Local Authority (Empty Properties)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:34 pm on 6th May 1981.

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Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle 3:34 pm, 6th May 1981

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give local authorities and certain other public bodies a duty to maximise the use of empty residential property in their ownership and to prohibit the demolition of buildings before public inquiries. Having listened to Ministers during Question Time, I expect their support in the Lobby if there is a Division on this motion. The proposed Bill tackles the scandal of houses being empty when there are many homeless families. Clause 1 would read: It shall be the duty of every local authority to consider the short-term or temporary or emergency housing needs of their district and for that purpose to use or facilitate the use as living accommodation of vacant property held or acquired for development, rehabilitation or non-housing purposes. Many local authorities and other public bodies own residential properties which are empty awaiting improvement or demolition and which could be occupied until required. Local councils purchase property in advance of road, educational or city centre development and homes stand empty, sometimes for years, if the schemes are delayed or even cancelled. With limited expenditure, such property could be used by single people, co-operative housing groups or even homeless families.

The problem is more acute now than ever before. The Government's cuts in housing expenditure and their recent moratorium on house building and improvement mean that many more properties that have been acquired by councils and housing associations are standing empty. There is suddenly no money to improve them, because the Government have switched off the tap. In 1980, 100,000 publicly owned houses in England and Wales were empty, waiting to be altered and redeveloped. About 30,000 were in London, and about 23,000 were empty for more than a year. In that year, 30,000 families—which is a massive number—were accepted as homeless by local authorities. About 6,000 are living in bed and breakfast or hostel accommodation. To keep a family in such accommodation costs £100 a week, and these families could easily be accommodated in short-life housing, saving the ratepayers a considerable sum.

Councils may ask where the money is to come from to unbrick, repair and upgrade empty properties, but in the end it would save money as it costs about £3,000 a year to keep a house empty, including lost rates and rent and the cost of boarding up.

Local authorities are rightly concerned about standards and do not want single people or homeless families to be housed in substandard accommodation. Unfit houses should be demolished if they cannot be satisfactorily improved, but many empty public properties would provide decent accommodation. They are often acquired not because they are unfit to live in but because of development schemes. Many can be put into a decent condition with minimum expenditure. Grants for short-life houses are still available from the Housing Corporation, although, regrettably, even that money has been cut by the Government, whose only answer seems to be to keep public housing empty until it can be sold. Consequently, houses stay empty.

Councils are also concerned about obtaining vacant possession when the properties are needed for the purpose for which they were acquired, but the Housing Act 1980 allows licences to be issued for short-life houses instead of establishing tenancies in certain circumstances. The Housing Emergency Office, which is a Shelter-backed organisation, states that it has always been possible to guarantee vacant possession of properties let on short-life terms.

In addition to putting a duty on councils to consider using empty property and to develop short-life housing schemes, the Bill would outlaw prior demolition—that is, where councils acquire houses in order to demolish tern for some development scheme to go ahead and actually demolish, gut or break up the houses in advance of the Secretary of State's public inquiry to consider whether the development should go ahead. In this way, councils destroy good housing in an attempt to pre-empt public inquiries. If the proposed development is then not approved by the Government, we have derelict, tinned-off sites and houses are needlessly demolished. The unnecessary destruction of good homes is as scandalous as houses being kept empty when thousands of people have nowhere decent to live.

I shall give some examples, first, of the type of people who could benefit from short-life housing schemes, and, secondly, of properties acquired and kept unnecessarily empty. Seventy single men in Kensington and Chelsea will soon be in need of housing because the local authority is about to make them homeless. Within the authority's area is a hostel, owned by the GLC and managed by the Stonham housing association, which currently provides accommodation for 70 single men. Money has been promised by the Housing Corporation for modernisation of the hostel in 1982–83, but the local authority has decided, at a closed meeting, to develop the site for commercial purposes. Kensington and Chelsea could have had a hostel free. Instead, 70 men will be homeless.

Where can those people go? They could find houses empty in my constituency of Bootle. In the centre of the old town, further city centre redevelopment was cancelled in 1973 and 1974 and houses are still standing empty as a result. They could go to Liverpool where, after 7 May, when the Labour county council cancels the inner ring road, residential property now standing empty can be used. In London, among the many houses standing unnecessarily empty are numbers 1–11 Lockside Cottages, Narrow Street, E14. Those six cottages, owned by the British Waterways Board, have been empty since 1970, when the nearby lock was filled in, and left to rot, as they are now doing. The 70 people being made homeless could live in Bromley Street, E1. The GLC acquired that street, with more than 80 houses, in May 1971. After constant bureaucratic muddles and mistakes, which seem to be a speciality of the GLC, those properties—now grade II listed buildings—still stand empty awaiting improvement.

I hope that all Members will support the proposed Bill, which is designed to destroy the problem of empty properties existing side by side with homeless families. I do not pretend that, if implemented, it would solve the nation's housing problems. Waiting lists are growing; homelessness is increasing. Only a sustained programme of council house building and improvement can solve the nation's housing problems. But the Bill would make a contribution to the solution.

There is nothing more annoying for people who want homes than to see houses standing empty. I hope that on this occasion the Government will put their support and their votes where their campaigns have been. They have criticised Labour local authorities, but some of the worst local authorities keeping properties empty are Tory controlled. The Government have not yet taken action to ensure that empty properties are improved and used because the money has not been available.