HC Deb 15 June 1999 vol 333 cc149-50
12. Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)

If he will list the number of vacant dwellings in (a) the public and (b) the private sector. [85790]

The Minister for Local Government and Housing (Ms Hilary Armstrong)

Latest estimates, at 1 April 1998, are that there were 100,700 vacant dwellings in the public sector, and 652,500 in the private sector.

Sir Michael Spicer

Why cannot more be done to use existing housing stock, rather than building excessively on green-field land?

Ms Armstrong

The hon. Gentleman has for some time sought to keep a close eye on the matter. As he will have heard, the majority of vacant properties are in the private sector. Most of those properties are vacant for only a short time, while people are seeking to move. However, we are very carefully examining the matter of void properties, as we realise that it is a problem.

In recent years, however, before the Government were elected, the absolute neglect of council housing was the real problem in public sector housing. The consequence of that neglect has, of course, been a decline in the standard of council housing. The English house condition survey, for the first time since it began, identified a decline in the condition of council housing—which was the result of no investment in, or repairs to, council housing. The Government are tackling that problem, and have provided almost £5 billion to do so. We are determined to get a decent home for everyone.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

My right hon. Friend will know that Burnley has one the highest percentages of unoccupied private sector properties in the whole of England, and that that is one of the reasons why it has a residual debt problem in housing stock transfers. Is it not crucial that that problem be solved, so that a ballot can be held, and Burnley borough council will be able to tackle the private sector housing problem—which is largely the result of the previous Government's actions?

Ms Armstrong

My hon. Friend tells a story that the previous Administration always refused even to consider, just as they refused to admit the consequences of their actions. The Government are determined that, in every area, we shall be able to ensure a proper housing supply to meet local people's demands and needs. I reassure my hon. Friend that we are actively examining the problem of overhanging debt in transfers, and that we are determined to find a way forward. I only wish that that work could have started much earlier.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

I thank the Minister for giving those figures, which she was woefully unable to give recently in Committee. Does she agree with the recent Shelter report, entitled "No excuse not to build", which says that there are very large regional imbalances in housing vacancy rates and concludes that current housing and planning policies are failing to provide sufficient good quality affordable homes to meet need"? If she agrees with it, what will she do about it?

Ms Armstrong

The hon. Gentleman needs to consult the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Sir M. Spicer), who was making a very different argument. There is—although it was never admitted before the general election—a highly variable pattern of housing across the United Kingdom. In several parts of the country, there was no attempt to increase economic activity; consequently, there were simply too many houses. The Government are taking action not only on increasing regional economic activity, but on examining the real problem of low housing demand in some parts of the country.

I only wish that that work had begun earlier. We are determined to ensure that houses are used effectively and efficiently, but we must also ensure that each region has the right accommodation to meet the needs of the people who live there so that everyone in the community has a secure, stable home.