HC Deb 18 January 1995 vol 252 cc694-5
4. Mr. Cohen

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many people are on waiting lists for council housing; and what action he will take to provide housing for them.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robert B. Jones)

On 1 April 1994, there were some 1.1 million applicants—the lowest figure recorded since information was first collected in 1986.

Mr. Cohen

Are not the Government proposing to make it harder for people to join housing waiting lists and to obtain the homes that they need? The demand will still be there, but people will be told that they cannot get on a waiting list and have no chance of rehousing while the Government claim, as the Minister just did, that they are getting waiting lists down. Is not the real problem shortage of supply? Ministers like to make comparisons with the last Labour Government. In the final year of the Labour Government, there were 107,000 starts on homes to rent, but next year the figure will be down to 20,000. Does the Minister accept that if starts returned to the level under the last Labour Government more people would be decently housed?

Mr. Jones

We do not share the hon. Gentleman's obsession with that form of tenure. It is right and proper that there should be a choice of tenure which reflects the aspirations of the public. The waiting list in the London borough of Waltham Forest has fallen by 20 per cent. in the last two years.

Sir Anthony Durant

Can my hon. Friend say how many empty council houses there are in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Jones

There is a substantial number of empty council houses, and we have been working with local authorities to make sure that they are brought into use. Under-occupied and vacant council housing means that people do not get homes that they might otherwise obtain.

Mr. Matthew Taylor

Does the Minister accept that there are particular problems with homelessness in rural areas, especially where house prices are high due to an influx of people who work elsewhere or who wish to own second homes? Such areas are particularly worried about cuts in the housing association programme, which mean that some associations will be unable to build any new homes in the coming years. At the same time, many councils are unable to build and have sold off a large proportion of their already low housing stock.

Mr. Jones

The Housing Corporation programme provides for a top slice for rural housing, which we have maintained as an important ingredient. The challenge for rural local authorities is the same as that facing authorities in general—to use their stock to best advantage, which means that they, too, must have proper strategies to deal with under-occupation and to command what available lettings there are in the private rented sector.