HC Deb 21 February 1978 vol 944 cc1195-6
6. Mr. Grocott

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what is his latest estimate of the number of empty defence houses.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Dr. John Gilbert)

About 18,800 Service married quarters were vacant in the United Kingdom on 15th January 1978. While there has not been time to make a final analysis of the figures, a preliminary assessment indicates that some 6,800 are empty for normal management reasons, an estimated further 4,000 are held for known and possible future deployments within the next four years and some 3,000 will be offered for disposal during the next 12 months. During the last two years, 1,870 have been offered to local authorities on a short lease. A total of 490 have been accepted, 1,030 have been rejected and 350 are still under negotiation.

Mr. Grocott

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we are still talking about 15 per cent. of his Department's housing stock being empty? Does he agree that this is an unacceptable figure, and will he instruct his local housing officials to liaise with the housing departments of local councils in order that these houses can be used to help with housing waiting lists, even if on some occasions this can be done only on a temporary basis?

Dr. Gilbert

I take my hon. Friend's point about working as closely as possible with local authorities, but, as I have pointed out to him, we have offered 2,000 houses to local authorities on short leases and only one-quarter of them have been taken up. Among the problems are the facts that the houses tend to be in small packages, local authorities do not have the funds, and the houses are in inconvenient areas.

Mr. Goodhew

How many of these houses are empty because members of the Armed Forces simply cannot afford to pay the rents because of their abysmally low pay?

Dr. Gilbert

A complex of factors determines whether quarters are empty at any one time, and it is impossible for me to give the hon. Gentleman a precise answer. I accept that accommodation charges would be one factor, but there are many others, including the fact that the trend towards home ownership in the community at large is increasing—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman welcomes that as much as we do—and mortgage rates are lower than at any time in the past four years and lower than when we came to office.

Mr. Stoddart

Is my right hon. Friend aware that 100 of these empty houses are in Wiltshire and that 42 in the area of the Thamesdown Borough Council, adjacent to my constituency, have been empty for more than two years? Will he give us an assurance that he will redouble his efforts with local authorities, because the fact that these houses are standing empty causes a great deal of offence to homeless families who desperately need housing?

Dr. Gilbert

I take my hon. Friend's point. It is difficult for people who are desperate for accommodation to realise why some houses have to be kept open for the Services' needs. My hon. Friend has the advantage of knowing far more than I about the affairs of Thamesdown Council. I shall look into what he has said and write to him.

Mr. Onslow

Has the right hon. Gentleman made any effort to find out how many of these houses are empty because Service men cannot afford the rents? Does he not think that he should have that information?

Dr. Gilbert

We started studies several months ago into trends in home ownership in the Forces, and we are trying to make forecasts for several years ahead of the availability of surplus accommodation so that we can dispose of it as early as possible. Decisions by individuals to vacate married quarters are determined by a complex of decisions by individual families. It is not possible to simplify these matters.