HC Deb 24 April 1986 vol 96 cc469-77

'(1) Any person who has been registered on the housing waiting list of a local authority for more than one year shall have the right to occupy any vacant dwelling house owned by that authority which has been vacant and available for letting for a continuous period of at least six months.

(2) The first prospective occupier who gives notice in writing shall be regarded by the authority as the tenant of the dwelling house and shall be liable for such reasonable charges as the authority may determine.'.—[Mr. Rooker.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Rooker

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The clause gives to any person who is on a local authority housing waiting list for more than one year and who can find any vacant dwelling house owned by that authority which has been vacant and available for letting for a continuous period of at least six months the right to move in and make their home in that dwelling house. If necessary, those people will have to give notice in writing to the authority and pay such reasonable charges as the authority may determine for rent.

Throughout the proceedings on the Bill, the Opposition have not and will not move any amendment or new clause which we would not be prepared to move in government. That is a warning not to the Government but to those outside this House, the local authorities. We seriously intend to do something about the outrageous scandal of empty housing. That scandal transcends the local authorities. The new clause relates strictly to local authorities because of the necessary constraints of the Bill.

The last occasion when the matter was dealt with was in the necessary collection of information in April 1985. The information was supplied to me in a written answer on 19 December 1985. It revealed that, although local authorities at that time had 109,000 empty dwellings, there were still 500,000 empty houses in the private sector and there were 19,000 properties which were empty and were owned and controlled by the Government in the public sector.

The Audit Commission's latest report on the management of council housing contains a breakdown of the reasons why these properties are empty. The Opposition accept that there are many reasons for properties being empty—reasons of flexibility, movement, the need for demolition, and repair. However, in March 1984—the date used by the Audit Commission—there were a total of 113,000 empty dwellings. Of that figure 26,000 had been empty for more than a year. Of that 113,000, no fewer than 27,700 were actually available for letting on the local authorities' own admission. Of that 27,700, some 1,900 had been empty and available for letting for more than a year. That figure was not dreamt up by me, by a pressure group or by the Government. That figure appeared on the local authorities' returns for their housing investment allocation bids. That is the figure used by the Audit Commission.

The Audit Commission stresses that it is quite normal, when owner-occupied dwellings become empty, for someone to move out in the morning and someone else to move in that afternoon. That is a normal activity. As I said on Second Reading, it is scandalous that when local authority dwellings become empty someone must go into those dwellings to normalise them, which means that the previous tenants' improvements to the property are ripped out to make all the properties the same. The local authorities which practise that kind of management should know better and I hope that the Audit Commission will sort them out. Someone must sort them out, as the Government clearly are not doing that. I hope that the Audit Commission's proposals on that part of its report are taken seriously.

The Audit Commission modestly proposes that the re-let period should be no more than three weeks. We all know that the average period is a lot longer than that. There could be many improvements in management to help the process of re-letting and not all of those cost money. It is not simply a matter of finance, although I accept that in some areas and properties there is a problem about resources.

I cannot avoid the fact that there are so many properties available for letting. That is not my phrase, that is the phrase used by the local authorities. They say that 1,900 dwellings are available for letting and have been so for more than a year.

Mr. Marlow


Mr. Rooker

The new clause makes it clear that tenants and applicants on the waiting list should have a right to property available for re-letting after six months. We could thereby end the period for which authorities keep empty property. I shall not name the authorities involved as we wish to make progress but I shall raise the matter. We all know which authorities are involved.

If the Government accept new clause 1, that would be a considerable step forward towards ending the scandal of empty properties. Having accepted new clause 1—as I hope the Government will—we could continue to deal with the empty properties owned by the Government and those in the private sector. The policy that keeps those properties empty prevents people from having homes. The Opposition want to make a start to correct that position and that is why I am moving new clause 1 in the hope that the House will approve it.

Mr. Marlow

I find the Opposition's new clause very attractive and it has been well argued. However, can the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) tell me what he means by "available for letting"? The hon. Gentleman gave various figures but it seems to me that there are many houses that could be available for letting which might not at present be defined as "available for letting". I would like to know what the hon. Gentleman's definition of "available for letting" is.

I would like to add a few more figures to those put forward by the hon. Gentleman. The Audit Commission's report is excellent and one of the best that I have seen on the subject. It states that the average period before a re-let in the shire districts is just under 10 weeks. That period in the metropolitan districts is about 13½ weeks and the period in inner London for some peculiar reason is more than four months.

Obviously, if the process of re-letting can be done relatively quickly in some parts of the country, for example in the metropolitan districts, why can it not be done more quickly in inner London? I am sure that the hon. Member for Perry Barr and the Government have addressed themselves to these questions.

Mr. Cartwright

I support the new clause. The way in which it was moved was a much-needed warning shot across the bows of the local authorities concerned. However, there are some obvious problems about the drafting of the new clause which must be resolved before it reaches the statute book.

The hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) identified one of the problems. "Available for letting" is a term of art in terms of housing management. The difficulty in my constituency about many of the properties which stand empty for week after week and month after month is that when I investigate these cases I find that the properties are not technically "available for letting". These properties are awaiting a certain amount of redecoration or repair and are not available for letting in the local authority sense. Many of my constituents on the waiting list would happily move into those properties and carry out the decorating and repair work themselves if it were not for the restrictions that stop them doing so.

There is also a problem about allowing the first prospective occupier who puts his name forward to take the property. Although I do not like the bureaucratic rationing that flows from some local authority allocation policies, we must have some regard to family size and need. Simply to allow a single person or childless couple to take the first three-bedroomed house that becomes available is wrong and poses practical problems. We must address the problem of local authority bureaucracy.

Many of us have found that one of the difficulties is that there are so many different local authority departments involved in housing. A property might fall empty and the estate management team must then examine the property to find out what work needs doing. In my local authority, that means that the property must be referred to the department of architectural and engineering services, which examines the property again. If there is work to be done, that department refers the property to the works department to carry out the work. By that time the property has been empty for months and someone climbs into the property and vandalises it. The process of repair is then suspended for a year as there has been major destruction, fires and vandalism in the property. The result is that the authority must go out to tender for a major reconstruction job.

I endorse what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) said. If the private sector can move so much more quickly to turn around empty property because the meter is ticking and it is losing money, why should the same approach not be applied to local government?

I endorse the aims of the new clause but I have some doubts about its terminology and language.

6 pm

Mr. Powley

I can see some practical and administrative difficulties in the new clause, and no doubt my hon. Friend the Minister will have something to say about that when he replies. The number of empty properties in any local authority has always caused me great anxiety. When I was chairman of a housing committee, I always tried to ensure that the number of empty properties was kept to a minimum.

I was staggered to find that at the end of last year Norwich city council had 652 empty council houses on its books. I am quoting the latest figures that have been made available to me. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) has put a period of six months in his new clause. Norwich city council's report of October 1984 shows that 156 properties had been empty for longer than six months. In March 1985 that had gone down a little to 120 properties, but by September 1985, the latest figure that I have, 170 properties had been empty in Norwich for longer than six months. That is a disgrace.

I can see that there will be some problems. As the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) rightly said—he has great experience, as I am sure do other hon. Members—it is exceedingly easy for any local authority to say that a property that has been empty for some considerable time is not ready for letting for some reason. The front door could easily be taken off, or the fuses taken out of the fuse box, so that the local authority could say that a property was uninhabitable, and it would be right. Unfortunately, some local authorities might seek by such means to prevent a dwelling from coming within the legislation.

I hope that the spirit of the new clause will engender the enthusiasm and the will to put empty properties back on to the market. I suspect that many hon. Members on both sides of the House will confirm from their experience in their surgeries that people who have been on the waiting list for a long time say that if only they could have a property they would do it up themselves at their own cost.

I shall listen to the arguments put forward by my hon. Friend the Minister, but that may be a way of getting that disgraceful number of 170 properties in Norwich back on to the market so that those who are in genuine housing need and have the will and ability to do the necessary work for themselves can be housed. That will ultimately benefit them and the rest of the local authority.

I give the new clause a warm welcome, but I am interested in the technical problems and I am sure that there are some that better minds than mine have thought of. With that proviso, I make those points in support of the new clause.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Powley) referred to 176 empty properties. Since I was elected, my borough has had at all times about 4,000 empty properties, and that is from a housing stock of between 60,000 and 65,000. Despite the massive public awareness of the problem, the massive public pressure on the local authority to do something about it, and the massive repetition of the point which all hon. Members have made that week after week people say that they will do any necessary work, there has been bureaucratic resistance to letting go of the bureaucracy which impedes letting and reletting.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), whose sincerity I do not question, put forward a solution. I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) some scepticism. The hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) and I, and possibly others, have introduced Bills to deal with the problem of empty property in the public and private sectors. There must be a mechanism whereby people can exercise the right, against the local authority that is compatible with their housing need and with their position on the housing list. This last requirement is necessary, because without it the position becomes anarchic.

The terrible problem at the moment—the hon. Member for Norwich referred to it in part—is that if there are a huge number of empty properties, for example, 4,000, with an annual loss of rent and rates of £6 million, as there is in my borough of Southwark, that leads to squatting and then legal proceedings are needed which eventually get people out, after which the properties are left in a terrible state. They are then promptly squatted again.

If the system worked on the basis, not as the hon. Member for Perry Barr said, but whereby there was an estate agency principle for those properties that are clearly hard to let—for example, the top floors of tower blocks in my constituency—flats on these floors could be let to nurses, medical students or students, for example from Guy's hospital or the Polytechnic of the South Bank or to young single people. They could go the housing office and see what was available, put in a bid and provided that they were on the list and priority when dealt with in a fair way, they would be entitled to take up that tenancy. They could either do the work later themselves, or the local authority could do it, but clearly they would not have to wait to take over the property until the series of different local council departmental responsibilities had been either in theory or in practice carried out.

The hon. Member for Perry Barr would probably accept that there is a technical difficulty about the first prospective occupier giving notice in writing. Clearly, that produces a sudden flurry of paper, and the first paper to land on a desk would entitle that person to the tenancy.

What is salutary about the clause is that it makes it clear that there is rarely any excuse—and less in the public than in the private sector—for keeping empty a public asset, destined for housing those in need and those who ask to be housed. But as the problem is more widespread in the private sector, where there are over 500,000 empty properties, we must address that too.

We should be able, through Parliament and local government, to deal with the problem in the public sector. As the hon. Member for Perry Barr and others well know, those who manage their housing stock badly, with massive amounts of empty properties, are more and more paying the penalty for that in simple electoral terms. Without going over the top, I predict that several seats will be lost by the controlling Labour group in Southwark to my colleagues next month, not least because of Labour's failure in Southwark to let empty properties to those in need. People cannot understand how any authority of any colour, which has a reputation and tradition of empty housing, is carrying out its housing duties and responsibilities.

I hope that this message will be well heeded and that local authorities of all colours, particularly the most culpable Labour authorities in London, will respond quickly. Otherwise, they will continue to be in great dereliction of their duties.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge, Brownhills)

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) put fairly what most hon. Members on both sides of the House feel about the appalling mismanagement in certain cases of the allocation of council houses.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Audit Commission's report. That is a rather inspiring document, because there comes out of it some form of hope. The hon. Gentleman could have cited the fact that if the current national average relet period were to be reduced by two and a half weeks—the Audit Commission is of the opinion that that should be readily achievable by comparing the performance of the best 25 per cent. of authorities of all types with the rest—an additional 20,000 houses would immediately become available.

I know that it is easy enough wih every amendment that is tabled to say that there are insuperable difficulties or that the wording is not quite right and that the problem could be addressed in another way, but I urge my hon. Friend the Minister, who I know shares our anxiety about the large number of houses not immediately available for letting, to accept that there must be a way of tackling this. We look to the Minister in the hope that he is able to say that the Government will act to encourage councils, with much more force than they do at present, to make available houses for reletting more rapidly.

Mr. John Patten

This has been an interesting debate. I do not wish to harm the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) in any way, but I greatly admired what he said. He got the debate off to a cracking start.

We all agree that those responsible for public sector dwellings—local authorities or central Government—are doing a disservice to those who need homes by keeping such dwellings empty. I commend the hon. Member for Perry Barr, who gave a free-ranging, non-party political analysis of the situation.

We must approach the debate on two levels. The first is the scandal of empty public sector properties, which we all deplore. I shall not go on about it any more, as the problem has been illustrated all too clearly by the hon. Member for Perry Barr, by my hon. Friends and by the speeches of alliance Members. We must decide whether the new clause will help solve that particular problem.

If the hon. Member for Perry Barr and his hon. Friends, and the Members of the Liberal party and the SDP, are saying that we should isolate those councils which cannot manage their own stock and take some swift dirigiste measures to ensure that their stocks are managed better, I find that, personally and politically, extremely appealing. Somewhere down the line one must draw the line on inept and hopeless management. Exactly how one does that is the problem.

Because of my centralising tendencies, I should like to do something much more vigorous about waste that harms society. I should like to do something much more radical about the scandal of empty public sector dwellings than we have done so far. I do not wish to be bureaucratic and boringly ministerial and say that there are many practical difficulties about the way in which the clause is drafted.

Mr. Rooker

The hon. Gentleman is going to.

Mr. Patten

Seven years in this place have given me sharper hearing than I used to have and, as the hon. Member for Perry Barr has just said, sotto voce, yes, I am going to.

I do not think that the clause would work, as it would be bad law. It is not our job in the House to pass bad laws in the pursuit of good ends. The new clause attempts to force the hands of councils to get something done. The clause refers to "any person" or "any vacant dwelling house". I am sure that no one in this House would intend that a single person should suddenly become the tenant of a four-bedroomed house and the needs of a married couple, with three children, who have been on the waiting list for 10 years, should be overtaken. Who is to say when an empty dwelling which is to be occupied should become available for letting? There are considerable problems of definition.

How would the person on the waiting list stake his claim? The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) had some interesting thoughts on how claims might be staked, and I shall certainly consider them, but how can such claims be dealt with ahead of people who have been on the waiting list for years?

The clause as drafted would introduce a random element of legalised squatting, and I do not think that that is the right way to ensure that local authorities act with determination to get rid of voids. The Government have made clear their concern about empty public sector dwellings. In July 1985 the Government sent a circular to all local authorities on how to manage their stocks better. Good local authorities of all political colours have followed that advice and are managing their stocks better. When local authorities fail to do so, it is due to a lack of political will, managerial incompetence or a combination of the two.

I do not believe that the new clause will help to solve the problem, and in some ways it could make certain problems worse. I entirely applaud the spirit in which the hon. Member for Perry Barr moved the new clause. I also appreciate the thought which my hon. Friends and hon. Members of the alliance parties have given to the matter. Alas, for reasons that I have given, I do not feel that we can accept the new clause. The all-party message is clear to those councils which keep empty flats and houses.

Mr. Marlow

Will my hon. Friend consider the possibility of bringing forward amendments in another place to bring about some of the intentions which have been mentioned in the House this evening?

Mr. Patten

I had not given way but had, in fact, finished my peroration—on a rather elegant and forceful note. My hon. Friend has caught me out before like this, and I suppose that he will carry on catching me out in this way. I think that it would be difficult to draft any amendments within the framework of the Bill which would make homesteading, or legalised squatting—if that is what my hon. Friend means—possible.

6.15 pm

If my hon. Friend is asking me to go very much further in a root and branch reform of the way in which local councils address the problems of empty dwellings and for the Government to offer help or coercion to make sure that they are filled, that is a much bigger task than we could hope to achieve in the Bill at this stage. However, I am sure that all local councils are now on watch. I am sure that the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts), now that I am finally about to sit down, will agree entirely with what I have said.

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

Surprise, surprise, I do not agree entirely with what the Minister has said. I find the Minister's approach to local government typical of the Government's approach. Either the local authority does as it should do, or as the Government think it should do, or the Government will interfere.

The Minister spoke about his centralising tendencies. I hope that the new clause, which has been tabled by the Labour party, will be the hallmark of our method, when we form a Labour Government, of dealing with the problems that are faced when local authorities do not manage their properties well or do not provide the standards that we expect.

The Labour party's approach is to give rights to residents, voters and tenants to demand action or to take action. The pressure would not come from Whitehall and Westminster under the syndrome of "Whitehall and Westminster know best", but legislation would be provided which would put the pressure the other way. Action could be taken through the ballot box, and by individuals and community groups of electors, tenants and residents, and in that way these things could and would be put right. The clause has been tabled on that basis. We are not giving people the right to jump the queue for the houses which are available for people in need. People would not be able to jump in and obtain houses available for letting in advance of their turn as suggested by the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) but would obtain houses which had been standing empty for over six months.

There are 668,000 empty homes in Britain and 105,745 of the stock—2.4 per cent.—are local authority stock. The clause is concerned, not with all those properties standing empty, which include the vast majority available for letting, but with the percentage of that figure which have been empty for more than six months or perhaps for more than 12 months.

The hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Powley) discussed the record of Norwich, but it has a good record compared with many other local authorities. The number of empty houses in Norwich represents 2.7 per cent of its stock, which is below the national average, and it has only 50 properties which have been empty for more than a year. It is those 50 or 100—if one takes the six-month period which is included in the clause —with which the legislation would deal. It is those properties which stand empty unnecessarily, not those which are empty but available for letting, which we wish to give homeless people or those in housing need the right to occupy.

We do not want to give the impression that it is just the local authority sector which is at fault. In fact, 3.2 per cent. of the stock of housing associations is standing empty. According to the Department of the Environment's housing investment programme returns, the amount of privately rented stock that is standing empty is 0.6 per cent. The amount of privately owned property which is available for rent but which has been standing empty for a very long time is much greater than it is in the public rented sector.

Mr. John Patten

I do not seek to defend the Government's reputation, but housing associations purchase and refurbish housing stock for later occupancy by their tenants. The houses and flats which they purchase are caught up in those figures when they are being rehabilitated.

Mr. Roberts

I do not deny that fact, just as I hope that the Minister will not deny that the city of Manchester, which was referred to in the debate on 22 April, has 2,272 properties standing empty and available for letting and that 1,932 of the properties that were included in the figure that he vilified in our recent debate are in exactly the same position. They are void and awaiting demolition or modernisation. If we are to be fair to the housing associations, we must also be fair to the local authorities, including the city of Manchester.

According to the HIP returns, 6.1 per cent. of public sector property that is managed by the Property Services Agency is standing empty. It needs to get its house in order. There are many myths about empty property. If one does not know what lies behind the figures, one cannot understand them. That does not excuse the fact that many public sector properties are standing empty, although they could be occupied, and they would be occupied if this clause was included in the Bill. The clause is imperfect and could not be implemented as it stands, but I ask the Minister to examine it. He has been flexible on previous occasions. I hope that he will agree to introduce a clause in the other place that will deal with this problem.

There are 40,000 people in short-life housing schemes. Many local authority and housing association properties would be standing empty if local authorities and housing associations had not done something about it. They have implemented the effect of this clause, although it is not included in the Bill. Many progressive and radical local authorities and housing associations have repaired properties that were standing empty and let them on licence. The Audit Commission estimates that 20,000 additional dwellings could be brought into use if a clause of this kind were included in the Bill.

The Minister and the Government make much of the fact that empty properties are standing empty. They have every right to do so, but they do not have the right to say that, because properties are standing empty, that justifies their decision not to build new houses. The Opposition agree that it is a scandal that properties are standing empty unnecessarily. They agree that 20,000 properties should be brought into use. However, that is no justification for not building new council houses and modernising older council houses and making money available to deal with the housing crisis that faces this country.

Question put and negatived.

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