HC Deb 08 February 1984 vol 53 cc877-8
15. Mr. Alton

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what steps he intends to take to reduce the number of empty houses in the public sector.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir George Young)

Measures available to councils to bring back into use vacant dwellings are set out in the Department's report "Reducing the Number of Empty Dwellings". My Department takes numbers of empty dwellings into account in making housing investment programme allocations. Particular attention was paid to council's bids to bring long-term vacant dwellings back into use in deciding the allocations for 1984–85.

Mr. Alton

Given that the number of empty dwellings, both in the public and the private sector, probably exceeds the figures for people on waiting lists by about four to one, and given also that empty houses can be breeding grounds for vermin, derelict and ugly eyesores and potential tinder boxes, does the Minister agree that it is time to implement the terms of the Bill presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) yesterday? Does he further agree that incentives should be given to local authorities to enter into joint partnership schemes to sell hard-to-let dwellings at a low cost?

Sir George Young

The Government have introduced a number of measures with exactly the objective that the hon. Gentleman outlined. We have encouraged homesteading and made it possible for local authorities to carry out improvements with a view to selling such houses. We have given mortgage guarantees and encouraged local authorities to sell vacant properties at a discount to people on the waiting list. We shall consider the Bill presented by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) yesterday. However, at the end of the day, responsibility for managing the stock rests with the local authorities.

Mr. Chope

Does my hon. Friend agree that the only way of concentrating the minds of many Socialist authorities is to require them to sell by public auction properties which they are not letting at the moment? Will my hon. Friend consider introducing legislation to that effect at an early stage?

Sir George Young

Of course the Government will consider that suggestion. Penalties are imposed on local authorities which leave dwellings vacant for more than 12 months, through the loss of subsidy on the housing revenue account. However, we shall consider further measures to increase the incentive to dispose of vacant dwellings.

Mr. Loyden

Is the Minister aware that the plea of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) will ring hollow in Liverpool, as the Liberal party was guilty of almost criminal neglect of public housing there? In view of what the hon. Gentleman said, will the Minister take on board the fact that the draconian cuts in the housing investment programme in Liverpool will mean that those houses will remain empty and the waiting lists will remain high, with some 14,000 people waiting for public sector rented housing?

Sir George Young

I am not quite sure who is responsible, but on 1 April last year 2,248 local authority dwellings were vacant in Liverpool. Some of the measures that we have introduced do not require investment by the local authority; for example, homesteading and improvement for sale schemes get subsidies from the Government.

Mr. Maples

Is my hon. Friend aware that my council owns more than 2,000 empty properties, costing over £2.5 million a year in lost rates and rents? Is my hon. Friend further aware that one of its main excuses is that such property usually needs repair? Will he consider at least encouraging local authorities to rent empty properties to tenants who are willing to do the repairs themselves?

Sir George Young

Yes, Sir. We have taken into account in the HIP allocation this year the local authorities' proposal for bringing such dwellings back into use. That can be done without substantial investment by the local authorities.

Mr. John Fraser

Does the Minister recognise that some of the older properties in need of repair require disproportionately high expenditure if they are to be brought back into use, and that cutting the HIP programme means that some of those properties will remain empty? Secondly, will he give a greater subsidy where there are disproportionately high costs of repair for old property, particularly terraced property, in some of the inner cities?

Sir G. Young

I cannot accept what the hon. Gentleman said at the beginning of his supplementary question. We have made £2.5 billion available in HIP allocations for the forthcoming year, and that should be enough to make a substantial impact on the number of vacant dwellings that we have been discussing.