HL Deb 14 February 1995 vol 561 cc574-7

3.11 p.m.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress they have made towards the disposal of the many homes used previously by members of the Armed Forces that are now standing empty.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Henley)

My Lords, surplus properties are sold at the earliest opportunity, but not all empty properties are surplus to requirement. The majority are needed to accommodate service families in the near future.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, what caused the collapse of the housing trust which was appointed by the Government to manage the disposal of this type of housing? I also understand that at present 12,000 houses are standing empty. I understand that the Government appointed a chief executive and staff and provided the office equipment to put the housing trust into operation. But the trust has now folded up and a waste of government money has ensued.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I can assure the noble Baroness that the collapse of the housing trust concept has nothing to do with the number of empty married quarters, which, as the noble Baroness said, is around 12,000. In the light of the difficulties experienced in the housing trust proposals—the trust collapsed for various technical reasons—we are looking at alternatives for achieving the underlying objective of transferring the married quarters estate to the private sector. I can assure the noble Baroness that we have had some encouraging ideas which we are certainly evaluating at present. It is premature to speculate on what proposals may eventually emerge, but I can say that we are firmly committed to trying to find a private sector solution to this problem. We are also firmly committed to improving the quality and management of service housing.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, is it not the case that this trust collapsed not for technical reasons but because no one would put up the money? Is it not also the case that the chief executive was hired on a three-year rolling contract at a salary of £80,000 a year, when a housing officer in a local authority would get less than £50,000 a year? What has happened to all these people on three-year rolling contracts? Is it not time that Ministers took a grip of the Ministry of Defence and achieved proper financial discipline inside that department?

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble Lord is totally and utterly wrong on his first point. The trust collapsed, as we made clear at the time, for technical reasons. It was nothing to do with the fact that no one was prepared to put up the money. We had not actually gone out to the market at that stage, so it was rather difficult for anyone to put up the money. We are confident that the Defence Housing Executive, which does exist—we have continued some of the proposals that we developed in the housing trust into the Defence Housing Executive—will make a significant contribution to improved management of service housing, both for the benefit of service personnel themselves and the taxpayer.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, what about all these people who were recruited at great expense? Will they be made redundant for technical reasons?

Lord Henley

My Lords, some of them are still working on the Defence Housing Executive. We will continue to take those ideas forward and to develop the other plans to which I referred in my answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher.

Lord Renton

My Lords, when a large aerodrome with many married quarters in good condition becomes available for general housing, are the local authorities encouraged to modify their own new building of houses so that these married quarters, which are public property, can be fully used?

Lord Henley

My Lords, we pursue various avenues in the disposal of all defence property, particularly defence housing. We would first look at trying to dispose of individual housing to ex-servicemen and provide them with the appropriate discount. We would then look to housing associations. We would, in the kind of case to which my noble friend refers, have detailed discussions with the local authority, not purely relating to housing matters but also to the general development of, as my noble friend puts it, a large aerodrome that is no longer being used. In the light of those discussions and the planning requirements of the local authority, we would then put the property out to tender.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, when responding to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, why did not the Minister correct his assertion that local authorities have new build housing programmes? Does he not agree that this Government have abolished the new house building programmes of local authorities?

Lord Henley

My Lords, that question is totally and utterly unrelated to the Question on the Order Paper.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, in his replies the Minister has twice mentioned seeking a solution in the private sector. In another reply he referred to housing associations. Why are the Government so bitter and vicious towards local authorities that they are not trying to involve them in the operation? They may be able to provide the answer.

Lord Henley

My Lords, we look to local authorities on occasions. We are quite prepared to consider the leasing of temporarily surplus properties to local authorities. However, when they are temporarily surplus they are very often not the kind of property which local authorities want and are often in the wrong place. The local authority would have them for only a relatively short time and they might create even greater problems for the authority when we needed them back for our service requirements.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether the money raised from the sale of surplus married quarters is paid into defence funds or reverts to the Treasury?

Lord Henley

My Lords, it reverts to the Treasury.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, can the Minister say how many of the very large houses which were occupied by senior officers and which were scheduled to be sold have in fact been marketed and what the losses to the taxpayer have been on their disposal?

Lord Henley

My Lords, as I think the noble Lord will know, we commissioned a review of entertainment. That obviously affects the houses to which the noble Lord refers. The review, which is being conducted by Sir Peter Cazalet, is expected to report to Ministers in my department later this month. It is looking at whether there are alternative and more cost-effective means of carrying out the obligation to entertain other than through the use of official service residences. When we have that report I shall be able to answer the noble Lord's question.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, how much has the housing trust cost to date, and are there further costs to follow? If so, what are they likely to be?

Lord Henley

My Lords, to date the housing trust proposals and related matters have cost of the order of £5 million. Much of that investment is being realised in the creation of the Defence Housing Executive and much is also still relevant to any form of transfer of the married quarters estate to the private sector.