HC Deb 26 May 1993 vol 225 cc911-3
7. Mr. Hargreaves

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will list the 20 local authorities with the highest number of empty council homes.

The Minister for Housing, Planning and Construction (Sir George Young)

At the risk of spoiling a game that I know the House enjoys playing, I shall say in advance that the 20 local authorities with the highest number of properties empty for management reasons at 1 April 1992—whose names I shall shortly read out quickly—are, with two exceptions, controlled not by the Conservative party or the Liberal Democrats, but by the Labour party. They are: Manchester, Hackney, Sheffield, Southwark, Newcastle upon Tyne, Liverpool, Lambeth, Birmingham, Leeds, Tower Hamlets, Salford, Wolverhampton, Walsall, Brent, Bradford, Kirklees, Nottingham, Bristol, Camden and Islington.

Mr. Hargreaves

My hon. Friend said that the authorities were predominantly Labour controlled. Does he agree that the list shows that the problem is one of mismanagement, once again? One way to correct the management would be for local authorities not to use direct labour organisations to carry out their repairs.

Sir George Young

My hon. Friend is right. Those figures relate to properties that are empty for management reasons and exclude properties that have been empty for other reasons. There are ways in which local authorities can make progress. The. Housing and Urban Development Bill, which is now before the House, will oblige local authorities to put housing management out to compulsory competitive tendering, which will benefit tenants by providing higher standards of service than many of them have to put up with at present.

Mr. Betts

Is it not time that the Minister stopped using spurious and bogus figures? Should he not use figures to show the percentage of vacant properties, not absolute figures which do not take into account the size of the housing stock? Should he not use figures that do not include properties to be demolished or to undergo major refurbishment? Is the Minister aware that Sheffield has 1,800 vacant properties, of which 500 are due for demolition and 300 are due for major refurbishment? Once those are taken out of account, it means that 1.4 per cent. of the authority's properties are vacant—less than the 2 per cent. Government target figure. Is it not time that the Minister praised authorities such as Sheffield instead of condemning them as he does?

Sir George Young

The hon. Gentleman was not listening to the answer that I gave. The figures that I have given relate to properties that are empty for management reasons and exclude properties that are about to be demolished. I shall answer questions that are tabled. The question tabled today asked me to list the local authorities with the highest number of empty council houses, and I answered that question. If the hon. Gentleman wants to ask for percentages, he should do so—then he will receive the answer.

Sir Anthony Durant

I note that Lambeth once again appeared on that list—what can the Government do about the council? I am a resident there and the council has railed to collect £173 million in taxes. Is it not time to put in commissioners to sort the place out?

Sir George Young

I hope that my hon. Friend will join me and other Conservative Members when, in less than 12 months' time, we go around the streets of Lambeth to bring home to the residents exactly what the present administration is costing them and persuade them to vote for Conservative councillors who will run Lambeth extremely well, as they did from 1968 to 1971.

Mr. Soley

The Minister says that the problem is due to incompetence. What does he say to the Conservative Government, 13 per cent. of whose properties are empty? When I first drew attention to the matter several years ago, 16 per cent. were empty. Of the empty properties, 18 per cent. belong to the Department of the Environment—the Minister's own Department. In Biggin Hill, boarded-up houses belonging to the Government are up for sale, so depressing the housing market, while Conservative Bromley council has forced taxpayers to put their hands in their pockets in order to keep people in unsatisfactory temporary accommodation. Why do all of us have to pay for the most incompetent landlord of all—the Government—13 per cent. of whose properties are empty? The Government make homeless people and taxpayers pay for the disgrace of homelessness.

Sir George Young

The Department of the Environment has 20 empty properties. The hon. Gentleman cannot seek an alibi for the incompetence of Labour-controlled local authorities by sheltering behind the Ministry of Defence, which owns properties for the use of service men and their families and which, for operational reasons, must keep a number of vacancies. Local authorities build houses for people in housing need and they have no operational excuse for the high number of voids to which I just referred.

Dr. Spink

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the top 10 councils have 11,000 empty properties between them? That is more than double the number of homeless people in London and the south-east of England. What pressure will my hon. Friend put on councils to bring those properties back into use?

Sir George Young

My hon. Friend makes the valid point that 7,500 families could be taken out of bed-and-breakfast accommodation if more local authorities were to act responsibly and efficiently and manage their homes more effectively. The subsidy system does, indeed, put pressure on local authorities to reduce the number of voids. If one looks at the progress that has been made over the past three or four years, one sees that the pressure is now working and that the number of voids is coming down.

Mr. Straw

Is the Minister aware that, with regard to the proportion of homes available to let, or available to let after minor repairs, five of the worst 10 authorities are Conservative controlled? They include the London borough of Redbridge. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about appalling housing management in central Government—let us for a moment forget about the Ministry of Defence—let him consider the Department of Health's 14,000 homes that are empty, 15 per cent. of the total, and the Department of Transport's 666 homes that are vacant, 20 per cent. of the total.

The hon. Gentleman likes to lecture local authorities. When will he lecture Conservative Ealing, in his constituency, which has a higher proportion of empty homes available to let than have Blackburn, Sheffield, Coventry, Salford, Manchester and 330 other councils? The Minister ought to put his own house in order before lecturing others.

Sir George Young

Of all the spurious statistics I have ever seen, the list that the hon. Gentleman published this morning takes the biscuit. I am surprised that he was able to keep a straight face while asking that question. Of his top five worst councils, four have transferred their stock to housing associations, and four, between them, have 13 empty houses. According to the hon. Gentleman's twisted logic, those four authorities are worse performers than Lambeth, which has 1,000 voids. The hon. Gentleman tests the credulity of the House and of the country if he seeks to persuade us that Suffolk, Coastal is less efficient than Hackney or Lambeth.

Mr. John Marshall

Will my hon. Friend note that Hackney, Lambeth and Liverpool councils, all of which are on his list, are examples of extreme corruption? Is not it high time for a royal commission to investigate corruption in local government under socialism?

Sir George Young

The remit of any such commission would be far wider than the humble responsibilities of the Minister with responsibility for housing. However, I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State will take note of my hon. Friend's suggestion.