Housing investment programme returns indicated that 2,702 local authority dwellings in the northern region were empty and available for letting at 1 April 1987, the latest date for which figures are available.
Is not the real scandal not that more than 2,000 homes are empty but that no one seems to be doing anything about it? I have asked this question every year for the past five years. Will my hon. Friend consider legislating either to allow young homeless couples to homestead in these empty council properties or to improve letting procedures by providing for compulsory auction of any council homes that are not relet within, say, three months?
Following discussions in Committee on the Housing Bill we are considering measures to reduce the number of local authority empties. My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Panning is to make a statement on the subject at the Report stage of the Housing Bill. I am not convinced, however, that compulsory disposal along the lines suggested is necessarily the most effective means of making housing available to those in greatest need.
I support the principle of encouraging homesteading. My Department encouraged it in circular 12/85. Homesteading depends on low sale prices and purchasers getting improvement grants. The ball is clearly in the local authorities' court. For our part, we are considering changes to the improvement grant regime, to be contained in new legislation.
Will the Minister bear in mind her own splendid example? When 15 houses run by the Property Services Agency in my constituency had been derelict for more than a year the Government gave Newcastle city council £300,000 to bring those derelict houses back into use. Is that an example for the Minister in this case?
One must remember Government empties that are held for operational reasons. My Department does not collect data on reletting times. However, the Audit Commission estimates that if the national average relet period could be reduced by two and a half weeks by better management and by streamlining the reletting procedures, an extra 20,000 dwellings could be occupied. The commission recommends a maximum three-week reletting period. The London borough of Greenwich manages that, but the average time for the borough of Southwark is 24 weeks. That puts 1,800 dwellings out of commission—enough for all its homeless households for a year.
Are there operational reasons that lead to the Government's having 6·9 per cent. Of their properties empty? In average terms, that is three times as many as the number held by a local authority. Why does the Minister have to rely on people such as myself and other Opposition Members going to Government Departments, in the way that I went recently to the Home Office, to get the Government to put back into use houses and flats that have been empty for as long as nine years? When will she do something about Government Departments that have hundreds of thousands of empty houses and flats all over Britain?
Government empties are regularly reviewed and Departments are strongly urged to sell surplus stock. Reduction targets agreed by the Treasury are also set. Where disposal is not practicable, Departments are encouraged to let empties temporarily to local authorities or to housing associations for use by homeless people. The Ministry of Defence has arranged 275 such lettings.