in 13 is unfit for habitation

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The Independent Online
NEARLY pounds 7bn of public money needs to be spent on private homes to make them fit for habitation, according to an umbrella grouping of housing organisations.

More than one owner-occupied home in 20 is unfit to live in, yet there is no national strategy for maintaining the privately-owned housing stock to take account of the switch to home ownership in the past decade, a report by the Housing Forum says.

Overall, in Britain, one home in 13 is unfit for habitation, but the owner-occupied share is growing. Only about one-tenth of unfit homes are empty.

The report says more than pounds 21bn of 75 per cent grants, where the owner pays a quarter and the state three-quarters of the cost, would be needed if all outstanding urgent repairs were carried out to privately-owned homes, including rented and owner-occupied.

To bring all privately-owned and housing association homes up to the standards required by building societies for mortgage purposes would cost an estimated pounds 70bn.

The report says: 'As owner- occupation has grown, it has become increasingly difficult for some households to afford the cost of repairs and improvements. In 1991, almost 50 per cent of those owning homes outright, and 15 per cent of those buying with a mortgage, had an income of less than pounds 150 per week.'

Between 1.2 million and 1.5 million households had negative equity. An increasing proportion of older people on low incomes are now home owners, it says.

'These trends have occurred as a direct result of government policies to encourage owner-occupation. But at the same time public sector resources to help owners with repairs and improvements have been reduced.

'Without adequate strategies to help home owners and private landlords afford the on-going costs of property ownership the outlook for the state of the nation's housing stock is bleak.'

The report adds: 'Existing policies for housing renewal are in a state of crisis. A new framework introduced in 1990 is undergoing its second official review. The key problem is lack of public funding for clearance and renovation for the private sector. Clearance of the worst housing has almost ceased in most areas because few local authorities can afford to do it.

'The core of renewal policy - mandatory grants to tackle unfit properties - has been undermined by a steady reduction in government funding and an increase in the proportion of grant costs which must be met by local authorities from their own resources.

'As a result most local authorities are forced to conceal rather than promote the availability of help to home owners and to act on the borders of legality to prevent people getting access to the grant aid for which they are entitled.'

The definitions of 'unfitness' and 'urgent repairs' used by the authors of the report, Philip Leather, Sheila Mackintosh and Sue Rolfe, from the School of Advanced Urban Studies at the University of Bristol, is taken from the Government's own regular condition surveys of the country's housing stock. 'Urgent' means repairs costing more than pounds 1,000, (such as rewiring or damp- penetration) which will lead to further deterioration if not tackled. According to this definition, to be unfit a house will suffer from one or more of the following: serious disrepair; structurally unstable; damp enough to make the occupants ill; inadequate cooking facilities; insufficient lighting heating or ventilation; inadequate water supply; no inside lavatory for exclusive use of the occupants; no bath, shower or wash basin and no effective drainage.

The amount of public money set aside for housing renewal investment in England fell from pounds 1.5bn in 1983 to less than pounds 0.5bn in 1992. In 1994-95, there was a 23 per cent cut in funding. And in 1992, only 34,928 mandatory renovation grants were provided compared with 214,000 when the grant system was at its peak.

A spokeswoman for the Department of the Environment responded to the report by saying the latest national housing condition survey showed that overall housing conditions had improved since the previous one in 1986.

She added that conditions had improved in the two most vulnerable categories of occupier, the elderly and those on low income. Of the 715,000 owner-occupied dwellings shown to be unfit in that survey, more than one-third were occupied by owners who could afford to have the work carried out.

The Housing Forum is a cross- section of pressure and interest groups in the housing field, including the National Housebuilding Council, Shelter, the associations of local authorities and the surveyors' and architects' professional bodies.

(Graphs omitted)

Papering Over the Cracks: National Housing Forum, 35 Great Smith St, London SW1P 3BJ; pounds 12.

Leading article, page 13

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