HC Deb 19 February 1992 vol 204 cc317-9
5. Mr. David Evans

To ask the Secretary of Stale for the Environment what is the latest figure for the number of council properties left empty by the 10 councils with the most such properties.

Sir George Young

In the latest housing investment programme returns, the 10 councils reporting the highest percentage of their council house stock empty on 1 April 1991 were Liverpool—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Labour."]—with 5,733 dwellings; Manchester—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Labour."]—with 6,042; Salford—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Labour."]—with 2,292; Burnley, 372; Brent—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Tory."]—937, but Brent has no overall control; Hackney, 1,998; Tower Hamlets, 1,895; Knowsley, 1,037; Newcastle upon Tyne, 1,886; and Wolverhampton, 1,347.

Mr. Evans

I thank my hon. Friend for those revealing figures, and congratulate him on all his efforts to rehouse the homeless. Is that not in stark contrast to Labour Members who trade on the squalor and misery of people who are not housed? Their friends in the town halls keep people out of homes and use them to trade and to get cheap votes. When will the Opposition tell Labour councils to open those houses, and get the homeless off the streets and into the empty dwellings that those Labour authorities control?

Sir George Young

There is—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Could hon. Members calm down.

Sir George Young

There is no way in which I can match my hon. Friend's colourful eloquence. He rightly points out that—apart from Brent, which has no overall control, and Tower Hamlets, which is controlled by the Liberal Democrats—the 10 authorities with the highest percentage of empties in their stock are Labour controlled, and about 20,000 properties have been left empty for more than a year. That is an affront to people in temporary accommodation and in housing stress. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that. We must reflect on whether further measures might be needed to put extra pressure on authorities to bring properties back into use.

Mr. Tony Banks

Instead of trying to score cheap points— [Interruption.]—no hon. Member would defend any situation where empty properties are kept unnecessarily empty. We know the Minister to be a reasonable man. Why does he not call in the authorities that he mentioned—there are others—to identify the problems that confront them and which lead to properties being left empty when clearly, a large number of people are waiting to be housed?

Sir George Young

We are not after cheap points, but cheap accommodation. The hon. Gentleman knows that many local authorities could use quicker reletting procedures and faster procedures for the repair and maintenance of properties to reduce the gap between one tenant leaving and another moving in.

The Audit Commission has said that if all authorities did as well as the average, significant reductions could be made in the number of families living in temporary accommodation. Many of the voids are in that category not because of a shortage of resources, but because of weak and poor management. I hope that Opposition Members will use their influence with Labour-controlled councils to improve their performance and so put many more such properties back into use.

Mrs. Gorman

Is my hon. Friend aware of the disgraceful record of Basildon council, which covers part of my constituency, on reletting properties? Is he further aware of the bribe that that council is offering to its tenants in the form of a rent freeze to try to dissuade them from opting for new landlords in Commission for New Towns and council house properties? Will he assure me that he will look into that matter, because Basildon council is simply trying to bribe its tenants before the election?

Sir George Young

I am sure that the residents of Basildon will see straight through any transparent attempt to buy their votes. Many local authorities, including Basildon, could do better. As I have already said, we will see whether any further measures are necessary to reduce the number of properties left empty by local authorities. It is a scandal.

Mr. George Howarth

When will the Minister own up to the fact that the biggest offender in terms of empty property is his Government, who have 31,000 empty properties throughout the country? Instead of all this fake indignation, when will he own up to the fact that most of the local authorities, including my own of Knowsley, have empty properties because they are being held for improvement under schemes in which the Government are involved after 13 years in which they have neglected to fund local authority and other housing stock? When will the Minister admit that it is him and his Government who are responsible for all the problems, including the appalling homelessness that is subsequently caused?

Sir George Young

Most Government property is owned by the Ministry of Defence which is bringing back families from Germany and other parts of the world and those properties are needed for them. There is no way in which one can compare properties built by the MOD for service men with the scandalous performance of a number of local authorities. Such comparison cannot justify that performance—nothing can justify leaving 20,000 properties empty for more than a year. There is no advantage to be gained by Opposition Members seeking to defend the indefensible.