HL Deb 08 July 1997 vol 581 cc529-32

2.55 p.m.

Lord Hylton

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many houses or flats were owned by departments of central government; how many were vacant; and how many were derelict, at the most recent date for which figures are available; and what measures are in hand to let those properties.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, the total number of homes owned by central government departments at 1st April 1997 was 6,833. Of those, 1,009 were vacant, 28 of which were specifically identified as being derelict. As the House will be aware, MoD properties are owned by Annington Homes and are therefore not included in those figures. Guidance on securing better use of government empty homes encourages departments to let empty properties. We intend to look again at existing guidance to see what further action may be required to tackle government empty homes.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her helpful reply. Can she say how central government expect local authorities and housing associations to manage their properties efficiently unless a clear lead is given by the departments of central government?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I accept the point made by the noble Lord. It is important that government departments reduce the number of empty homes that they own, not only for themselves but in order to set an example to private, local authority and housing association landlords. That is why Nick Raynsford, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and myself have arranged a meeting with the Empty Homes Agency to discuss the issue and, I hope, take it further.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that traditionally government departments have a worse record of keeping empty properties than the local authorities, which were so badly berated by Members opposite when they were in government? Is it possible, now that funds are to become increasingly available to local authorities, for them or the housing associations, where they wish to do so, to enter into negotiations quickly to bring such empty properties into the mainstream for letting where they are so badly needed?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. It is incumbent upon the Government to put their own house in order—if I may use that phrase in this context—before lecturing local authorities, which have a better record than the Government in this area. We are exploring ways in which we can make better use of empty properties in the social housing sector. For example, if local authorities felt that, by applying their share of the additional resources released under the capital receipts initiative, they could use government empty properties to help meet priority housing needs in their area and it represented the best value for money, it would be possible to use the money in that way.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can the Minister indicate what effective action is being taken to ensure that unoccupied premises are now occupied? We shall not then have to face the ironic situation in which many people are short of housing and yet a lot of vacant houses are going spare.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, it is policy, whenever a home is empty—particularly if it is awaiting disposal—that it should be let if at all possible. As I said earlier, the record has not been as good as it should have been and we are trying to improve upon it.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, bearing in mind that there is a shortfall of 350,000 houses or flats suitable for people who use wheelchairs, will the Government make certain that as many as possible of the units of accommodation that become available are adapted for wheelchair users before they are put on the market?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that suggestion. Bearing in mind that the capital receipts initiative may be used for upgrading and improving property, I shall make sure his point is transferred on.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, will my noble friend examine the report bearing my name, the Ewing Report on Housing for Wheelchaired Disabled, and follow the point that was made by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, about adapting a number of these houses for the use of people in wheelchairs? Does my noble friend accept that this problem has not arisen since 1st May? May I congratulate her on the action she is taking to make sure that these empty houses are fully occupied as soon as possible?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for both those points. I shall certainly look at his report. It is true that the situation we inherited 10 weeks ago is not one of which anyone would be proud. We wish to make progress, but it will take time to put right some of the things that have gone wrong in this area for many years.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, the noble Baroness indicated that a relatively small number of derelict houses were in the ownership of departments. Nonetheless, does the guidance given to departments include a recommendation that they keep all the houses and flats they own in good condition?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, we intend looking again at the guidance that is given to cover precisely those kinds of areas. It is important that we do not define as derelict properties that are habitable but simply need improvements.

Lord Bowness

My Lords, will the Minister return to the question of local authorities? Will she pursue with great vigour the local authorities that have the greatest number of empty properties? Those were vacancies which existed at 1st May and many of them accumulated in authorities under the control of the Labour Party. Perhaps I may give one example. In 1996, 4 per cent. of the Islington stock was vacant. The seven local authorities with the greatest number of vacancies are all Labour controlled. The number of local authority vacancies greatly exceeds the total number of government department empty properties. Does she agree that if the houses under local authority control were brought into use, that would be financially more cost-effective than releasing capital receipts, which would increase public borrowing?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, it might take some time to de-construct all the elements of that question. It is inevitable that any list of local authorities will have a predominance of Labour authorities, given the inability of the party opposite to gain power in local government. It is important to recognise that in percentage terms local authorities have done far better in this area than national government. However, it is true that local authorities are greater owners of property and therefore overall numbers are higher in local authorities. Any home that is unnecessarily empty is a wasted resource and one that could provide a home for someone who needs it. Some authorities already have effective strategies for bringing empty homes quickly into use. We want to see the poorer performers brought up to the standard of the best. The noble Lord should not be so swift to rubbish the capital receipts initiative which will help in bringing substandard property in the local authority sector up to standard.