Solving the housing crisis is far more important than building more and more motorways, which increase traffic problems and do little to solve them.
There are many ways in which the housing crisis can be tackled. There is no easy, single solution, and no one pretends that there is. There is scope for far more to be done in general improvement areas. There could be more public participation, with communities deciding what sort of improvements they want. More could be done with industrialised house-building. Building societies could be encouraged to lend more for industrial house-building projects. I agree with my hon. Friends who have spoken many times in the House about the need for site value rating.
What I really want to talk about is just one way in which much could be done to solve the problem of homelessness. If the Government acted on it they would show that they were serious about tackling the problem. I refer to the scandal of the thousands of empty properties throughout the country. There is fairly wide agreement now that they should be rated—and with at least 100 per cent. rates.
I understand that 37 per cent. of our housing stock was built before 1914 and therefore is due for redevelopment. The 1961 census showed that there were 500,000 empty houses. I have not been able to obtain the 1971 census figures for empty properties, but perhaps the Minister who winds up the debate can give them to us. I suspect that they have risen considerably beyond 500,000. Yet no Government Department or any other body has looked into the problem of how to use empty houses. The Government should now institute a study of how those thousands of empty properties can be used to ease—they can only ease—the problem of homelessness.
The Department of the Environment should urge every local authority to carry out a survey of the empty properties in its area and use them. Hon. Members will be aware of the activities of the family squatting associations in London, which now have legal, constructive, binding agreement with 16 London boroughs and with Winchester City Corporation to use empty property in their areas for short-term housing. I ask the Government to carry out a survey into how that system is working. I believe that they will find it working well, and that they should therefore instruct other local authorities that "squatting" is not a dirty word and that squatting has a part to play in easing the problem of homelessness. I hope that they will advise local authorities on how to institute these agreements in order to help cope with the problem of homelessness in their areas.
I believe also that the powers of compulsory purchase should be investigated and strengthened so that local authorities are better able to purchase private empty property allowed to stand empty for a given period—say, 12 months. I am sure that all hon. Members have empty properties in their constituencies, including some owned by persons who are themselves not known to the local council and who allow them to stand empty and derelict for years, an annoyance and nuisance to neighbours and nearby residents, while at the same time there are people searching desperately for a home and asking, "Why cannot we move into that house, do it up and make it habitable?" What is the answer to that question? The powers of compulsory purchase should be strengthened to allow local authorities to take action. I believe also that the means by which compulsory purchase orders can be delayed almost indefinitely should be investigated. A compulsory purchase order should be made to take effect and not allowed to be delayed for months and years.
If the Government agree to look into these matters, I hope that they will urge local authorities to take action to alleviate the problem of homelessness by using thousands of empty properties which are available, certainly in London, as I know only too well. I do not pretend that this in itself is a simple and easy solution to the problems of homelessness and the housing crisis. I know that it is not. But it is one very important way whereby the Government and the House could prove to homeless families that we really are serious about getting to grips with our housing crisis.