HL Deb 12 May 1975 vol 360 cc543-63

3.34 p.m.

Lord STRATHCONA and MOUNT ROYAL rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what action they propose to take on the North Wiltshire District Council Scheme for the short-term letting by the local authority of privately owned accommodation with a guaranteed return to the owner on six months' notice. The noble Lord said: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to speak on behalf of my noble friend Lady Young and to ask the Unstarred Question standing in her name on the Order Paper. I think it is something of a pity that housing is subjected to so much passionate political controversy on all sides. I believe that this is inevitable, and I think that it is perhaps a reflection of the truly fundamental question of the issues involved and that nothing, with the possible exception of having enough to eat, is so basic to our needs as human beings. It is perhaps the reflection of this fact that gives rise to the genuine disagreements which take place. I recognise in asking this Unstarred Question that this is not the proper moment to introduce a general debate on the housing issues, but I think, perhaps, it is useful, first, to try to put the background against which this Question is being asked, in the hope that we do not generate unnecessary political controversy, because there are genuine, very passionately felt disagreements on this issue on both sides. It is inevitable that some of the issues lying behind the Question are issues on which there are disagreements between the two Parties.

If there were no such disagreements no doubt we should not be needing to ask questions of this kind today.

The purpose of this debate is to call attention to a scheme which has been worked out in one of the more enterprising housing authorities in this country. I am happy to say—and this is the last time I shall say it—that it is in fact a Conservative authority. They have introduced a scheme which we believe is of potentially widespread application across the country and it is actually operating at the present time and proving quite useful. My noble friend, when she comes to speak at the end of the debate—because I think we have got into a certain amount of disarray this afternoon on this issue—


My Lords, I must apologise. I did not realise, neither did my helpers, that the debate had started. I think I was looking for Lady Young to enter the Chamber. I hope noble Lords will accept my apologies that I was not here at the beginning.


My Lords, the apology of the noble Baroness is accepted without any reserve on my part. If I may, I will apologise on behalf of my noble friend to the noble Baroness. Hence I think we are going to have to manage this debate slightly back to front. We will do the best we can in the circumstances.

My Lords, to summarise simply what this scheme aims to do, the problem is that we on this side believe that the market for rented properties has declined, largely as a result of some of the provisions in the various Rent Acts. One recognises totally the reason why security of tenure has been introduced in various forms of tenancies. The object of this scheme is to get over some of the difficulties which have been created.

Briefly at this juncture, I will explain how this happens. A local authority is exempt from the provisions of the Rent Acts whereby a tenant is given security of tenure. Clearly, because of their responsibility as local authorities, they are relied on not to abuse this privilege. The fact remains that there are plenty of private landlords who are reluctant to let their premises because they feel that if they once put a tenant in their premises they have lost all flexibility should they ever wish to get him out and obtain the premises for their own use, or because the tenant turned out to be a disagreeable neighbour, or if it came about that they wished to sell the property or to live elsewhere or for whatever reason. There is an element of argument between the two sides. We have said many times from these Benches that we believe the Party opposite underrates the extent to which the market is truncated by this reluctance of private landlords to let.

I do not say this in a politically controversial or contentious sense. I say it because it is important to understand that the purpose of this scheme is to try to get over this difficulty. What happens is that, by virtue of its exemption from the security of tenure provisions, the local authority says to a private landlord: "If you are willing to let your premises for a limited amount of time, we will enter into an agreement with you whereby you will let us the premises and, when you require them, we will guarantee to give them back to you at six months' notice." The local authority then lets the premises to a tenant on the clear understanding that that tenant, because he is a local authority tenant, is not subject to security of tenure, and the local authority therefore is in a position to deliver back the premises when the landlord requires them again.

One of the objections which is made against such a scheme is that the local authority is letting itself in for responsibilities which it may otherwise not wish to shoulder. The answer to that is that it is the duty of the local authorities to house those in their area who are already without accommodation. They have this responsibility upon them already, anyway, and they are merely discharging it in the best way that they can. Clearly, we cannot quantify the number of dwellings which would be brought into use if a scheme of this kind was operating across the country. We on this side of the House believe this will make available more units of accommodation if it was brought into operation.

At this juncture I should like to make one or two special points about the scheme. The act of faith which is involved here seems to be analogous—and I have said this before in this House—to the act of faith which was required when the building society movement was started. On the face of it, it does not make sense to borrow short and lend long. The building societies borrowed from depositors, who have a short term call to get back their money. To lend out that money on a long term basis on mortgages is fundamentally unsound. It must be agreed that building societies have become an integral part of the housing finance of this country on a considerable scale. This kind of situation could operate with short term leases for houses in exactly the same way, and provided there is enough of them in the "pool" a continuous turn round of these properties can be operated.

I have dealt with the question of the additional responsibilities which some people claim the authorities are assuming because they would have to rehouse the people in these properties. Of course, if the alternative is bed and breakfast hostels, or sleeping under the arches, even if you have to make arrangements that you may otherwise not wish to make, this must be a step in the right direction. Then there is, of course, a slight caveat which needs to be uttered. It is important that this kind of scheme should be of fairly widespread application across the country. There is a danger that if one authority discharges its responsibility in this particular important matter—such as the North Wiltshire authority is doing—people throughout the country will say, "North Wiltshire, splendid! They house everybody who turns up there ". There is a danger of a suction effect, of all the under-housed people descending upon the one authority which is doing its best. Clearly, it is extremely desirable that this scheme should operate on as widespread a scale as possible to avoid the effect of bringing in people who are underhoused in other areas.

There is one other point regarding scale which I should like to emphasise. The housing associations are also exempt from the Rent Act provisions. At least in theory it is possible that a scheme of this kind could be operated by housing asociations as well as by local authorities. It is clearly more difficult in their case because they would be taking on obligations which they might not otherwise have thrust upon them. Here again, if the scale is sufficiently widespread, one could believe that this could be a valuable provision. It would be wrong to try to pretend that this modest experiment will be a kind of universal panacea, a deus ex machina, which will, at a stroke, resolve the housing programme of this country. Of course, it is not.

There is a suggestion that the number of units of accommodation we have in this country compared with the population is somewhat similar to what it used to be in the days when accommodation was much more readily available to those who required it. There is certainly a strong suggestion that a great deal of accommodation is under-utilised, and a number of us believe that there is a good deal of accommodation which would be made available if people were not worried about the kind of rigidity and the possible problems which may be imposed upon them if they get into the situation of having let part of their property. In an age when we, regrettably, are finding that the cost of living is rising fast, there are a great number of people who would be glad of the additional income which they might be able to obtain by letting part of their premises.

Here we have a praiseworthy, practical attempt by a forward-looking local authority who have gone into this scheme extremely carefully and have taken a great deal of trouble to survey their area. They are producing practical results. I sincerely hope that when the noble Baroness comes to reply she will be able to tell us not that she and her staff have spent the past few days trying to discover all the possible reasons why we should not do something, but rather the reverse; I hope that she will be able to tell us that the Government smile upon this scheme and will give it all the practical help they can. Conceivably, they might be willing to sponsor some kind of a seminar where the details could be put over by those who have had experience, and where the issue could be discussed, so that it will become widely known throughout the country.


My Lords, the Question is, That the Motion be agreed to.

3.47 p.m.


My Lords, I listened with great interest to the previous noble Lord, and I do not underestimate the enterprise of the authority in Wiltshire. But I also come from a very enterprising authority called Birmingham. I will touch upon a few other matters which the Birmingham authority are dealing with in an effort to take into tenancy more empty houses. I do not want to underestimate the work which Wiltshire have done, but I have read that the Chairman of the District Council, the noble Lord, Lord Shelburne, says specifically that the idea is for short-term accommodation. Short-term accommodation means something of the order of 12 months. That might go some way towards solving the housing problems in Wiltshire, but in a large urban area like Birmingham it would aggravate the position, because, having given somebody a short-term tenancy it then becomes the responsibility of the local authority to rehouse that person after 12 months when the owner wants his house back and when there is already a waiting list of 25,000 people. To take on somebody on a short-term tenancy leaves the scheme open to something which could be called queue jumping. That is a serious problem which might be present in some large urban areas; it may not happen in the Wiltshire area.

The Birmingham local authority were very concerned because there were premises round the city which were empty, and they felt that these vacant properties should be brought into full utilisation. Returns on the various properties throughout the city were made to the District Council from various sources, including the Rates Department. Last year 87 compulsory purchase orders were served on owners or estate agents who had empty property around the city. The idea was that the local authority should "chivvy up" the owners or the agents into putting their properties back on to the market. This was very success! ful. Out of the 87 CPOs, 63 were later withdrawn because the owner or the estate agent agreed to put his property up for sale again or made it available for letting. This obviously meant that we obtained a greater utilisation of those I properties and also obviated the holding of private properties for future speculation. The remaining properties—that is the difference between 63 and 87—were taken up by the local authority. Several of them were put into the hands of housing societies and housing co-operatives with the idea of breaking them up into smaller units, preferably for students and one-person families.

I should like to draw to the attention of my noble friend another aspect of what the Corporation are doing. A problem exists in Birmingham about urban renewal and improvement areas, because many landlords do not want to go to the trouble of renewing their properties by using the improvement grants. They ask the local authority to buy these houses from them so that the Corporation may become the landlord in future. The Corporation, however, have come to the conclusion that in these improvement and renewal areas it might be wise not only to have rented properties but to keep a variety of ownership, bearing in mind the fact that if the private landlords move out there will only be council tenants there.

The idea of the local authority is that persons who are on the housing register, or who have a housing need, or young people who want to purchase a property, should be offered houses in these improvement or renewal areas. They are all subject to improvement grants to the very high level of 75 per cent. This means that the Corporation scheme is a package scheme, in which the person wishing to purchase a property enters into a commitment to improve the property. Of course, many of the people who apply for these houses—they are in the cheaper price range of £3,000 to £5,000—have very little capital, and having committed themselves to improving the property and receiving the grant they have a further substantial amount of money to pay out. Therefore the local authority have decided to pay the improvement grant to the applicant as part of the package deal when he applies for his mortgage from the Corporation. This means that the person will get a 100 per cent. mortgage for the purchase of the property and will have added to that mortgage the money he has to pay towards the cost of improving the property. There is therefore no other outlay; it is all put together in the one mortgage. Many prospective pur- chasers will be able to take over one of these properties on a 100 per cent. mortgage, and the improvement grant will be part and parcel of that mortgage.

In many cases there will thus be a variety of ownership in those areas and another group of houses will be brought into non-council ownership, even though the original private landlord is moving out. For many people, especially for young couples, this will represent a first step towards buying their first home. I am sure that my noble friend will he pleased to hear about these schemes, and I shall be glad to provide any further information about them if she wishes. I should think that there are many schemes such as those in Wiltshire and in Birmingham taking place in other parts of the country. The Labour-controlled authorities like Birmingham are equally as forward looking as Conservative-controlled authorities like Wiltshire.

3.56 p.m.

The Earl of KINNOULL

My Lords, it had been my original intention to thank my noble friend Lady Young for eloquently asking her Unstarred Question, but I find that not only did she not ask it but that the Unstarred Question has now been converted into a Motion.


My Lords. I am afraid I misled the House by introducing these as being proceedings by way of a Motion when they are, in fact, proceedings by way of a Question. I apologise to your Lordships.

The Earl of KINNOULL

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for having clarified the situation. I should like to express my support for my noble friends Lady Young and Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal in raising this Question this afternoon. I am sure the House will be very grateful to my noble friend Lady Young for having drawn attention to what is undoubtedly a very important part of the housing field; that is, the encouragement of more short-term lettings. I should also like to add my congratulations to the North Wiltshire District Council, and indeed to other councils which, as the noble Baroness has just said, may also be devising similar schemes. It was interesting to hear of the scheme recently put into operation by the City of Birmingham.

I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, will be able to give support to this scheme on behalf of the Government, because it seems to many people, both inside and outside the House, that if this pilot scheme is adopted throughout the country it could play a very useful part in providing rented accommodation within the community as a whole. There seems no reason why the Government should not support a scheme of this sort, or why the scheme should not be widened from the present one-year term suggested by the North Wiltshire District Council to terms of from one to four years, or even to five years, so long as the rent remained fair to the landlord.

I speak as one who, outside the House, tries to offer professional advice to clients —possibly misguided ones—who come to ask what they might do with an empty house or flat. The House will know, as the Government and any private landlord know, that the present accumulation of landlord and tenant Acts have led to virtual strangulation of the private landlord and of the role he has played in the past. This has led to a void in the availability—I do not think this is challenged—of rented accommodation which the public sector cannot at present fill. The current tragedy seems to me that in order to correct the injustices of certain cases caused by a small percentage of private landlords in the past, the politicians, wary of the Rackmanism flag, have swung the pendulum so far that they have now destroyed the old balance that existed in the landlord and tenant system. This had stood the test of time and had served the community well in the past.

I support the North Wiltshire District Council scheme for a variety of reasons. The first is that it is very simple and appears fair. Undoubtedly, it could help to harness a valuable percentage of empty accommodation. Also, it deals only with temporary accommodation; but with experience, as I have said, I believe this scheme could be extended. It need not cover temporary accommodation only, but could cover occupation for a three-, four-, or five-year term. Last week, along with other noble Lords and Baronesses taking part in the debate, I received from the North Wiltshire Council an excellent brief on the reasons that led up to their proposing this scheme. From the background notes a number of interesting facts came to light. Perhaps the most startling was the national figure given for empty accommodation at present. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, will be commenting on this aspect, because it is pertinent to this debate.

According to this brief there are something like 1 million empty houses or flats, 50 per cent. in the private sector and 50 per cent. in the public sector. Clearly, there are many reasonable excuses for these houses being empty at present—I am sure that the survey was not precisely accurate. It may be that houses were for sale. As the noble Baroness has said, certain councils assist or encourage people to sell empty houses. It may be that houses were being refurbished. But in areas of acute housing problems, particularly in the London area where one knows there are over 30,000 squatters at present, what monitoring are the Government doing at the present time on empty houses? In particular, I would ask the noble Baroness whether the Government are urging councils not to wait perhaps 10 years to achieve a clearance programme while houses or flats stand empty, and are encouraging councils to allow the houses or flats to provide temporary accommodation.

The council's brief explained that there were three reasons why they had particularly devised this scheme. The first was that they had a long and growing housing list; the second was that there was a fall-off in the construction programme within their area; and the third was that there were fewer re-lets of council property, which was explained by the fact that there was now a certain hesitancy on the part of existing tenants wishing to plunge out and purchase their own house. I believe that these three reasons apply to all councils throughout the country. I hope that this scheme and other similar schemes will flourish; I hope that the Government will support them. I hope, also, that such schemes will offer a chink of light to allow the private landlord to remain and to play a part in the housing programme.

4.3 p.m.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, I must begin with an apology to the House for not arriving in time to introduce my Unstarred Question, but over the weekend the order of Business was changed and I did not appreciate that there was the slightest possibility of the debate's beginning as early as it did. I am comforted in my mistake by the fact that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has also made a mistake this afternoon, so this Unstarred Question seems to be fated. I am, however, extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal for taking my place in what must have been an extremely difficult situation when he had not expected to speak first.

My Lords, the reason why I put down this Unstarred Question is that I believe that, without doubt, the North Wiltshire District Council housing scheme, which I shall explain in detail, offers a constructive solution to one part of the quite extraordinary housing position which we have reached in this country today. Last January, in introducing a debate on the working of the Rent Act 1974, I described housing as being an Alice in Wonderland world, and it is, if anything, slightly worse than it was last January. It is difficult to obtain accurate figures for the number of empty properties, put by the 1971 Census at 676,000 but thought to be possibly as high as 1 million.

There are, of course, many reasons why properties are left empty, and my noble friend Lord Kinnoull has indicated some of them. But, without doubt, the cumulative effect of legislation is one reason. At the same time as there are so many empty properties, there are more homeless families than ever before. An estimate of the total number of homeless was put in an article in The Times of 2nd February at 100,000—that is, those acknowledged to be homeless by statutory authorities. But the magazine Time Out estimates that there are at last 15,000 squatters in central London, and the Family Squatting Advisory Service in London puts the total at somewhere between 23,000 and 30,000 in London alone. The quite extraordinary growth of squatters is, of course, a direct consequence of the situation which I have described—the existence of large numbers of homeless families side by side with large numbers of empty properties.

In the meantime, council house waiting lists grow longer, which is hardly surprising in view of the present housing situation. Naturally, one factor accounting for the very long lists must be that 80 per cent. of the cost of a new council house is now covered by subsidy, so anyone fortunate enough to be a council tenant has a very real bargain. In these circumstances, it is extremely difficult to foresee a time when there are no council house waiting lists, certainly in the cities.

As my noble friend Lord Strathcona has said, the North Wiltshire District Council scheme does not attempt to, and cannot possibly, solve all the housing problems, but it does offer a solution to one of them. One reason why there are so many empty properties is that an owner knows he may need his house or flat at some time in the future, but if he lets it he will not be able to regain possession unless the circumstances meet one of the nine cases allowed for in the Rent Act 1968. The basic assumption of these nine cases indicated in the 1968 Act is that the tenant has not been a good tenant and the landlord may therefore go to court to regain possession of his property. Even so, this may be a very long-drawn-out procedure and the court must be satisfied that the case brought against the tenant is a reasonable one. The consequence is that in a great many cases the owner does not let his property; the property stands empty, while at the same time there is an ever-growing number of homeless families.

What the North Wiltshire District Council scheme does is to make use of the fact that under the Rent Acts council tenants, unlike tenants of private property, do not have security of tenure. The North Wiltshire District Council have therefore evolved the following scheme. They have said that the council and the owner of a private property shall enter into an agreement letting the house to the council as part of their short-term council housing stock. The letting is usually for a period of not less than 12 months at a reasonable rent to be agreed between the two parties, and provides for the arrangement to be terminated on six months' notice. The council then sub-let the house on their own terms to a tenant on the housing list on the basis that the letting is a short-term one. When the letting is terminated by the owner, the council provide alternative accommodation for the tenant.

In the unlikely event of the tenant's refusing to move, the council undertake to secure possession, if necessary by proceedings in court—something they are allowed to do under the Rent Acts. The council undertake to maintain the interior of the house and to hand it back to the owner in the condition in which it was received, and generally manage the property while they are looking after it. The council thus become the tenant of the private owner of the property and pay the agreed rent to the owner direct. This short-term letting scheme thus encourages the private owner to let in conditions in which he would not otherwise do so. The owner receives an assured income; his property is kept in good decorative order; a family is re-housed. Above all, the scheme is entirely voluntary—something to which we on this side of the House attach considerable importance. Last, but by no means least, in these times of acute economic difficulty it is not expensive and makes good use of otherwise unused resources

Indeed, yet another advantage of the scheme has been that in order to work it out North Wiltshire have nearly completed a survey of all the private properties in their district. I do not wish to burden the House with a great many figures, but the survey identifies the total number of empty properties and some of the reasons why the houses have been left empty. The survey has stimulated the reaching of agreement on a number of short-term leases and has identified a number of houses in need of repair before being brought into use. The cost of the survey has not been great. The survey began in September, 1974, and, by employing one man working three days a week since last September, has almost been completed. As there is a total of 22,790 private properties, this seems to be a piece of work which has been carried out most efficiently.

Clearly, there are difficulties with the scheme and it would be most unwise not to point to some of them. My noble friend Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal has already indicated one of them—that once it becomes known that North Wilt shire will rehouse homeless families quickly, more will arrive. The whole scheme would break down if all the homeless families suddenly appeared in this particular district. It is in the interests of everybody—other local authorities, homeless families and private owners—that more should hear of this scheme. Therefore I was most interested to read a report in the Daily Telegraph about three weeks ago that two councils —Westminster City Council and Ton-bridge and Mailing District Council—are considering a similar scheme in relation to furnished property.

I foresee great difficulties in areas of housing stress, because there will not be enough council accommodation in which to rehouse all the families. This was a point to which the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher of Rednal, drew attention. However, I think that the advantage of this scheme is that it does not encourage queue jumping, in that it takes people off the council waiting list and puts them into short-term accommodation. It is increasing the total amount of accommodation which is available. I was glad to note that the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher of Rednal, agrees with me that there are a great many social advantages in having a variety of housing available to tenants, both council housing and private housing. Therefore I should like to ask the Government whether they have studied this scheme and, if they have, for their view of it. And if they have not studied it, may I ask the Government whether they will do so? It would be interesting to know whether other councils are prepared to consider it. Not so long ago the Minister for Housing, Mr. Freeson, said that he could not in any circumstances consider short leases as they would go against the Rent Acts. It seems to me that this is a short-lease scheme which cannot possibly be considered as going against the Rent Acts. Therefore, I hone it will receive favourable consideration.

As I said at the beginning of my remarks this afternoon, my main reason for raising this question is not simply that the North Wiltshire scheme is an excellent example of local government enterprise but that it makes a constructive suggestion to help to alleviate the present appalling housing situation. It is a scheme which is infinitely more economical and workable than municipalisation. Since we, as a country, will have to concentrate over the next few years upon making the best use of all the resources that we have —not only houses but management skills—this scheme seems to me to be one which is both efficient and economic. It makes use of empty properties; it helps homeless families; and at the same time it preserves the freedom of the private owner. I hope, therefore, that the Government will consider it most seriously.

4.15 p.m.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, although it was the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, who introduced it, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for raising this matter. If it helps the noble Baroness, I was also late. I saw her in the Princes' Chamber and thought that the debate had not started; so I am afraid we were both rather confused this afternoon!

In raising this question, the noble Baroness has given us the opportunity of considering the problem of making use of empty property. In a period of housing shortage—and a shortage of housing is a problem which has been with us for many years—it is extremely important that we should explore every possible means of alleviating that shortage. This is why I welcome the opportunity for this matter to be aired once again today. It is especially necessary to do all that we can to ensure that decent houses which are in good repair do not stand empty unnecessarily while families are homeless or are forced to live in poor accomodation. Therefore, it is in the interests of everybody—of the owner of empty property, of the local authorities which have to deal with the problem of homelessness, and, above all, of the homeless and ill-housed families themselves—that empty houses fit for habitation should be brought into use wherever possible, even if their use can be only short term.

At this point may I comment on what the noble Baroness, Lady Young, has just said about the Minister for Housing being against short-term lettings. He has never said that. In fact, one of the things he has asked local authorities to do is to look into this very question of short-term leases, provided always that the tenant either has some security there or can be rehoused afterwards. It is where there is no security of tenure that he is against it. It is true that empty houses can be brought into use, in some cases by their owners entering into arrangements with the local authority or with a housing association so that the property may be added to the authority's or association's short-term stock and sublet on a short-term basis to a homeless family or a family which is on the authority's housing list. The great advantage of arrangements of this kind, which involve local authorities and housing associations, is that when the owner again requires possession, the tenant has nothing to fear, since the authority or association undertakes to provide him with alternative accommodation and, unlike the private landlord, is able to draw upon its permanent housing stock to do so.

I was interested in what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, about a pool of private housing. The difficulty about such a pool is that unless there is security, or people can be moved somewhere else, the turnaround which he mentioned would not work in our terms, because it would mean that again one would have a number of people who were homeless. Security for the tenant is essential, and this is why the Government welcome the initiative of the North Wiltshire District Council in launching their scheme. I am sure that the noble Lord and the noble Baroness will be glad to know that officials of my Department have been in contact with the authority in order to obtain details of the scheme and the progress which has-been made so far.

Since the noble Baroness explained it so lucidly and in quite sufficient detail, I will not again go over the whole scheme. The scheme has been in operation for only a few months and, as I understand it, so far the council has taken leases of only five properties. However, negotiations in respect of a further eight properties are in hand and the council is publicising the scheme in the hope of encouraging more owners to take part. Two other local authorities—the noble Baroness mentioned one of them: namely, Tonbridge and Mailing District Council—and Eastbourne Borough Council have evolved schemes similar to, or variants of, the North Wiltshire scheme, and a number of other councils, including Westminster, are known to be interested. My Department is in touch with these authorities. I hope that any councils whose schemes we have not yet heard about will let the Department have details, as we want to help to spread the experience they have gained to other authorities and, also, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, will be pleased to hear, to registered housing associations, if they are interested.

Local authorities possess all the powers which are necessary to make use of empty property in this way. The Government hope they will follow the example set by North Wiltshire and consider devising schemes to meet their own problems, which vary from area to area. There are of course significant advantages for all the parties involved in schemes of this type. Obviously, it is in the interest of the local authority, as housing authority, to promote the most efficient use of housing stock in its area, for the more houses that remain empty unnecessarily the greater must be the demands made on the authority by the homeless and the ill-housed. If the local authority can arrange to make use of a reasonable number of empty private dwellings, and particularly if the number of dwellings involved does not fluctuate too much, the pool of short-term housing created could form a valuable addition to the authority's stock; and, as has already been mentioned, the cost to the authority of running such a scheme would almost certainly be less than bed and breakfast accommodation, which is an alternative means of providing emergency accommodation for the homeless which some authorities have, unfortunately, been forced to use. I need hardly say that for the family the use of a house, even if only on a short-term basis, is infinitely preferable to a bed and breakfast hotel. Also, the use of empty private property may provide welcome relief, even although it is only temporary, to a hard-pressed authority planning new houses or awaiting completion of houses under construction.

I think I should add here that certainly the Department and I are anxious that, so far as possible, local authorities should try to plan the management of the development and rehabilitation of housing so that property is not left empty for too long a period and people are not moved earlier than is necessary; although, again, one has to realise that there must be a certain flexibility. One must first find the right place for the person to be moved to, and also the whole question involving building and building contractors makes it difficult to guarantee specifically at what date redevelopment may take place. We are conscious of this and are all the time pressing local authorities to make sure that their empty property is let and under-used for as short a time as possible.

In these schemes there is of course mutual benefit. The advantages to private owners who lease their property to a local authority can be considerable. The owner is guaranteed the regular payment of rent and is also assured of regaining possession of the property when he needs it, given a reasonable period of notice. Moreover, the owner is relieved of the responsibility of managing the property and, depending upon the precise arrangement accepted at any particular place—and this is the arrangement in the North Wiltshire scheme—of maintaining it.

While the potential advantages of a scheme such as this are considerable, as has already been pointed out by my noble friend Lady Fisher and by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, the contribution that it can make towards solving the problem of homelessness must not be overstated. It is too early yet to say how attractive arrangements with local authorities will prove for private owners. In most cases they will probably prefer to sell their property freehold or on a long lease, and only where an owner is sure that he will need the property at some future time and has no use for it in the interval will there be scope for arrangements of this kind.

I must sound another note of warning about a scheme of this sort. It was devised in order to meet local requirements and its details may not therefore be appropriate everywhere. North Wiltshire is a rural area and not an overcrowded urban area, and although I am not pouring cold water on the scheme I think we must be careful not to believe that it can be copied implicitly anywhere else at any time. As my noble friend Lady Fisher pointed out, there are difficulties, particularly in urban areas. It is true, as she said, that many local authorities are afraid of queue-jumping, or the accusations of queue-jumping, which might result from a scheme of this sort; but we are satisfied, on the whole, that sometimes these fears are over-emphasised because the people concerned are usually near the top of the housing list or are homeless and would in any case have to be housed as quickly as is humanly possible.

Apart from the urban areas, there are other circumstances in which it is desirable to make longer term use of the empty property. On the point of empty property, I think the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, has rather exaggerated what is, I agree, a very grave problem. The latest figure of empty houses was not the 1 million that he has mentioned; the latest authoritative figure from the 1971 Census was 675,000 dwellings, and although these figures fluctuate this is the figure that is generally accepted and the number of empty dwellings runs at about 3.9 per cent. Less than 1 per cent. of local authority housing is empty at any time, except for those properties, which I have already mentioned, which are awaiting redevelopment.

I would point out that it is quite impossible to have any flexibility of mobility unless one has a certain amount of empty property. In London the figure is running at something like 4 per cent. This is in fact below that operating in some other areas, where at present it is 5 per cent. It is quite impossible to have any housing situation where every house is occupied all the time.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, I wonder whether I might ask the noble Baroness one question on that. I entirely accept her point that one cannot have every house occupied all the time—clearly there would be this situation—but I think she has quoted figures and I wonder whether this means that the Government are conducting a survey into empty properties and monitoring the situation? If this is so, are the results of such a survey to be published in the near future?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Baroness will wait until I come to the end so that I may bring this into my "finale". It comes in what one might term "Act 3", actually, so if she will patiently wait I will answer her question in due course. The North Wiltshire Council was itself at pains to make the point to the Department of this difficulty of adjusting this scheme everywhere. Nevertheless, it is a much more sensible and constructive approach to the problem of bringing empty houses into use than amending the Rent Act so as to allow absentee landlords to grant short-term tenancies. I am always most impressed by the tenacity of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, who naturally takes every opportunity to raise this point, and I can tell him that, at the moment, a charity organisation, After Six, is monitoring the effects of the 1974 Rent Act over a period of 18 months to see what is the effect of the Act.

However, I would point out once again —I think I have done it on a number of previous occasions—that one of the problems is that the resident landlord who is still in a good position under the Act, is often either unsure of his situation or does not go ahead with renting his property because he has fears which arc quite unfounded. Nevertheless, if he did what the noble Earl and his colleagues have asked on many occasions, it would merely invite the problems which existed before the Rent Act of 1974 came into force, the tenants being compelled to leave their homes and having nowhere to live. This prospect is completely unacceptable to the Government and the reason why we can give such warm support to the scheme we are discussing today is that tenants will be rehoused and not faced with homelessness.

My Department is now preparing a formal consultation paper about the better use of the existing housing stock. This paper will incorporate ideas already gleaned from our discussions with bodies such as the Institute of Housing Managers, the Housing Corporation, the Greater London Council and the London Boroughs Association, plus those measures which have already been studied since February, on the question of how much empty housing, even in short periods, can be put to use for the homeless. We will then discuss the problem with the local authority associations and representatives of private owners; for example, the British Property Federation. This is something which the noble Baroness, Lady Young, will be interested to know is about to start.

Consultations have been going on, and a consultation paper will shortly be circulated. The particular questions we shall be investigating are the scope of action which will take place in the North Wiltshire scheme and any other schemes and variations; the rental arrangements and the responsibility for maintenance and repairs, because, as I think the noble Baroness will appreciate, what may work in one scheme may not be satisfactory on the repairs and maintenance side in other authorities; the circumstances in which the owner may recover possession, which is very important, and the position with regard to rehousing tenants; and, lastly, the possible drawing up of a model contract which local authorities may use.

Finally, I would reiterate that the Government welcome the scheme introduced by the North Wiltshire District Council, both because of the contribution it makes to the better use of existing houses, and because it is an example of local initiative, and a positive attitude to housing. On this point of local initiative, I was interested to hear of the steps taken by Birmingham to ensure not only better use of their council housing stock, but particularly to encourage low-priced owner-occupation in renewal areas. I would say that this is another example of a local authority—in this case a Labour authority—devising schemes to suit local conditions. Certainly I should be interested to hear further details from the noble Baroness or, indeed, from any other noble Lord or noble Baroness who has any information about their own area. I believe that if local authorities are prepared to be imaginative—and it is extremely important that they should be imaginative and flexible as well as constructive—in this way we can begin to solve the housing crisis which, in essence, really is part of the severe financial crisis in which we find ourselves today.