HL Deb 05 May 1982 vol 429 cc1158-60

2.48 p.m.

Baroness Elliot of Harwood

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 what steps they are taking to ensure that better use is made of the existing stock of council houses and that the number of empty dwellings is reduced.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Bellwin)

My Lords, the Government have put forward a wide range of measures to encourage local authorities to make better use of their existing stock of houses and flats. Empty properties can be sold at a discount; the subsidy system penalises a high level of voids; and the report, Reducing the Number of Empty Dwellings, published last year, detailed a large number of methods authorities could adopt for the purpose. Our priority estates project and community refurbishment schemes are demonstrating how run-down estates can be turned round and once more made attractive places in which to live. Those are but a few of the steps we are taking in this field, to which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment attaches great importance.

Baroness Elliot of Harwood

My Lords, while I thank my noble friend very much for that admirable reply, which said a great many of the things I hoped the Minister would say, may I ask whether he would also agree that the demand for housing has changed in the last 10 years or more, in that the demand today is for the modernisation of older houses, making them fit for living in, and then the opportunity given to the people wanting houses to buy them rather than rent them?

Lord Bellwin

Yes, my Lords, I agree with my noble friend. There have been changes of the kind that she mentions, just as there is also a very great need for many one-and two-bedroomed units.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the noble Baroness said that he gave a very fine reply? It sounds very nice, but the legislation coming before this House and measures taken by the Government on local government finance inhibit local authorities in making progress in housing. The Government's obsession with selling council houses is having a reverse effect when it comes to finding accommodation for people who need it.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I do not on this occasion want to move too far from the Question, as we did the other day when we were talking about housing; but I would not agree with the noble Lord, because the fact is that, if they wish to make this matter a priority, local authorities now have great access to funds from capital receipts. These will enable them to do anything that they may wish to do in this case.

Baroness David

My Lords, will the Minister agree that, at 2.1 per cent., local authorities have proportionately the lowest percentage of empty dwellings of all the tenure sectors? Those figures came from the first report of the Environment Committee

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I think the problem is that there is such wide variation. There are very many authorities which have the kind of percentage to which the noble Baroness refers, but there are some authorities where the proportion is just short of 10 per cent. of their housing stock, and that is where the great problem arises.

Lord Davies of Leek

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware of an excellent article in Lloyds Bank Review on the deindustrialisation of Britain, and is he also aware that this deindustrialisation, too, is having an effect? Council houses as well as private houses stand empty because there is no employment in an area. What grants are given for council houses that have remained empty for a long time and which often are vandalised by the type of people who seem to be around these days?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord says, and I am quite sure that what he describes is a contribution to the situation, though it is not by any means the major contribution. I strongly commend anyone who is interested in the question of how to reduce the number of empty dwellings to read the publication Reducing the Number of Empty Dwellings which was issued recently. When I read it, I was most fascinated by the constructive suggestions that were being made, and I commend the publication to anyone who is really interested in this matter.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, does the noble Lord the Minister agree that local authorities have great difficulties regarding the improvement and modernisation of what we call the inter-wars stock? Does he also agree that many local authorities are facing grave difficulties regarding post-war stock?—that is, those properties built in the late 1960s, involving system building and concrete structures. These local authorities have a very serious problem, which is not at present adequately covered by Government grants.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises a very fair point: that the type of dwellings built under the systems to which she refers are a very real headache. However, it is surprising that, in the main, and so far as I am aware, such dwellings do not comprise the majority of houses that are empty. What we ought to be concerned about are the houses that are more run down and which have been empty for over a year. In some areas several hundred dwellings have been empty and in the case of seven authorities there have been over 1,000 dwellings empty for over a year. Such dwellings are not usually the type to which the noble Baroness refers. The houses that I have mentioned form the major part of the problem, but I do not deny that what the noble Baroness says is in itself correct.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister say which local authorities are going back on their policy of buying old property with a view to building new estates, but have not now the money to do so? Are such authorities reversing their policy to any great extent, putting the houses in order, and shelving their old plans?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, it is very difficult to be specific, and I should prefer not to be so now. I know that there are some authorities that adopt the attitude to which my noble friend refers, but, in regard to the situation as a whole, the latest figure is 92,000. It was 100,000; so there has been some improvement, in that it has come down to 92,000, though that is bad enough. It is a question of the policy that individual authorities want to adopt. The point that my noble friend raised and the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher of Rednal, raised are right in themselves as part of the overall problem, but one has to go beyond that to see where the situation lies. There is much scope for doing more, not least in terms of selling some of the properties at low prices to people who want to make homesteads and themselves improve them. I think that there is a lot of scope there.