Local Government (Empty Council Houses)

– in the House of Commons at 4:11 pm on 17th February 1987.

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Photo of Mr John Powley Mr John Powley , Norwich South 4:11 pm, 17th February 1987

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to oblige local authorities to make their vacant housing stock available for letting or sale.

The Bill I am presenting to the House outlines one way of reducing the number of empty council properties, by making available to prospective tenants or purchasers any local authority property, whether purpose-built or acquired, that has been empty for a period, which I would suggest should he six months. If a council-owned property has been empty or unoccupied for six months since the previous tenancy, then, provided it is habitable or can be made habitable, a person could apply to the local authority for the tenancy or the purchase of that house.

I would expect that a register would be necessary to identify those properties that have been empty for more than six months. That register would be open to public inspection and anyone seeking a tenancy or purchase could examine the register for a suitable property and make an appropriate offer. Just think about the incentive that there would be for local authorities if such a register were publicly available giving addresses of properties and the length of time that they had been empty.

The Bill would provide for some exemptions to be made and it would be right and proper to exempt from the provisions of the Bill any local authority dwelling that was in the process of being improved. Provided a dwelling was in a modernisation scheme which was actually out to tender or was being modernised, such a dwelling should not be included in dwellings available for open letting or purchase—provided, of course, that the contract was out to tender within the six months.

It must be the concern of everyone who has been a member of a local authority, as I and many other hon. Members have, or a person involved in housing organisations such as Shelter and anyone who is interested in housing generally, that we make more efficient use of the country's housing stock. That statement applies to making more efficient use of local authority housing stock, privately rented stock or owner-occupied housing stock.

We are told that in the owner-occupied and privately rented sector, over 500,000 homes are vacant; and there are many reasons for that figure. We are also told that there are around 113,300 empty council properties. Of that 113,300, some 27,100 have been empty for longer than 12 months and 13,800 have been empty for longer than two years.

May I draw attention to one or two authorities which have a particularly poor record in keeping local authority properties empty? At the top of the list, both in percentage of housing and the number of properties empty, is Liverpool, with about 7,704 empty council properties, some 11·9 per cent. of its housing stock. Manchester comes next on the list with 4,900 followed by Sheffield with 3,200, Tower Hamlets with 3,200 and Hackney with 3,100. In purely financial terms, that figure of 113,300 empty local authority properties represents over £94 million in rent not available to the respective local authorities plus about £30 million not available to the general rate fund in lost rents in any one year.

Before I speak further, I want to challenge the accuracy of that figure of 113,300. The Library supplied me with the figure for the number of empty council properites as at 1 April 1986, and that figure is confirmed by the Department of the Environment. However, I asked for a breakdown of that figure by authority and in the list supplied, which adds up to 113,300, Norwich city council is quoted as having 158 empty properties. I also wrote to my chief executive on the same subject and he quotes Norwich city council as having 447 empty properties as at 30 January 1987. The figure supplied to me for Norwich does not coincide with the figure supplied by the Department of the Environment and the Library and that makes me question whether the 113,300, which is common knowledge, could be an understatement of the number of empty council properties.

Returning to the theme of my Bill, I hope the House will agree that, whatever housing sector we refer to, we should all be concerned about empty properties, and be prepared to do something about them. It is clear that one solution will not resolve all the problems in all three sectors of housing activity, and I do not intend to deal with them. Today my purpose is to concentrate on the local authority sector and suggest a means whereby some of those properties could be brought back onto the active market instead of lying empty and idle. We all know that by the very nature of local authorities and housing management there will always be some empty properties. The void period is always there. No administration can turn round a property so that it is always occupied.

The offer of an empty property can take several weeks, and it is a fairly common experience for a particular dwelling to be refused by a prospective tenant. One of my concerns was always the number of people who claim to be in housing need and desperate for accommodation, yet at the same time refuse reasonable offers of accommodation. Some refusals cannot be avoided, but careful management, more appropriate offers to prospective tenants and a tightening up on the number of refusals could reduce the problem.

The management of some local authority housing departments leaves a great deal to be desired. Why is it that some authorities have an average period between re-lets of 20 weeks, while others can cut that down to three or four weeks?

It is clear that, within the overall number of empty properties, which I repeat is suspect, there are some properties which are about to be modernised by the local authority. I have referred to the exemptions that could be created, but it is not good enough for a local authority to say that a dwelling is going to be modernised in the future and then leave it empty for more than six months before doing anything about it.

The provisions in my Bill would provide local authorities with a strong incentive to reduce the number of empty local authority properties and reduce the length of time that those properties were empty. Some may say that lack of finance is the answer. Those who would use that argument use it whatever the problem is. They say, "It is all about money, or lack of money, and if plenty of finance was available, the problem would simply disappear."

No Government, whatever their political colour, have been able, even if they wanted to, to give local authorities unlimited sums of money to resolve their housing problems. That was not the case even in the 1970s, when we had a Labour Government. I recall a moratorium on housing expenditure in 1976, which was followed by severe restrictions on housing expenditure. No future Government will be able to give local authorities unlimited sums of money in an effort to resolve their problems.

The point surely is that we have a problem, and that little or nothing is being done about it, in the housing sectors that I mentioned. My Bill addresses itself to the local authority sector, and suggests a modest means of getting back onto the occupied housing market, some of the properties previously left empty for long periods. Surely we must all share that objective.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West 4:21 pm, 17th February 1987

I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Powley) on being successful in the ten-minute rule slot. I heard the Jimmy Young programme this morning—he is the Prime Minister's favourite political interviewer—on which the hon. Gentleman gave a good account of his Bill.

Clearly, I am not against the principle—[Interruption.]—of putting people into empty properties. However, I am against the partial application of the Bill and the method that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting. As one would expect from a Conservative Member, the Bill is yet another attempt to attack local authorities, especially those Labour-controlled authorities the hon. Gentleman listed. I object to the fact that he has singled out those councils.

At the moment, there are about 27,500 empty council dwellings in London. That represents 3·5 per cent. of the total local authority stock. However, in the private sector there are 93,500 empty properties, or 5 per cent. of the stock. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) said in the debate on homelessness on 10 February, the worst public sector landlord in the country, in terms of keeping properties vacant, is the Government because 6·9 per cent. of their stock is vacant.

Anybody who knows London, who walks around it and who knows its problems, will be affronted to see empty properties, whether publicly or privately owned. It is also obscene to see builders throwing up speculative office blocks when so many people are homeless in our city.

The reasons why, at any one time, some properties are empty in local authority areas, need to be stated. First, some properties are being repaired and are subject to transfer applications. People are viewing them with the possibility of moving in and local authorities are trying to ensure that the allocation of their stock are equal and fair.

However, the Government make the problems of the local authorities much more difficult. As we know from debates and replies to questions in this House, there have been continual cuts in the amounts that the boroughs have to invest in the renovation and maintenance of their stock.

Secondly, planning the repairs schedule for a year is made much more difficult by the Government's late announcements of the money that the boroughs will receive for their forward budgets.

Thirdly, the Government impose cumbersome detailed controls on every repair scheme. Therefore, properties stay vacant in London and throughout the country because they are bottled up in the Minister's Department.

No Labour-controlled local authority in London, or in the country as a whole, deliberately keeps properties vacant. However, plenty of Tory boroughs do that. [Interruption.] In Wandsworth one can see hundreds of empty properties kept empty because the borough will not put them up for letting because it is waiting to sell them off. That is why properties are being deliberately kept empty.

I advise the hon. Member for Norwich, South that some London boroughs have dramatically reduced their voids. Between 1985 and 1986 empty council dwellings were reduced by 11·5 per cent. of stock. Few inner-London boroughs, which have the most problems in our city, have more than 4 per cent. of their stock available.

I am using this debate to raise a specific point with the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction, who looks as urbane as ever. In the debate on 10 February, he referred to the number of empty properties in Newham. He said that 2,400 properties were empty. He would not give way to me or the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) when we attempted to intervene. The Secretary of State did exactly the same thing. The reason that they would not give way was because they knew that they were deliberately twisting the figures to try to suit their argument.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. I must say to the hon. Gentleman that in this House we do not deliberately twist figures. He will please withdraw.

Hon. Members:

Withdraw.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

All I can say is that, if the hon. Gentlemen were not deliberately twisting the figures, they revealed a fundamental ignorance of the statistics that relate to empty properties in Newham. Perhaps I could correct the Minister's misinformation in terms of what he said in that debate. He said that there were—

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

I would not wish to offend the Minister in any way. However, I wish that when he puts forward information that is clearly incorrect, he should at least give those hon. Members with a constituency interest—

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. Let us be generous about this. In the view of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West, the figures were not correct.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

I never deny you anything, Mr. Speaker. I withdraw any such imputation on the Minister's honour. However, I wish that he had allowed me to put this point at the time instead of having to wait for so long.

There are 2,400 empty properties in Newham, of which 394 were being considered and viewed by prospective tenants, 401 were undergoing repairs, 612 were awaiting repairs. 19 were awaiting sales and 10 were awaiting abolition, and there were 1,089 others. That makes up the approximate figure that the Minister gave. However, of the 1,089 other empty properties mentioned by the Minister, 900 are in Ronan Point and in the Taylor Woodrow Anglian tower blocks, which are structurally unsafe. Newham has had to move the residents out of those blocks but they were included in the figures that the Minister gave so that he could try to prove that Newham is deliberately keeping its housing stock vacant. If the Minister did not know that, he is a pretty shabby Minister indeed. That is an example of the way in which figures can be manipulated to make a particular point. [Interruption.] That may be because of where he buys his suits.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. The hon. Gentleman has given his illustration. Will he now say why he opposes the Bill?

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

I should just like to say that many London boroughs, which are continually attacked in the House, such as Brent. Islington, Haringey, Southwark and Hackney are all taking initiatives to reduce the number of vacant properties, and they are succeeding against the odds. They will certainly not be assisted by this Bill.

Those inner-London boroughs need support and resources from the Government. Instead, they are continually attacked by financial cuts and penalties and by a vicious, unprincipled campaign of media lies and distortions in the gutter press. That campaign against those local authorities is encouraged, if not co-ordinated, by the Tory party. The Bill will not assist local authorities and, frankly, I cannot support it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John Powley, Mr. John Heddle, Mr. Patrick Thompson, Mr. Robert B. Jones, Mr. Peter Bruinvels, Mr. Peter Thurnham, Mr. Patrick McLoughlin, Mr. Ralph Howell, Mr. Tony Favell, Mr. Andrew Rowe and Mr. John Watts.