HL Deb 13 May 1983 vol 442 cc712-4

11.23 p.m.

The Earl of Kinnoull

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what progress they are making towards reducing the number of empty residential properties in the public sector.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the Government are greatly concerned at the 19,000 residential properties which were reported on 1st April 1982 as having been empty for more than one year. Among many Government initiatives, the most recent is to ask councils in their housing investment programme returns for 1984–85 to indicate their specific intentions for bringing back into use dwellings empty for more than one year and the proposed expenditure, if any, involved.

The Earl of Kinnoull

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his informative reply. Does he agree that the unacceptably large number of empty houses in the public sector is really a shameful reflection of the failure of certain local authority housing policies? Can he identify today some of the worst cases and also say what success Her Majesty's Government have had during the lifetime of this Parliament in persuading local authorities to reduce the number of empty houses?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, in the HIP returns to which I referred, the regular quarterly up-date is to be found in your Lordships' Library. I regret to say that included among the figures is a list of what I can only describe as "the good, the bad and the ugly" in this respect.

The important figure is the long-term vacant, as a percentage of the totally vacant, housing stock, which ranges in the worst 34 cases from 8.44 per cent. in Leeds to an enormous 80.83 per cent. in the district of Sedgefield in County Durham. The Government's policies are well known, but I am glad to have this opportunity to reiterate the measures taken in the last four years, which include the improvement-for-sale scheme, permits issued to those authorities wishing to waive for a period the interest on mortgages granted for homesteading, powers for local authorities to guarantee building society mortgages and many, many other things. I hope that will give a guide to the great work that this Government have done during their period of office.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, will the noble Lord agree that this is a vital Question which has been raised by the noble Earl, for one particular reason? Acknowledging that the local authorities have done a magnificent job in providing homes for millions of British families—that is why this is such a poignant subject when there are residences in both the public and private sectors which are left to rot for whatever reason—will the Minister be prepared to consider that this must be an offence against the planning regulations of those very authorities?

Lord Skelmersdale

Yes, my Lords; I am very grateful to the noble Lord. I seem to remember describing this particular problem last week as "a scandal". Certainly, I would stick by that, and so I am sure would the noble Lord.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, may I ask the Minister what figures he was working from? The latest figures I have been able to find relate to the situation in 1979, and one cannot get any later figures from his department. I agree with everybody that any waste of housing, under whatever Government, is a very bad thing with the housing waiting lists as they are. Is it true that these figures are due to over-eager purchase in the late 1970s? Does he agree that the 50 per cent. reduction in the housing investment programme between 1979 and 1982—including a moratorium—has had an effect, as has also the operation of the project control system, whereby many of the local authorities which have asked to carry out this work to make houses habitable have been rejected by the DoE?

Lord Skelmersdale

No, my Lords, I do not think that is true at all. The noble Baroness says "Yes, it is". We shall get to that in a moment. The figures to which I am referring, and which I said were in your Lordships' Library were the housing investment programme returns dated April 1982. They are the most recent figures that I have, and I quoted just now from that list.

My honourable friend the Minister for Housing and Construction has recently commissioned a study by the department's housing services advisory unit, and copies of its report, Reducing the Number of Empty Dwellings, have been sent to the local authorities. The Government accept that in certain cases local authorities face inherent difficulties in dealing with these properties. But nearly 300 authorities managed to keep their void level to 2 per cent. or below—incidentally, 2 per cent. is the national average—and the 60 or so authorities' with higher void levels should naturally aim to match this performance. Surely if 300 can do it the rest can do it.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, is the Minister able to tell us whether he believes that some of these long-term vacancies are in areas where there is a very small waiting list and where there is really an over-supply of accommodation? This is a complex problem and I ask the Minister to consider the point that in some areas there is a great shortage of council accommodation while in others there is already an over-supply.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, in the time available I am afraid that I have not been able to correlate the two sets of figures. However, if there is a very short waiting list—in other words, virtually instantaneous housing, which my noble friend will know far better than I whether or not is a comparatively rare occurrence—it would presuppose that the councils have no need for the buildings and therefore are perfectly entitled to sell them.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether the Government will make every effort to ensure that a certain residential property in the public sector not far from here does not become vacant—even briefly—in four weeks' time?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I can think of whole streets not very far from here—one, in particular—which I am absolutely determined shall not become vacant in the near future.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, may I ask how the Government would reconcile that reply with their stated policy of encouraging social and housing mobility, with an eye to the industrial regeneration of this country?

Lord Skelmersdale

I am sorry my Lords. There was rather more laughter than I expected at that question. Therefore, I did not get the full purport of it.

Lord Leatherland

My Lords, the noble Lord referred to a document which he described as "HIP". Can he explain the meaning of those letters? Have they anything to do with urging us to shout "Hip, hip hooray!" at the end of the Government today?

Lord Skelmersdale

Alas not, my Lords. It is a very serious table and it refers to the housing investment programme.