HC Deb 16 July 1997 vol 298 cc329-50

11 am

Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw)

I thank Madam Speaker for making time available for a debate on this important national problem.

After the miners' strike of 1984–85, the previous Government instructed British Coal to sell its stock of houses. At that time, it owned 165,000 or 170,000 houses of different types that had been built at various times in colliery areas. In 1984, parts of some of the older villages were put up for auction to any speculator who would buy them.

The houses were first offered to the miners. Many of them purchased their homes, even though the pit was closing. However, many elderly miners did not want to buy their houses, because they were 50 or 60 and not in the best of health, so they carried on renting. The houses were sold en bloc in many areas throughout the country—south Wales, Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Durham and Scotland. The speculators moved in and snapped up the houses, often for as little as £3,000 or even £1,500 each.

I am particularly concerned about the village of Warsop Vale, on the boundary of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, abutting on to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). A landlord called Dennis Rye bought many houses in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. The area has had nothing but problems since.

The houses in Warsop Vale were built around the turn of the century—probably at about the time of D. H. Lawrence. A D. H. Lawrence film could be made there, with the back ginnels and the back yards. They were decent terraced houses. With improvement grants from the council, bathrooms had been added to the backs of the houses. It was a happy village. There are people of 75 who were born in the village, worked all their life at the pit, married someone from the village and still live there. It was a good community with thriving pubs and shops.

The past 12 or 13 years have been disastrous. The private tenants moved in by the landlords as the pensioners died were often transient residents. Many had been evicted or had left their wives and run off with someone else. The private landlords advertised in the papers for them. The tenants had no feeling for the community, often staying for just a few weeks. Their weekly rent for a small terraced house was sometimes up to £55 or £60, paid by housing benefit. We protested strongly about that, but the Government of the time were in favour of a free market for rented houses and were happy to pay £50 or £60 housing benefit for each house. The area became like a transit camp, and the problem grew and grew.

When the previous Government restricted the rents to more or less what the council would have charged—about £20 or £25 per property—the private landlords decided that the houses were not worth letting. It was easier to let them stand empty and try to make the council take the blame or get a lump sum from the council for the empty houses.

The houses were soon vandalised. Kids threw bricks through the windows and organised gangs moved in to strip them of anything with a second-hand value—radiators, taps or doors. Anything that could be unscrewed was taken. Kids in the neighbourhood, who had no jobs and no future at the pit, as their fathers had had, set fire to parts of the houses. Some houses became infested with vermin. Warsop Vale and many other villages now look like a war zone. Places have been shelled and set on fire and look like houses after the blitz. I lived through the blitz as a little boy and remember seeing some houses inhabited and others left derelict for a long time.

The miners who bought their houses cannot sell them. They have modernised the houses and made them into what we in our neck of the woods call little palaces. Many have double glazing, new doors and central heating. They are unsaleable because of the empty houses next door that have been set on fire, have rats or are vandalised. The whole place is in a terrible state. European grants have been given to some villages to renew the pavements and the lighting, but there has been nothing for the housing.

It is impossible to attract new industry. Anybody thinking of setting up a new factory looks at the housing and the wreckage and moves elsewhere. There are so many empty sites available in pit areas that people can take their pick. There may be subsidence problems in the area because of the old pits. People whose families have lived next to a colliery for 100 years, with heavy lorries going back and forth, klaxons sounding at night, night shifts and dust from the spoil heaps now have to put up with the houses turning into slums.

In addition, the Fitzherbert estate now wants to move in and quarry for thousands of tonnes of limestone, as do Tarmac, Redland and any other company that knows that it can enhance the value of the old pit site by £1 million simply by getting planning permission for limestone extraction.

We are talking about people who have suffered all their lives. They have no hopes unless the new Government take action. I have been going to the village for many years saying that we need a new Government and new policies.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, because of the rundown of the villages, amenities such as thriving shops, pubs and telephone kiosks to which he referred have been lost? The old people who made the village no longer have those back-up amenities. That is a further problem for them, adding to my hon. Friend's argument that something should be done for such communities.

Mr. Ashton

My hon. Friend is right. The pub in Warsop Vale has shut. The post office shut and reopened as part of a grocer's shop. Bus services are poor. Elderly people are trapped in their houses, unable to get to a supermarket. It is like a backwater of Kentucky.

Five years later, British Coal again tried to auction off the houses, and there was uproar. My hon. Friends the Members for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), for Bolsover, others who want to speak in today's debate and even some Tories, protested strongly at the inhumane attitude of auctioning off people's lives. The Government agreed and told British Coal to sell houses to housing associations.

Later types of houses, made from concrete slabs, which were built in 1947 because miners were coming down from Durham and Scotland, are now in the hands of housing associations, but they have problems. Many of them need repairs. The iron bar that runs through the concrete slab is often rusted or rotten. Some miners bought such houses, but now find that they are stuck with them because building societies say that they do not have a long life and they will not provide mortgages on them. The housing stock is not very good at all, although I must say that the housing associations that took over the houses have been excellent landlords, and the scheme has worked in that respect.

The landlords who bought the houses for about £1,500 each have made enormous profits. They have managed to take in rents of £50 or £60 a week for 10 or 12 years, while spending negligible amounts on the houses. Now that they realise that they cannot get such rents, they want to sell the houses to the local council for about £17,000 each.

So, along with one or two other private landlords, Mr. Dennis Rye in Warsop Vale, who bought 80 houses, 20 of which have been vandalised and are standing empty, wants to take about £1 million out of the small village of 280 houses. The modernised houses with two or three bedrooms, an attic and a bathroom, which have had grants spent on them and on which many people have spent a lot of money, still sell for only £21,000 each. In London, the same houses would go for £80,000 or £100,000.

The local owner-occupiers and decent tenants have been very angry for many years. Reports have been produced and there have been meetings, but we have got nowhere. Numerous surveys on housing conditions have been conducted by various officers of district and county councils, but everybody blames each other. We need Government action to get something done.

I understand that the Housing Corporation in the east midlands has a surplus of £3 million, so there is cash available if it is a question of housing associations buying the houses. Three or four weeks ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield and I clashed with the housing associations at a meeting. It seems that they admit that they have the cash but are interested in spending it only on the houses they already own, and are not keen on using it to purchase houses from private landlords and improve such houses. They accept that the Housing Corporation in the east midlands is sitting on the money, but put up strong resistance and display a marked reluctance to taking over houses from private landlords.

The Government have announced that there will be extra cash from the receipts of the sale of council houses, which is very welcome. The announcement was received with acclaim. Obviously, the scheme will be phased in. Local councils have reacted by saying that the money must go on modernising council houses and that they would prefer to spend the cash on their own council houses rather than private rented houses, which nobody wants to touch with a barge pole due to the amount that needs to be spent on them.

There is a problem with the old compulsory purchase powers. When Roy Hattersley was chairman of housing and I was deputy housing chairman on Sheffield city council in the 1960s, the council compulsorily purchased thousands of houses at a time. All that the landlord got was the value of the site. The regulation was simply applied to houses that were unfit for human habitation. I know as well as anybody that they were unfit because I lived in one.

Such houses had lavatories that did not work, they were infested with rats and they were next to belching chimneys and drop hammers. We grew up in such conditions. It was accepted that such houses were unfit for human habitation, compulsory purchase orders were made and the scheme worked—the council built council houses and people were rehoused.

The Housing Act 1985 took away such powers from local councils. Compulsory purchase orders were allowed in certain circumstances, but councils had to pay the market price—whatever it was—and the price had to be agreed with the landlord. Owners are not against selling the houses—they would not mind at all selling them—but they want £17,000 for a house for which they paid £3,000 12 years ago and for which they have charged a rent of £3,000 a year—perhaps they have taken £30,000 in rent in total. That does not add up, and it cannot go on.

In its election manifesto, the Labour party gave an undertaking that council receipts from the sale of council houses which are received but not spent by councils will be invested in building new houses and rehabilitating old ones, and that the scheme will be phased in to match the capacity of the building industry. It quite rightly said that the cash from capital receipts can not only be spent on council houses but can be used for the provision of new social housing in partnership with registered social landlords, for private-sector renovation, for improving energy efficiency and for raising the quality of a neighbourhood by, for example, encouraging or promoting mixed development.

The problem is that there are loopholes in the system. Even if councils had the cash to spend, private landlords would blatantly exploit the loopholes in the legislation. In 1996, the Government introduced the Housing (Fitness Enforcement Procedures) Order. Sections 86/189 and 86/190 should help councils to grab hold of negligent landlords, but there are too many loopholes.

The legal loopholes include landlords being allowed 28 days to start repairs; so they start, and then they stop. The council takes the landlord to court, so he starts again, and then he stops again. Then he does just enough repairs to take the matter outside the law, which covers "substantial disrepair", and says that he has taken the safety measures and does not need to do anything else. The procedures include vague clauses such as the council has to be "minded to take action"—whatever that might mean—and "give fair warning" that it is thinking about taking such action. If the landlord does not do something, the council thinks about it a bit more.

The maximum fine is £2,500. Private landlords laugh at that. It is an offence if somebody intentionally fails to comply with the council order, but it is very difficult to prove such intention in court. Did the person deliberately not comply, not understand the order or employ contractors who went off moonlighting, or could the contractor not find his tools? Usually, the contractors are part of the landlord's business, anyway. The system is full of loopholes, and is not working.

We have a new Government commitment to license landlords of houses in multiple occupancy, which is very good. Such landlords should have to apply for a licence to run houses. There are already thousands of problems with students who are being ripped off and who have to take out massive student loans to pay £40 a week for one room to somebody they do not know or cannot find and who is not implementing any safety measures such as providing fire escapes.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider licensing not only houses in multiple occupancy but any dwelling or property where a landlord deliberately keeps it empty or uninhabitable in order to try to put pressure on the council, do a deal, or simply because the property is going up in value. Any house that is boarded up—even if the landlord cannot be bothered to board it up and squatters are allowed in—should be licensed. The existence of such houses is unfair on tenants who live next door, have mortgages and have spent money on their house, but cannot sell it because it looks straight across at a slum with smashed windows where kids run in and out.

It is estimated that 20 per cent. of private rented property is unfit or uninhabitable.

We should introduce new offences. It should be a separate offence for a landlord deliberately to refuse to maintain a house in fit condition for habitation. We should say that no landlord is entitled to receive housing benefit if he refuses to carry out repairs. We should also prohibit landlords from increasing rents if they refuse to do repairs and we should refuse certificates and licences to such landlords.

We should also pass legislation so that tenants of landlords who refuse to do repairs have the right of compulsory purchase of their rooms, perhaps as a co-operative. If the council has not got the money, the tenants could get together and buy their houses at a price agreed with the independent valuer. If that does not work, perhaps because the tenants are elderly, they should have the right to vote for a housing association to take over from the landlord at an agreed price. Such measures would go a long way towards deterring such behaviour by landlords. We should have a licensing system, and we should strengthen laws that compel decent behaviour from landlords.

Only 10 per cent. of chief environmental officers currently think that the previous Government's Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996 has worked. Only 1 per cent. of them believe that it has improved standards. The Act is deregulation gone mad. The previous Government took away all the regulations and let the landlords do what they wanted.

I do not wish to detain the House much longer, but I wish to put on record the recommendations of the legal experts of Mansfield district council, who have a good approach to the problem. I am sure that the Coalfield Communities Association, which has about 80 members among towns, villages and district councils who share the same problems, agree with the legal experts' opinions.

The experts suggest that the Government should abolish the order made under section 86 of the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996, which is known as the Housing (Fitness Enforcement Procedures) Order 1996; abolish the requirement restricting local housing authorities from specifying the commencement of work earlier than 28 days from the date of service of section 189 and 190 notices; abolish the provision whereby section 189 and 190 notices are suspended on appeal; introduce a fast-track appeals procedure for Housing Act action; change the level of fines that can be awarded on successful prosecutions for failure to comply with sections 189 and 190 to a minimum of £1,000 and an unlimited maximum; change the mens rea of section 198A offences from "intentional" to "without reasonable excuse"; introduce a new provision whereby people commit a summary offence if they fail to maintain their dwelling in a condition fit for human habitation without reasonable excuse; introduce a new power to allow local housing authorities to make control orders on properties that are not houses in multiple occupation; introduce a licensing scheme for all private lettings; introduce a provision under which landlords are not entitled to increase rents unless a certificate from the local housing authority states that the property is fit; introduce legislation to enable aggrieved private tenants to purchase compulsorily their houses collectively or to vote to transfer to a registered social landlord who would buy at the district valuer's valuation; simplify and accelerate compulsory purchase powers; and, finally, introduce legislation whereby housing benefit is payable only to approved landlords.

I am sorry that I have not had the chance to notify the Minister of those points, but the council's legal experts delivered their opinion to me only yesterday. I thank him for giving his time to listen to the debate and I know that many of my hon. Friends wish to speak. I am certain that the Government, if they go about it the right way, can solve the problem.

11.23 am
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) for initiating the debate today. The problems he has described are mirrored in all the coalfield areas, as exemplified by the fact that several of my colleagues are here today to speak on the issue. My hon. Friend gave a list of suggestions by Mansfield district council. Its environment department is certainly at the sharp end of dealing with the landlords who cause problems.

One particular landlord in my area has already been mentioned—Dennis Rye. He has got houses all over the place, including Yorkshire, and I reckon that he has houses in 12 or 15 constituencies. He has spread his net far and wide. In the Pleasley area of Bolsover, which is not very far from Mansfield, Dennis Rye owns some 70 houses. In 1987, he decided to apply for grants, and Bolsover district council agreed to give him grants to improve the houses. Dennis Rye then decided that he wanted grants to make the properties into flats to make more money. The council said that he could have the money, but he appealed against that decision. That dragged out the procedure.

Some years later, Dennis Rye said that the properties should be demolished. So the Bolsover district council, as the Mansfield district council would have done, said that it would put in an order to demolish the houses, which were unsightly and like a bomb site, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw described. What did Dennis Rye do? He appealed against the demolition order. The case went to court again and was dragged out further.

Such cases usually go to magistrates courts, but sometimes to the county courts. Sadly, all the magistrates courts work separately, but many deal with the same small number of landlords. Although my hon. Friends and I are aware of the landlords' efforts in all the different areas, the magistrates, for some reason, are not aware that they are being taken for a ride.

In the 1990s, after Dennis Rye had appealed against the demolition of the properties in Pleasley, the Bolsover district council decided to serve repair notices. We all know the problem with those. The landlord gets a builder to knock a nail in a skirting board and that is enough for the magistrates to say that the landlord has made a start on repairs, even though people are still living in terrible conditions.

The process is dragged out even more. Bolsover district council currently has three outstanding actions against Dennis Rye, but the environmental health department knows that the chances of solving the problems are remote, as it told me yesterday, unless the law is changed in the way suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw.

We all know that the examples in Warsop Vale and in New terrace in Pleasley that I have mentioned are not isolated instances. As my hon. Friend said, many houses were sold off in job lots to landlords in London. I have evidence that, in some cases, groups of houses were sold three times in a month, with each successive purchaser making money from the ribs of miners and their families living in those properties. Eventually, the ownership of the properties ended up in tax havens.

Many landlords have agents in the coalfields. There is an agent in Creswell, a wonderful model village that was built at the turn of the century. Some 200 houses were built in a circle and, at the time, were an example of state-of-the-art building. For many years, while the pit was open, the village had a vetting procedure. The local National Union of Mineworkers and the residents ensured that anybody who took over an empty house was vetted. There was nothing wrong with that, and it gave an element of democracy, but it went when the pit shut.

The Tories—who are not here now, although they were in the Chamber for the previous debate about fox hunting—should understand that this debate is also about rural life. Each of those areas is a village. We are talking not about towns, but about tiny little communities. The Tory Government smashed them as they closed pit after pit. They may not have realised, although I am sure they did, that they took away the mantle of security that existed for the people who lived in those villages.

The net result is that there are no more vetting procedures in Creswell model village, with the result that the houses have been taken over by Villagate Properties, which is based at Westerham, Kent. When repairs are needed, I have to write to someone in Kent, after trying the agent first.

People are coming in from all over the place. My hon. Friend referred to the transient population. About a month ago, some paedophiles finished up living in Creswell model village. I will not go through the details, but they do not live there any more. Action was taken. Least said, soonest mended, but court cases will follow.

I want to stress to the House that the people of Creswell regarded that episode as an insult to them. They had worked hard—the miners at the pit—and now they see all those people coming in and upsetting their community.

I am not saying that everything can be done in next to no time. We have five years, but we do not want to wait for five years; we want to start now. We have a Minister who knows a little about housing. As we know only too well on both sides of the House, not every hon. Member who reaches the Front Bench is well equipped to do the job immediately, but the Minister understands the subject and should be able to make a flying start.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw presented a good number of proposals. Every village in the mining communities is affected. I could go on to speak about Langwith, Shirebrook and many others. They follow a similar pattern. People have been deserted by the previous Government. Their jobs have been taken away, and now they are having to put up with living in communities that are falling apart, with desolation and dereliction all around them, as at New Terrace, Pleasley.

My hon. Friend suggested the action that could be taken, and I agree with much of what he said, bearing in mind that local authorities are spending thousands of pounds going to court. Environmental teams in local authorities should be given the power to work together. They know the landlords who are causing all the trouble. Each local authority is litigating separately, but those who want to do so should be able to take joint action against rogue landlords such as Dennis Rye.

My hon. Friend referred to various housing Acts. Local authorities have the power to take a landlord to court to enforce the repair of properties and maintenance of sites, and the need to clear up the dereliction should be part of the argument for the local authority to exercise those powers.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw about fast-track litigation, although that is a matter for another Government Department. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider that. My hon. Friend also dealt with the licensing of landlords.

For a local authority to enforce a compulsory purchase order, as I understand it, it must be based on housing gain. A local authority should be able to obtain a compulsory purchase order on the grounds that the property is unsightly and a mess—that would deal with Rye, both in Warsop Vale and in New Terrace, Pleasley—or if they can prove that there is constant litigation and that the landlords are using the courts to drag the process out.

I conclude on a more general point, which my hon. Friend may not support immediately. Many of the problems have occurred not just in mining communities, but on a wider scale, because one of the first acts of the Tory Government after their 1979 victory was to introduce the right to buy, which everyone talks about. However, another factor that caused mayhem for many people in our communities was short hold tenancies—the power of landlords to grant three-month or six-month tenancies and then kick people out. That shifted housing powers away from tenants—not that they ever had much power—to landlords. I hope that in the next five years our Government will review short hold tenancies and return to the system of intervention and control.

11.35 am
Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) on securing this opportunity to debate such an important subject.

Like my hon. Friend, I have in my constituency a large number of properties that were once owned and managed by the former National Coal Board, and as in Bassetlaw, the decision to sell off those properties in the Rother Valley, and the clumsy and disjointed way in which the sell-off was handled, has had serious and damaging consequences for several of the villages in my constituency.

The Rother Valley has three estates consisting of former NCB homes—at Aston, Kiveton Park and Maltby. The houses on the estates were constructed using pre-reinforced concrete. They were built in factories and assembled on site. In the 1950s, at the age of eight, I moved into one of those houses, when I moved from North to South Yorkshire.

Because of their flawed design, the houses on those estates have been classified as defective under the terms of the Housing Defects Act 1984. I understand that those provisions are contained in more recent housing legislation. The steel in the houses is corroded because the concrete has let water in. The steel has expanded, rusted and forced the concrete up on the outside. Consequently, no one will loan money against such a house.

The properties were sold off in lots at auction. Various parts of the estates were bought up cheaply by organisations and individuals who had little or no interest in maintaining the estate as a whole. Some properties were sold by the NCB to sitting tenants in the 1970s and 1980s, and were bought back by the local authority under the 1984 Act.

I shall describe the situation at one estate, Kiveton Park, in my constituency. Florence Unity Biby Richardson and Clive Richardson of Wimbledon own 20 of the houses. Great Parndon Investments of Harlow in Essex owns 14 houses. Michael Windle from Skipton owns 40 houses. He also owns houses on the Maltby estate. Paul Wright of Worksop owns 18 properties at Kiveton Park. DetaRock Properties owns four houses, Globe Properties owns one, and Rotherham borough council, having bought back houses from sitting tenants under the 1984 Act, owns 43.

One of the houses on the estate has a great history, as my case work revealed. The landlord proved to be so bad and difficult to deal with that the London solicitors who were acting as his agents eventually gave up on him. They cancelled their agreement with him and refused to deal with inquiries about the property's state of disrepair. I was told by the firm of solicitors to contact the landlord direct—he lived in Baghdad. He, like many other people, had bought the property at an auction in the Connaught rooms. He had seen photographs of the houses, which looked like decent, three-bedroomed semi-detached houses. No one had told him of the concrete construction that had been classified as defective. He thought that he could spend a few thousand pounds and make a profit.

The fragmentation of the ownership of what are called locally the "White City" estates was only the beginning of the present problems. Although some money is available to make the necessary repairs and correct the building faults of some of the houses, that money is too slow in coming through. When it arrives, the piecemeal way in which it has to be used can itself be a contributory factor in the decay of the estates. I shall return to that thought at the end of my speech.

The Housing Defects Act 1984 allows local authorities to buy such properties from their owners, but it does not fully cater for the circumstances on the former NCB estates. Rotherham borough council was reluctant to buy the residents out, because it had never previously owned the stock and did not consider itself responsible for the situation. The Act made the council responsible, but it showed great reluctance, and I had a public falling out with it about how quickly it should respond and buy the properties back.

While the wrangling about the status of the houses continued, many of them fell into disrepair, and even dereliction, as they became empty. Many hon. Members will know that, when a property becomes empty, that can be the beginning of a steep downward cycle in its useful life. Properties that are empty for any length of time tend to fall into serious disrepair.

With the former Coal Board houses, disrepair can be brought about even more quickly by the new absentee landlords who refuse to take their obligations seriously. Last month, I received from an environmental health officer at my local council a letter that highlights one of the problems: As houses become empty they are vandalised and frequently set on fire … Since March, I have served a stream of Statutory Notices on two landlords to make such houses secure. Most recently, two properties on one road have been boarded or bricked up following such action. One by the Council in default. My local council has thousands of pounds outstanding because it has had to take action to protect the interests of the people who live on the estates, especially in terms of the safety of young children. It has spent thousands of pounds because we cannot get the landlords to act responsibly.

Empty and derelict properties also become targets for theft, especially on the estates, where metal fixtures and fittings are sold for scrap. The latest craze on one of the estates is the removing of drainage covers, despite the fact that they are heavier than some of the inside fittings. Of course, the open manholes then become a health and safety hazard. They get filled with rubble, which blocks the drains and causes further environmental health problems.

In some cases, the problems of the estates are becoming so bad that even the infrastructure is failing. A letter from Yorkshire Electricity, which was forwarded to me, says that the company noted concerns about the state of the supply cables, but: There will be a need to take an overview of the best approach to resolving this problem since there are so many interested parties on the White City Estate". That was a reference to the estate on which I was brought up. A couple of years ago I took Jeremy Walker, who works in the Government regional office in Leeds, to see that estate, and showed him the house that I moved into at the age of eight. It was derelict and had been vandalised. People had been in and stolen all the copper, including the main means of stopping off the water. Water was jetting up into the kitchen ceiling, and somebody had thrown an old mattress down to try to stop the flow. The house next door had been burnt out completely, right up through the roof tiles.

My constituents have had to live with those conditions for years. We have had a decade of such problems on the estates, and they are not nice places to live now; they are certainly not like the place that I moved to in 1955 with the rest of my family.

In some cases, fire damage in empty houses means that the only suitable course of action is demolition. However, because of the way in which the bundles of houses were sold, it is never certain that a single landlord will own adjacent houses that may also need to be demolished. An argument is taking place now about one house that needs to be demolished but is attached to another. The landlord refuses to do anything about the situation, so we cannot demolish a property that is causing a hazard on the estate.

On two of the estates a scheme is in place to reinstate properties, and the work is being done by a local housing association. I congratulate the housing association, which is doing some magnificent work, especially in view of the circumstances on the estates. In some parts of the estate, schemes have been agreed to new build by both demolition and reinstatement of homes under the Housing Defects Act.

The greatest problem is that money for the schemes trickles out too slowly to cope with the scale of the problem. A scheme gets going in an area, but the following year it has to stop, because we cannot get the funding from the Housing Corporation to the housing association. My local council, which owns houses on the estates, is giving them gratis to the housing association so that the process of regeneration can take place. None the less, the problem is still difficult.

Perhaps the most important factor is the botched manner in which the former Coal Board properties were sold by the Conservative Government. It means that no one organisation has control of the process of regeneration, and no proper sanctions exist to make the various parties work together.

The lack of co-ordination leads to fire-gutted houses, open to vandalism, being left standing in otherwise tidy streets. It leaves boarded up houses next to well-maintained ones, and means that properties in need of repair are de-prioritised as resources are reallocated to secure properties that, although they are beyond repair, cannot be demolished. That is not right; nor is it a sound use of public money.

While all that is taking place, tenants' associations have been working closely with housing associations and builders estates to improve their own environment. I pay tribute to the tenants on the estates, who have got together and set up tenants' organisations, which are now arguing with the authorities to get things done. Without them, I do not know what would be happening on those estates now.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

We have the same sort of problems in the Rhondda valley, especially associated with such estates, and with unemployment. One of the direct results and hidden charges is the relationship between the scenes of vandalism that my hon. Friend is describing, and general criminality. Unfortunately, it seems that, on some of the estates, the aura and ambience of criminality will not be overcome in this generation. A long-term effect on the community has been created.

Mr. Barron

Yes, I am sure that that is right—but today I shall not go into the wider issues, beyond the economics of the estates to their social problems, which are there for all to see.

Will the Minister have the time to come to the Rother valley and see for himself what action is required to speed up reinstatement and regeneration of the former Coal Board houses? I believe that action must have two main elements.

First, the sloppy handling of the sale of the houses must be rectified. There must be some mechanism to require the various owners to work together better. I do not know whether that should be through some form of compulsory purchase, but it must be done. Public money is being spent in a "patchwork quilt" way because of the ownership of the houses, and that is not good public investment for the future. None of us would choose to invest the money that we, as taxpayers, are investing in the estates in that particular way, but at the moment we have no choice because of the major problems caused by multi-ownership.

Secondly, we need to tackle the skewed system of resourcing repairs and renovations. That means putting in place a better and more coherent system for releasing money to reinstate properties. More money, in bigger blocks and more regularly paid, is needed if the estates are to recover their former prestige.

There is no doubt that the work now being done is improving the estates. The problems are slowly being solved. However, that work throws up questions about how landlords, who are not eligible for current grants, can fit in with the regeneration schemes. Some of them sit and do nothing. All they want is the rent from the properties, yet we as taxpayers may be spending money through housing associations on the house next door, to reinstate it and give it a 30-year life against which money can be borrowed. That is not common sense. If the Minister visits my constituency, I hope that he will address that issue.

Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw for bringing this important matter before the House. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be positive and get out of the ways of the previous Government—ways that caused many of the problems on the estates.

11.49 am
Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) for making this debate possible. I am pleased to follow my hon. Friends from coalfield communities who have spoken graphically of the pain and anger in those communities in Nottinghamshire and throughout the country.

There is no doubt that we have had 18 wasted years. Coalfield communities feel strongly that the previous Government buried the coal industry and tried to walk away. My hon. Friend the Minister should be aware that there are high aspirations for what the new Government can achieve for those communities.

People in coalfield communities are characterised by a continual desire for improvement: they always want better for their children than they have had for themselves. They want their children to have better jobs and education, and they are crying out for new investment, new hope and a new future under Labour. It is clear that new investment in housing can bring new hope.

I want to confine my remarks to the fairly narrow subject of housing associations. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw and others spoke of houses that have fallen into private ownership. My hon. Friend made the strong case that housing associations may have a role in acquiring those houses and renovating them. However, at present those housing associations that own ex-British Coal houses have a liability. I want them, as social landlords, to discharge that liability.

We live in a crazy world in which money from the public purse is given, through legal aid, to tenants of housing association houses to sue their landlords. It is absolutely right for us to work with housing associations and put pressure on them to do up their ex-National Coal Board houses.

In the east midlands, 1,800 houses passed to housing associations in 1984, split three ways between Leicester housing association, Nottingham community housing and East Midlands housing association. It was envisaged that they would renovate those houses, but their efforts were stymied because they were denied grant by what I consider a vindictive attitude on the part of a former Secretary of State, Nicholas Ridley. They were told that they had to fund the renovation by the sale of some of their housing stock, which has proved impossible as the housing industry has declined.

Who wants to buy a derelict house in Bilsthorpe or Calverton, say, for £15,000, £20,000 or £21,000? The associations have not been able to achieve those sales to fund the renovation of the remaining stock. We must move towards renovation and lifting the moratorium on grant for housing associations.

In the Newark and Sherwood district council area alone, 320 housing association houses in such places as Bilsthorpe, Calverton and Rainworth need repair and renovation; in the current year, only 23 are being improved. That is a good benchmark of what has happened up to now. In Newark and Sherwood alone, it will take another 16 years to put all the housing association houses back into good repair.

My hon. Friend the Minister should reconsider the moratorium. I know that he is aware of correspondence from Leicester housing association. Let me reassure him that I am not asking for extra money or for new money. I am concerned about the way in which the Housing Corporation spends its money. I know that its east midlands regional office has £2.4 million of unallocated funds for the current year. Why cannot some of that be applied to regenerating housing association properties? That would lever in more funds, and double the amount up to perhaps £5 million.

The situation in the east midlands is not unique; it is repeated throughout the country. We should examine the reserves held at regional offices. More important, let us have fairness, not favours, for coalfield communities. Housing associations want to be able to bid for housing grant. They do not understand why they should be precluded from doing that by a vindictive action of some years ago.

My hon. Friend the Minister is well versed in housing matters, and enthusiastic about energy and conservation issues. The kind of housing of which we are speaking has a national home energy rating of only 3.6; when the houses are refurbished, their energy rating rises to 9. Condensing boilers, new windows and loft and wall-cavity insulation can make them energy-efficient. We should be doing that. People should not have to live in damp and cold houses.

Coalfield communities in Nottinghamshire and throughout the country have high expectations in general, and even higher expectations of the new Labour Government. They want new investment in housing, new hope for their families and a better future for their children. They want the blight of poor and derelict housing to be cleared up.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give people some hope by saying today that he will take steps to investigate the moratorium on grant for housing associations and introduce some fairness for the first time in 18 years, so that they can aspire to a better future for their children and their communities.

11.57 am
Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) on securing this debate, which is important because it gives the House the opportunity to focus on housing in coalfield communities. My hon. Friend referred to the vast number of British Coal houses—the scale is not always appreciated—that were sold off in the 1980s: the figure is between 70,000 and 80,000.

Some dwellings are still being sold off. In the most recent batch, which went along with British Coal's land sales, about 800 houses were sold. Many of them were in terrible disrepair, which is why many tenants did not want to exercise their right to buy. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw touched on another important reason why those houses were not bought by the tenants: many of those who lived in the houses were former miners, some of whom had been disabled in the colliery and could not work; many were retired; and many were miners' widows.

British Coal put the houses on market and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) pointed out, many were bought up by middle eastern business men and have changed hands time and time again, so the tenants cannot always trace the current owner.

The local authorities could not buy because they did not have the money to purchase the housing stock. At the time it was passed on to the market, there was an assault on mining communities. In the 1980s, the Government had a mentality of revenge and sold off houses without giving miners and former miners an opportunity to voice their thoughts on what ought to happen to the housing stock.

Whole villages have been sold off. Two villages in my constituency had a great deal of Coal Board housing—Dodworth on the west side of the constituency and Elsecar on the east. The contrast_between the two villages is clear. At Dodworth, many people were in a position to buy their houses—they were still working in the collieries. In general, the miners bought their houses.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) pointed out, miners were able to express their aspirations—I would say their "individuality", which is rather different from Opposition Members, who would say "individualism". Miners were able to express their individuality in their houses. Anyone who travels through Dodworth on the main Manchester road will see that the housing stock is in good repair and is a great credit to the village.

At Elsecar on the eastern side of the constituency, the former Coal Board housing stock is in disrepair. Recently, the local press has referred to an estate there being like Beirut, as it is so bad. There is vandalism and houses have been burnt down and demolished, yet we cannot trace the landlords to clean up the rubbish. Consequently, the rest of the village sees the area as a dumping ground. That has blighted the estate. People who purchased their homes on the Elsecar estate and spent money to make them look decent cannot sell their properties. As I said, some of the landlords cannot be traced, yet mountains of rubbish need to be cleared away.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw pointed out what needs to be done. He took advice from housing experts in Mansfield. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider relicensing and compulsory purchase so that local authorities can tackle the problem and restore the dignity of those estates and people can live there in decency.

12.2 pm

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

I wish to introduce a Welsh dimension into the debate, although the Minister is not responsible for housing in Wales, to emphasise that this is a countrywide problem. Fortunately, I live in what might well be the oldest mining community in Great Britain. As a result, there is an enormously high level of owner-occupancy. People bought their houses from the Coal Board many years ago. The houses are terraced and 78 or 80 per cent. are owner-occupied, so the problem of large, rundown housing estates with communal poverty is not quite as acute as elsewhere. There are, however, ex-Coal Board estates throughout the south Wales valleys that are suffering such problems.

In the owner-occupied areas, there is a lack of grants for repair, and some of the housing stock dates back well over 100 years. The houses are little palaces. People have taken enormous pride in building up their homes over many years.

On the newer Coal Board and municipal housing estates, we have the problem that has been so graphically outlined by hon. Members from Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire—the fabric of individual houses is deteriorating. As a result of that and the lack of occupancy, there is general deterioration on the estates. As I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), that breeds criminality. The kids have nothing to do and are exploited by the drug pushers, who use the empty and vandalised houses almost as resting places in between the times when they peddle their obnoxious trade. It is not just a housing problem, but an enormous social problem. It is not merely neglect of houses, but neglect of people and communities.

Hon. Members representing mining communities throughout Great Britain have seen the great rundown in our communities in the past 10 years as a result of the previous Government's vindictive actions against the coal industry. We represent areas of enormous pride. We do not come to this place with begging bowls, asking for action to be taken. With the present Labour Government, we are certainly not begging but demanding that action be taken. That is why our communities have stayed faithful to the Labour party for so many years. It is not as though we are on the edge and might be able to sway the balance—not that this Government need that in electoral terms. We have a right to a return from this Government for our communities and the Government will neglect our communities at their peril.

Our communities are proud, and they are not, in general, poverty-stricken. They have produced many leaders. The south Wales valley communities have probably turned out more musicians, poets and writers—I apologise to my English friends for being arrogant. In the Rhondda valley alone, we have six or seven brass bands, four or five of which are of championship standard. Some have won the European championship. We have musicians who are renowned all over the world. Leaders and conductors of symphony orchestras have come from the Rhondda valley and its schools, as have poets and actors.

Throughout south Wales, great names in British cultural life have contributed, through either the Welsh medium or the English language. We are proud communities. All we are asking is that some effort be focused back on to the problems that have been created, particularly in the past 10 years.

The Coal Board and the coal owners before it got their pound of flesh out of our communities. For years, we talked about the masters who lived in London. We want some return. I tell the Minister, and through him his colleagues in the Welsh Office who are responsible for housing: we now require them to do something for our communities. For many years, they have contributed to the wealth of Great Britain. Now, our youngsters—our new generations—require a return.

12.7 pm

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) on raising this important subject. This debate is a supreme example of how difficult it can be to translate the good intentions of politicians into practical solutions. Indeed, it is almost a case study on the diminishing returns of good intentions.

This is indeed a debate about rural communities and the quality of life of those who live in villages built around coal mines that have closed down. When I was a Housing Minister, in the late 1980s, I had the privilege of visiting Mansfield and Bolsover. I still have on my wall a presentation that I received from Bolsover district council showing the Creswell crags.

I am reminded of that visit because I had high hopes following it. I had seen the extent of the dereliction and disrepair that were the inheritance of the nationalised Coal Board. I saw the high hopes of people in those rural communities, who were exercising their right to buy and hoping that housing associations and new landlords would reinvigorate the housing in those areas. It is therefore distressing to hear about the sheer magnitude of the waste of valuable housing resources that the debate has highlighted and of the human misery generated among responsible householders who are locked into a deteriorating environment.

The debate takes me back about 19 years when I was the chairman of a housing committee in a borough that inherited 1,066 empty, vandalised and squatted houses from an old Labour council, which had believed in public housing and despised private investment in housing. That council wanted more and more control and regulation. Those public sector solutions were manifestly unsuccessful in the London borough of Wandsworth in the 1970s. My experience makes me extremely sceptical about some of the solutions that are being canvassed by Labour Members. We hear about more compulsory purchase powers, more penalties for private landlords and more local authority ownership. Such policies are no more likely to be successful in future than in the past.

It was interesting to hear the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) praising the idea of vetting procedures. There was cross-party political consensus for many decades that we should move away from such procedures. I have in mind the old housing associations that used to have vetting procedures. Council tenants in Wandsworth and Southampton used to tell me that, when they first became tenants, they had been vetted and approved. They had demonstrated how responsible they were, only to find that people moving into the house next door were quite the reverse. I am delighted to hear that there is a move back to vetting procedures. They are, of course, entirely at odds with much that is contained in the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977.

I was interested also in the comments about housing benefit. If the benefit were paid at a higher level, it is clear from what the hon. Member for Bassetlaw said that at least houses would be occupied—perhaps they would not be occupied by ideal tenants, but they would be in use. As soon as housing benefit was reduced, landlords said, "It is not worth our while bringing these houses into use." Houses have become empty and derelict as a consequence of vandalism. The message is that, if we try to buck the market, we end up in the counter-productive situation of housing stock not being used when we know that there is a crying need among many people for housing.

This is an important debate, and I look forward to hearing how the Government think they will solve the problems that have been highlighted.

12.11 pm
The Minister for London and Construction (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) on securing the debate, thereby giving us the opportunity to debate a subject of real concern to many people living in former mining areas and in some continuing mining areas. The economic and social problems of such areas are of great concern to the Government. We recognise especially the specific problems that are associated with some of the housing that was previously owned by the National Coal Board.

We have heard a series of disturbing stories setting out a catalogue of neglect and mismanagement. Examples have been presented of communities exploited by unprincipled absentee landlords. That is serious cause for concern, and we are determined to ensure that more effective action is taken to tackle and resolve these problems.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw explained, in the 1980s the Coal Board, under pressure from the former Conservative Government, began a programme of disposal of its homes, which at the time consisted of about 80,000 units. Within the North Nottinghamshire coalfield, about 1,800 were purchased by a consortium of housing associations; others were purchased by local authorities. Mansfield district council holds about 490 former NCB properties. Other properties were purchased by their former tenants, while some were purchased by private landlords, often buying in job lots at auction.

Warsop Vale, the area about which my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw spoke at some length, was built at the turn of the century for workers at the nearby Warsop pit. Of the 200-plus houses in the village, 88 were purchased by Ashfield Nominees Ltd., a company under the Dennis Rye organisation. About 30 others are in the ownership of smaller private landlords. More than half the houses in the village are owned by private landlords. The remainder were purchased by former NCB tenants, who purchased their own homes.

The Government are extremely concerned about the problems of disrepair in the nation's housing stock. In the wider context, we are encouraging local authorities to make every effort to ensure that owners of unfit properties take remedial action without resorting to enforcement powers. Renovation grants and home repair assistance are available at the discretion of local authorities to help home owners on low incomes to improve their properties. However, owners have a responsibility to maintain their own properties, and local authorities are under a statutory duty to enforce the housing fitness standard. We are reviewing the housing fitness standard and enforcement procedures and we shall publish a consultation paper in the autumn.

Authorities have a range of enforcement options at their disposal. Where a local authorities identifies a property as unfit against the requirements of the standard, it must come to a decision and take one of the enforcement options as the most satisfactory course of action for dealing with the property.

These options are, first, to serve a repair notice specifying the repairs required to make the property fit; secondly, to make a closing order prohibiting residential use of the property; thirdly, to make a demolition order or to declare the area in which premises are situated to be a clearance area; and, finally, to serve or renew a deferred action notice. Such a notice specifies the repairs that are required to make the property fit, but shows that no immediate enforcement action will be taken. In reaching a decision about which of these options is the most satisfactory course of action, a local authority is required to have regard to the statutory code of guidance for dealing with unfit premises set out in circular 17/96.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw raised several important technical issues suggested by Mansfield district council that affect its ability to operate the procedures that I have been describing. I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate that, on technical issues of this nature—I received notice only today—it is not possible for me to give him an immediate response. I shall carefully consider all the points that he raised, and I shall write to him.

Some of the properties in the area of which my hon. Friend spoke are now owned by housing associations. About 10 years ago, a consortium of associations bought about 1,700 tenanted properties from British Coal with a mixture of housing association grant and private finance. In the late 1980s, a policy was drawn up to the effect that housing association grant should not be made available for the acquisition, improvement or repair of tenanted stock transferred from public sector landlords to housing associations. The previous Administration refused to review that policy, which therefore made it impossible for social housing grant to be made available to housing associations to carry out works to former Coal Board property passed to them.

I have asked officials in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to conduct a review of the application of social housing grant for the improvement of such properties owned by housing associations. We need to consider the extent to which acquisition costs could reasonably have been expected to reflect the need for future work to the stock. That is why we need some consideration of these issues before reaching a decision. We are reviewing the application of policy and I expect to be able to make some announcement before too long on whether there will be a variation of the previous policy.

I recognise that the problems that concern my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw are predominantly those that relate to properties that are owned by private landlords. In principle, we value a revived private rented sector. It has important and positive role to play in meeting part of the country's housing needs. All too often, it is the sector with the greatest problems of disrepair.

I welcome the fact that many local authorities have established regular liaison forums with the private landlords in their area. These are proving valuable both to landlords and to the local housing authorities, whose job it is to ensure that local housing needs as a whole are met. That sort of co-operative arrangement with decent landlords is to be applauded. It will not work, however, where landlords are unwilling positively to participate in tackling the problems of their area. The Government will have no truck with any exploitative slum landlord who is not interested in providing reasonable quality housing at a reasonable rent.

To deal with these problems, we are committed to introducing a compulsory licensing system for houses in multiple occupation, as the worst conditions in the private rented sector are generally found in such properties. We are drawing up a framework for a licensing scheme so that we can be ready at the earliest legislative opportunity. We expect to issue a consultation paper later this year.

My hon. Friend suggested that the consultation paper should be extended to cover empty properties, such as the derelict homes in Warsop Vale that he described. The Government are not convinced that that would be the most appropriate response, because the licensing of houses in multiple occupation is designed to cope with a situation where a significant number of tenants share the same property and where, as a result, there are particular problems of squalor, and, sometimes, danger because of fire and other hazards.

The issues are very different for empty properties. The licensing framework which we are approaching would not be appropriate for those different circumstances. That does not mean that we are indifferent to the issue of empty properties; indeed, we are extremely concerned about it. I shall say a little more later about our response to empty properties.

I am sympathetic towards the particular problems faced by tenants in Warsop Vale and many other areas. During 1996, Warsop Vale residents association commissioned a survey of properties in the area that were owned by private landlords. The survey, entitled "Stop the Rot", revealed that the wall, floor and roof structures were in generally good condition, but that 36 of the 39 properties surveyed were unfit for human habitation. Of the 23 full internal surveys carried out, 22 of the properties were found to have conditions prejudicial to health and a cause of public nuisance. That was due to a wide range of design issues, disrepair and dampness, creating hazards or conditions prejudicial to health. However, the surveyors noted that, with moderate investment, the properties could provide good-quality housing for many years to come.

I am pleased to know that Mansfield district council has responded robustly to the report. Between January 1994 and June 1997, the council served 30 notices requiring specific repairs to be carried out to make properties fit. Of those notices, 29 were related to properties owned by one landlord.

However, since the publication of the "Stop the Rot" report, Mansfield district council has stepped up its activity and introduced a policy of inspecting six properties each week at Warsop Vale alone. In the past month, it has inspected 19 properties and served eight "minded to" notices, showing its intention to pursue enforcement action. The council is prepared to fund the costs of the repairs and reclaim them from the landlord through the legal system, and informs my officials that it is confident that it can complete the works within the next two financial years. We are keen that it should continue to pursue this vigorous action to tackle the problems.

The problem of empty properties was also raised. I should say straight away that the Government are determined to bring empty properties that are needlessly neglected back into use by promoting good practice by local authorities and tackling underfunding through the phased release of local authority capital receipts. Local authorities have a key role to play in bringing privately owned empty properties back into effective use in their areas. They are best placed to know where those properties are and who owns them.

Local authorities can deploy a wide range of approaches to get empty properties back into use—from advice to landlords who are simply unaware of procedures and the terms under which they might let, to grants or fitness enforcement procedures, to which I have referred. Solutions may require a corporate approach by local authorities, working in partnership with housing associations, private owners, property professionals and other public and voluntary bodies.

I welcome the fact that local authorities in the east midlands region, with the encouragement of the government office, recently set up an empty homes forum to tackle vacancy rates in the region. I hope that it will provide a sharper focus for tackling the particular problems to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw referred.

Another approach to the problems of the properties in Warsop Vale might be for a housing association to buy them from the landlord by agreement, provided that the landlord is prepared to sell at a reasonable price. My hon. Friend suggested that the Housing Corporation has a surplus—I think £3 million was quoted—which could be used for that purpose. That is not correct. The east midlands and eastern regions of the Housing Corporation have between them a reserve, not a surplus, of £3.5 million, but it has been allocated for needs-related expenditure and will be allocated during the year to a number of projects for housing investment. In any event, my understanding is that the landlord is unlikely to be willing to sell on reasonable terms.

That brings us to the issue of compulsory purchase. Local authorities have powers to acquire houses and land, either by agreement or by compulsion, for a variety of reasons. Those include the subsequent transfer of the property to a third party, such as a housing association that intends to provide housing accommodation on that land. In theory, that would enable the council to acquire the buildings and set in motion procedures for their improvement.

Let us not forget in this consideration of a particularly hard case that compulsory purchase is a draconian power, and should be used only as a last resort. Moreover, it is not always the most cost-effective means of solving a problem. It must be for the local authority to decide the most appropriate way of tackling the problem. We do not propose to dictate to local authorities; it is for them to decide the most appropriate solution. However, where other options fail, where properties are left needlessly empty and local authorities believe that compulsory purchase is appropriate, the Government will not stand in the way.

My hon. Friend discussed the issue of valuation and suggested that site value might be a more appropriate basis on which to base compensation. I should explain that the Land Compensation Act 1961 provides that owners of land expropriated by compulsion should receive its open-market value—the amount that the owner would have received had the transaction occurred between a willing seller and a willing buyer in an open market. That is a fair basis for compensation, and it is used worldwide.

It would be wrong to expropriate property without any compensation—compulsory purchase order procedures do not provide for that—but we should bear it in mind that, in the instances that we have been considering, open-market values could be very low indeed, possibly even lower than the site value, where the property is derelict and where costs are associated with clearing the property if it cannot be used. It is not necessarily an advantage to value properties for compulsory purchase on a site valuation basis. The open-market valuation for derelict properties may be very low indeed.

The problem with many of the options that I have described is the resources available to local authorities to be able to carry out necessary works. We recognise that, under the previous Government, resources provided for housing were cut savagely year on year. The Government are committed to redressing the chronic under-investment in housing. That is why, immediately after the election, we made a capital receipts initiative one of our priority actions. Under the initiative, we are providing local authorities in England with an extra £174 million this year and an extra £610 million next year.

These resources will be directed at housing and associated regeneration needs, and will be available for both public and private sector housing. I should stress, however, that in the first instance it will be for individual authorities to determine where the local needs and priorities lie and to direct resources accordingly. We do not propose to impose a rigid central diktat on the application of the resources, but we expect authorities to apply them efficiently, economically and effectively. We have consulted on this matter.

A consultation paper has been issued. We will listen to the responses. If local authorities in the areas that we have considered this morning believe that it would be appropriate for those resources to be used to help to bring back into use properties that are neglected and to raise the standards of derelict and sub-standard properties, it is my view that that would be an appropriate use of the capital receipts released.

A number of my hon. Friends spoke in the debate. I do not have time to refer in detail to all the comments. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) highlighted problems relating to Pleasley and Creswell, in his area. Those are similar to the problems of which we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw.

We shall take a detailed look at the problems raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover, relating to weaknesses in the current procedures under which local authorities wishing to enforce the law are frustrated by delays caused by landlords. As part of our review of the fitness standard and the enforcement procedures, we will consider the points raised by my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) highlighted problems in properties on estates in Aston, Kiveton Park and Maltby that were sold by auction and acquired by owners with addresses as far away as Wimbledon and even Baghdad. He revealed a deplorable catalogue of neglect and dereliction. We are keen to see action in his area, as elsewhere, along the lines that I have outlined.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. We must move to the next debate.