HC Deb 16 February 1977 vol 926 cc481-3
6. Mr. Ronald Atkins

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his estimate of the number of unoccupied houses in England and Wales.

Mr. Freeson

The most recent comprehensive estimate of the number of empty dwellings is provided by the 1971 census, which recorded 675,880 dwellings in England and Wales—about 3.9 per cent. of the total housing stock-as "vacant on census night ".

Information about vacant council dwellings in England and Wales is obtained annually from the Department's relets inquiries. The results for 1975 show that on 31st December about one-half of 1 per cent. of local authority housing revenue account dwellings—that is, approximately 25,000—were vacant and available for letting. About a further three-quarters of 1 per cent.—approximately 38,000—were vacant for modernisation, repair or conversion.

Mr. Atkins

Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a large number, which causes considerable hardship in view of the long waiting lists, and is a waste of national wealth from the point of view not only of the deterioration of property and all that surrounds it but also of unused national assets, a waste that we can ill afford as a nation?

Mr. Freeson

If properties of any kind in whatever ownership are left empty for any length of time, what my hon., Friend has said is correct. However, he will appreciate that the kind of figure that I have quoted or, indeed, the kind of figure that could emerge from a census taken at any point in time is, as it were, a photographic figure of the position at that time. It does not necessarily follow that the 675,880 dwellings empty on census night in 1971 were empty for the long time that would give rise to the problems to which my hon. Friend has referred. Many would be changing hands on the market. This is a very small percentage in national terms. However, I take the central point that my hon. Friend is making, irrespective of the particular figure. I am concerned about that, and we are seeking to do everything we can to encourage local authorities to undertake more than simply purchases of properties lying empty on the market and more speedy means of reletting and modernisation or repair of properties, and to undertake leasing arrangements. [interruption.] This is not a question of relets. It is a question of the handling of properties that stand empty in local authority ownership and in the ownership of private owners. We are seeking to press and encourage them to undertake leasing arrangements, which they are doing in increasing numbers.

Mr. Heseltine

Will the Minister understand that he is widely regarded as the most complacent Minister for Housing since the war? The fact that he can say to the House that the present situation, in which nearly 700,000 homes that would have been available for letting are now unoccupied, is something that he can take with equanimity is intolerable. His Government's policy is worsening the position in regard to houses available for letting, and his position at the Dispatch Box—" looking al this" and "talking about that"—is worsening the problem, about which he should be proposing action and not merely words.

Mr. Freeson

A little more homework would not go amiss, I think, nor would a little less rhetoric in the form of questions. As a matter of fact, I have made no statement such as the hon. Gentleman has attributed to me. Let me make the point, for what it is worth, that the census figures that I have quoted were made available in 1971, and I do not recall that a Labour Government were in office then or during the two years that followed.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

I must be fair to others with Questions on the Order Paper. Mr. MacGregor.