HC Deb 11 January 2000 vol 342 cc139-40
9. Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

What measures his Department proposes to take to help those local authorities with large numbers of empty houses in the (a) private and (b) public sector. [103260]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin)

My Department is supporting the work of the Empty Homes Agency. We are also considering the recommendations of the report of the unpopular housing policy action team into the causes and consequences of low demand for housing in some areas.

Mr. Pike

I thank the Minister for that answer. I am sure that he will know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning wrote to me last week suggesting his willingness to come to Burnley to examine the problem of empty houses. Unfortunately, my hon. Friend was taken into hospital on Friday, but I am glad to hear that he is now at home. I am sure that we all want to extend our good wishes for his speedy recovery.

I thank the Government for their help with the residual debt problem with public sector housing. My hon. Friend the Minister will know that Burnley has 3,000 empty houses in the private sector. The cost of demolishing them is large and there is no site value afterwards. That is causing major ripple effects throughout the whole housing sector in Burnley. I know that that problem is not unique, but councils, such as Burnley, need Government help to try to solve it.

Mr. Mullin

I am glad to report to the House that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning is now well on the way to recovery.

I have the greatest sympathy for the situation in which councils, such as Burnley, find themselves, Sunderland, the city that I partly represent, has a similar problem. There is no single answer. Each local authority has to devise its own strategy, but some selective demolition is inevitable. That nettle must be grasped. When doing that, it is important to consult residents and all those whose interests are directly affected.

A big reduction in greenfield planning permissions and a better use of brownfield sites is another thing that would help. It never ceases to amaze me that many authorities—I shall name no names—that have serious problems with derelict housing in the inner cities are still granting greenfield planning permissions simultaneously. That only exacerbates the problem.

On the promise of my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning to visit Burnley, I am sure that he will do so at the first available opportunity.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

The whole House will wish to join in sending best wishes to the Minister for Housing and Planning.

Is it not clear that the simplest and most direct measure to deal with the problem of empty homes is to reduce the level of VAT on home refurbishments and repair, as has been sought by Lord Rogers of Riverside, the Empty Homes Agency, housing associations and local authorities? Will the Minister note that, last September, the French Government reduced their VAT on such refurbishment and repair to 5 per cent., with full European Union consent? Is not that an excellent example of the downward harmonisation of taxes that the Government could adopt rapidly?

Mr. Mullin

It was of course a measure that the right hon. Gentleman's Government could have adopted at any time over the past few years. We are well aware of the recommendation made by the Rogers committee, but it is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is being considered.

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

Will my hon. Friend consider another aspect of the problem of empty local authorities properties? In the London borough of Wandsworth, countless properties throughout the borough are empty and boarded up solely to be sold. An enormous number of people live and have roots in the borough, but they have no opportunity to obtain local authority housing because it is sold to people who have no links whatever with the borough.

Mr. Mullin

The practice that my hon. Friend describes only exacerbates the serious problems of housing shortage in London and especially for those on low incomes. The quicker that such housing is brought back into use—and preferably for those on lower incomes who cannot afford the huge prices that are being paid for property in London—the better.