HC Deb 13 May 1992 vol 207 cc611-3
10. Mr. Riddick

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will list the 10 councils with the highest number of council properties lying empty.

Mr. Baldry

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, Manchester, Salford, Burnley, Brent, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Knowsley, Newcastle upon Tyne and Wolverhampton.

Mr. Riddick

Is it not the case that most of those authorities are Labour controlled? Is it not also the case that most Labour authorities also have considerable rent arrears? If those Labour local authorities got their act together could we not achieve a massive reduction in the levels of homelessness in Britain?

Mr. Baldry

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. All those authorities were Labour when the figures were prepared. [Interruption.] The facts speak for themselves. Many Labour councils have a disgraceful record in filling up their homes and collecting rents. The Audit Commission has advised that there is no reason why local authorities should not on average turn round empty properties within six weeks in London and three weeks elsewhere. If those targets were achieved it would release an extra 26,000 lettings in a year.

Mr. Pike

Does the Minister recognise that the largest percentage of those unused properties in Burnley are deck access properties with special problems? Does he recognise that those problems are included in the Burnley city challenge bid? Will he undertake, if he wants that problem solved, to ensure that Burnley's bid for city challenge is approved, or to ensure that a special allocation is given to Burnley to deal with those properties?

Mr. Baldry

Good try.

Mr. Colvin

Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that it is not merely councils which have empty properties, and that the waiting lists in England would be halved if the 650,000 empty private properties came on to the market? Can he say what further steps the Government will take, in addition to those that they have already taken, to stimulate the private rented sector?

Mr. Baldry

My hon. Friend makes a good point and that is why the Minister for Housing and Planning and I are talking to the Housing Corporation, with a view to having a housing association in every region, able to act as managing agents for any owner in the private sector who would like their property to be taken over and rented out. Clearly, it would be all to the good if one could take into account more of that unoccupied property. That is why we are taking those steps with the Housing Corporation to find out how much more private property we can bring into active use.

Mr. Bradley

Yet again, the Minister makes an unwarranted attack on Manchester. The latest figures for Manchester show that half the empty properties have been emptied because it won the city challenge and the Government asked it to empty them. Only 1,800 out of 90,000 properties are management voids, which is less than 2 per cent.—a lower percentage than the Government's own Ministry of Defence stock.

Mr. Baldry

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman looks at the figures. According to Manchester's own figures, the city had 6,000 properties empty on 1 April. What is more, Manchester had 3,785 properties vacant for more than six months—more than 4 per cent. of its housing stock was vacant for more than six months—but the hon. Gentleman has the audacity to come to the House with special pleading without explaining why that number of properties should remain vacant for such a long time.

Mr. James Hill

Is my hon. Friend aware that in a small city such as Southampton during the election campaign I mentioned on many occasions that there were 379 empty council units in the city, when the cry from the other side was that the council could not use the capital receipts? I had to deny that, but no one seemed to register the fact in the Labour council. Now, people are aware of homelessness in the city. Those 379 units could wipe out homelessness overnight.

Mr. Baldry

My hon. Friend makes a good point. There is no reason, as the Audit Commission has advised, why local authorities such as Southampton should not be able to turn round their void properties within three weeks, if they were effectively managed and efficiently run.

Mr. George Howarth

When will the Minister own up to the fact that the worst offenders as landlord of empty properties are the Government, especially with their Ministry of Defence properties? Will he accept that in almost every case that he mentioned, including Knowsley, there are good reasons why those properties are empty, the chief reason being that the Government have cut the amount of expenditure on housing since 1979 by 70 per cent? When will the Minister get out and find out what those problems are all about? When will he do something about them and, instead of indulging in prolonged, unnecessary and counter-productive attacks on local authorities, do something constructive and engage in a partnership with them to provide the resources to bring the properties back into a lettable condition?

Mr. Baldry

The Government already contribute more than £– billion a year in housing revenue account subsidy to the cost of council housing. I find it staggering that, instead of expressing concern about the number of empty properties in their areas and trying to take the lead in ensuring that local authorities turn round their voids more quickly, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) and his hon. Friends come up with an amazing amount of special pleading every time the subject arises. There is no reason why authorities should not be able to turn round their voids within three weeks outside London, and within six weeks in London.