HL Deb 19 March 1980 vol 407 cc212-5

2.47 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government how many Ministry of Defence service married quarters arc at present unoccupied.

The MINISTER of STATE, MINISTRY of DEFENCE (Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal)

My Lords, about 21,000 service married quarters are vacant in the United Kingdom.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. Can he give some idea of the cost value of those houses and also of their present-day value? Can he also give the running costs in relation to lost rent, repairs and so on?


My Lords, the potential value on the open market of our total stock of married quarters is of the order of £1,000 million. The value of the empty quarters is of the order of £200 million and each empty quarter costs around £150 per year in maintenance. If I have done my arithmetic right, I think maintenance of the empty quarters must therefore be costing us about £3 million, in addition to the disposal value which has been forgone.

The Earl of SELKIRK

My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether the Ministry of Defence has authority to lease these houses for limited periods?


My Lords, my noble friend is a lawyer so I have to be careful in answering his question! They certainly do lease these houses for a limited period and therefore I would imagine they have the authority to do so. The doubt in my mind is as to whether it is done through the PSA or direct through the Ministry.

Baroness SEEAR

My Lords, did the noble Lord say he was careful when dealing with lawyers?


My Lords, I am enormously careful at all times, and particularly about money.


My Lords, I hesitate to intervene at this point, but could the Minister say why 21,000 houses are unoccupied? Is it because of unsuitability, or is there some other more satisfactory explanation?


My Lords, there is no satisfactory explanation, nor is there a brief one. It is an accumulation of a number of factors. The principal trouble at the present time is that increasingly members of the forces feel impelled to get into the property market at an early stage in their service careers because of the escalation in price which they see running away from them if they do not do so. There are a number of contributory factors as to why the Ministry has not reacted as fast as it might have wished on finding itself with this large number of empty married quarters on its hands.


My Lords, bearing in mind the reason given for so many married quarters being unoccupied, would my noble friend consider investigating a scheme whereby soldiers, and even non-soldiers, could buy these houses temporarily, with clauses to sell hack where necessary, so that they could maintain their house value against inflation and, at the same time, give a very positive cash flow to the Treasury?


My Lords, this is something which has certainly been thought of and has been investigated, though I do not know how exhaustively it has been investigated. The nature of a serviceman's life is such that we do not want to get him too"hefted"—to use a Scottish expression—to any one given place. Mobility is an essential part of the life of a serviceman. The problem with what my noble friend is suggesting is that the administrative cost of continuously buying and selling quarters, on a comparatively rapid turnover, would be very considerable. May I just add the further point that a scheme is now being developed whereby servicemen will have an opportunity to buy houses on rather similar lines to those proposed for council house tenants?


My Lords, is it not a fact that, before the reorganisation in 1967 of the way in which a serviceman was paid, there was never any surplus of houses? It was only when the Government of the day brought in this extra pay, and then made the serviceman pay for his married quarters—which he did not have to do before—that this position came about.


My Lords, if I may say so, I think that the noble Lord is possibly falling into the trap of post hoc propter hoc. It is not necessarily true that the introduction of the military salary, with the consequent rent being charged for married quarters, brought about this situation. We believe that the principal reason was the point that I have already mentioned. The serviceman feels that he must get into the property market, given the rapid escalation in the prices of property, which are overtaking the rate at which he can save against buying a house when he conies out.


My Lords, would the Minister not agree that the picture that has been painted to the House, when he was talking about houses, is complete nonsense? Many of these quarters are in places which are inaccessible and in barracks which have often been closed down. As one who has lived in them for a considerable period, I know that many of them would not be in the least attractive to buyers, civilian or military. For the problem really to he understood, the figure of 21,000 needs to be broken down in order to see where they are, the condition of the quarters and whether there is a market for them.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, apart from his opening sentence which suggested that what T said was total nonsense. I could not accept that. His other remarks are entirely in line with the true situation. Sonic of these houses are in areas where it is difficult to dispose of them. They are sometimes connected to supplies which, for example, are linked 'to camps; they are sometimes within the protected area of military establishments, and they are sometimes in areas where they would not be attractive to put on the market. That said, we disposed of 3,000 married quarters last year and we hope, and believe, that we may be able to accelerate the rate of disposal this year.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether the figures that he has given to the House take into calculation those houses that have been allocated to our NATO allies? For example, in Pembrokeshire, or Dyfed, I know of quite a number of houses that have been allocated to American forces there, hut they have not been taken up and have been lying empty for quite some time.


My Lords, I am bound to say that I do not know the precise answer to that question. The word"allocated"could be open to some doubt. It is true that some houses have been disposed of to Americans. It is equally true that some houses are earmarked for possible use in the event of a rapid reinforcement or change in the military situation. I think I am right in saying that the 21,000 would apply to married quarters which are still on our own Ministry of Defence books.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say to what extent these unoccupied service premises are maintained in a state of proper repair and, roughly, how many are allowed to deteriorate?


My Lords, we do our best, where properties are worth maintaining, to keep them in a state of repair. Some of these quarters were not very satisfactorily built in the first place, which has probably turned out to be a false economy. In those cases, the decision should be taken to knock them down, rather than engage in wasteful expenditure in trying to keep them watertight. But those which are considered useful are maintained to a reasonable, if not wholly admirable, standard.