Empty Properties (Liverpool)

– in the House of Commons at 9:56 pm on 17th June 1991.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. David Davis.]

Photo of Mr David Alton Mr David Alton , Liverpool Mossley Hill 10:15 pm, 17th June 1991

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of empty property in Liverpool. At the outset, I want to thank the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, who will reply to the debate, and the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Hargreaves) who introduced a Bill about empty houses last year. He hopes to catch your eye later, Mr. Speaker, to raise some points in addition to those that I will make. I am also grateful for the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) who has raised the issue of empty properties in Merseyside and the Liverpool area on a previous occasion.

I want to begin by putting the debate in context. At present, throughout the United Kingdom there are about 700,000 empty properties, of which 586,000 are in the private sector, 92,000 are owned by local authorities, 19,000 are owned by housing associations and 30,000 by the Government. In the north-west region, 74,657 private properties are standing empty; 24,563 are owned by local authorities, 2,560 are owned by housing associations and 2,571 by the Government.

I want now to contrast the position in Liverpool with that in other cities. In Newcastle, there are 6,790 empty properties. In Manchester, there are 10,760. In Birmingham there are 10,900 and in Sheffield 8,810. Regrettably, this is another of those league tables of which Liverpool is top. According to Mr. Peter Bounds, who is the chief executive of Liverpool city council, at the moment there are 5,733 local authority properties standing vacant in the city of Liverpool. The council admits that some of those have been empty for as long as four years.

In addition, 7,000 properties in the private sector are vacant, and 931 are owned by housing associations. Liverpool city council confirms that if tenants had been living in properties which it owns and which are vacant at present, about £4·5 million of rent would have been collected in the past 12 months alone. That might have helped to offset the £70·99 double poll tax that Liverpool community charge payers are now being forced to pay in lieu of uncollected poll tax. It might also have been a modest contribution to the staggering £800 million city debt which currently burdens the ratepayers of Liverpool.

Massive interest charges, which must be met by Liverpool people, may benefit Swiss and Japanese moneylenders, but they cripple the local administration so much that it has no resources to run local services or to maintain, manage or let properties efficiently. The result is that properties stand empty. They are unrepaired and increasingly vandalised. That, in turn, makes them even more difficult to let.

Trapped in that vicious circle, what has Liverpool done? It has resorted to the unimaginative and costly remedy of demolition. In the past 10 years, Liverpool's Labour council has demolished 12,000 properties. The outstanding debt on the properties that have been demolished is still £23·9 million. That is money still to be paid on properties that have now been pulled down. In the past five years, 6,878 properties have been pulled down in Liverpool—properties that were standing empty. The outstanding debt on those properties is £13·5 million.

Last year alone, 694 properties were demolished at a cost of £376,000 and with outstanding debts of £1·25 million left as a continuing burden to the community charge payers of Liverpool. The council intended to demolish a further 3,500 properties with outstanding debt charges of £8 million. Although the number of properties to be demolished is likely to be reduced to about 1,000, it is an unimaginative, costly and scorched earth approach to the problem.

When I was first elected to Liverpool city council in 1972, the council decided to build an estate called Netherly. Within 12 years, that estate has been so badly neglected, so badly maintained and managed that, with 48 years of debt charges still outstanding, the council had to pull down many of those dwellings—dwellings that had been standing vacant for the previous four or five years.

The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), who is the Minister in the Department of the Environment, knows of a case in my constituency because I have raised it specifically with him. In the St. Andrew's Gardens complex, which is also known as the Bullring, several hundred properties are currently vacant. From the discussion that I held last Friday with housing corporation officials in Liverpool, I know that there is a welcome new Housing Corporation initiative aimed at the Bullring which will involve volume builders, housing associations and the local authority. I hope that Ministers will give it a positive response. Otherwise, the properties will continue to stand empty and blight this area, which is in the very heart of the city, for many more years to come.

When Archihishop Derek Worlock recently carried out a pastoral visitation to that community, he expressed grave disquiet at the appalling conditions in which he found his cathedral parish now living. He has registered his fervent wish that the remaining community be kept together and a housing initiative be taken as a matter of urgency.

One example from that Bullring area, which I have already drawn to the attention of Ministers, is a graphic illustration of the scale and nature of the problem. A gentleman called Michael Stetch lives in a property in Gill street. It is in a corporation complex which, within the past 10 years, has had more than £30,000 spent on improving and modernising it. Within five years, Mr. Stetch decided to take up the right to buy under the Government's right-to-buy legislation and purchased one of the flats. Within another two years the city council decided not to fill any vacancies that occurred in blocks because it decided to demolish them. These are properties on which £300,000 of public money has been spent. The property that is owned by Mr. Stetch, which was bought by that tenant under the right to buy, has now been put in a demolition programme. All the other properties in his block are not being relet and have been left vacant. Now his home is to be compulsorily acquired by the Department of the Environment and demolished. That is the economics of the mad house. I hope that the Government will look at that staggering waste of public money.

There is waste in the private sector, too. The Government must treat the issue comprehensively. In Liverpool, in addition to the 5,500 empty council properties, there are 7,000 empty properties in the private sector. Recently, I wrote to a company in Birmingham, J. Saville Gordon Group plc, concerning a property at 122 Salisbury road, Wavertree. The property had been empty for several years. Its owners, a very large property agency, admitted to me in its reply that it had forgotten that it owned the property, and said that it was grateful to me for drawing the matter to its attention. In fairness, it then said that it would put in hand the rehabilitation and renovation of the property. Although I am grateful for the agency's candour, one must still be critical of the fact that a large property company could so easily forget that it even owns such a property as part of its portfolio. Criticism also stems from the detrimental effects of its empty dwelling on the nearby community.

Every empty property represents a curse on the community. Empty homes become derelict homes and tinder boxes that are easily and regularly set on fire, or they become a target for vandals. Empty homes are a breeding ground for vermin and a public health risk. Empty houses are used as rubbish tips, or as a convenient dumping ground. In a city where some districts have now not seen a refuse collector or a bin man for 13 weeks that means that they are often piled high with rubbish. Children then use them as local playgrounds. They risk contracting deadly diseases such as HIV or hepatitis B from the syringes that have been dumped in the properties. Empty houses are a catalyst for creeping dereliction and decay, which gradually erodes an entire terrace or neighbourhood.

I should like to quote from letters that I have received from constituents who can express far more eloquently than I can the problem of having to live next door to or in the same street as an empty property. Only this week, I received a letter from Mr. B. McKeown of 33 Cromer road, Liverpool 17. The Aigburth area, where Mr. McKeown lives, is a pleasant suburb. Despite all the caricatures that have appeared in the national media in the past few days, many parts of Liverpool are pleasant areas in which to live. However, despite the fact that Aigburth is a desirable residential district, it none the less contains vacant dwellings that cause the sort of problems that are described in Mr. McKeown's letter, which states: The nature of my concern is that this empty house has become a target for local vandals and its condition is deteriorating from day to day. Already there are virtually no window panes intact at the back of the house and the front windows are beginning to be 'put in'. There is open access to the yard of the house and the back door appears to be open … something needs to be done to get the property properly secure in order to prevent any of the potential hazards for local residents that neglected derelict buildings entail. I refer to possible drug and solvent abuse on the premises, physical danger to curious children (from broken glass and fittings etc.), potential violence and sex crimes against children and adults, 'bolt-holes' for burglars, increased incidence of house break-ins for the immediate neighbours, fire hazards, damage to neighbouring property from vandals. The list is endless. I could replicate that letter with many more examples. My secretary, Mrs. Barbara Lewis, has taken nine letters from our files, dated 23 April, to show the range of letters that I sent on just one day to different departments in Liverpool about properties such as 70 Gladstone road, another on the corner of Cecily street and Wavertree road, and others in Royston street, and in Edge lane in Edgehill. There are many such properties in different parts of my constituency and throughout Liverpool as a whole. They are a bane to the people who have to live alongside them.

I have been given details of a particularly bad example by Councillor Mrs. Cathy Hancox who has complained about a property at 90 Ashbourne road in Aigburth, Liverpool 17. That case was so bad that it was considered by Liverpool city council, which resolved that the property was

  1. "(a) an environmental eyesore and is detrimental to the immediate residents.
  2. (b) the site is used for drug activities and anti-social behaviour; and
  3. (c) as a result of (a) and (b) residents in the immediate area are living under a great deal of stress and emotional trauma."
Inevitably, the council found that the legislation was inadequate to force that property to be put back into proper use. Again, I could replicate that experience with examples from many parts of my constituency. They provide just a glimpse of what it is like for those who are unlucky enough to live next to such properties.

There is one reason above all others why this issue should be tackled head on. The fact that 700,000 properties stand vacant in our country today is an affront to the 150,000 homeless people in Liverpool and the 2 million families that Shelter says needs homes.

On 27 December 1990, The Guardian reported that the Minister had come to the same conclusion. The report stated: The Government is believed to be considering legislation to make up to 100,000 empty private homes available to the homeless.A Department of Environment analysis is believed to have concluded that nearly one in six of the 600,000 empty properties in the private sector are empty for no justifiable reason. That is a conclusion with which I concur. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us tonight how that initiative is doing.

During the 1970s I served as the housing chairman of the Liverpool city council and as chairman of its special working party dealing with homelessness. For the past decade I have also been a trustee of Crisis, formerly Crisis at Christmas, which is the biggest charity in Britain dealing with homelessness. The Minister will know that this year we have allocated £1·96 million to 250 projects. Although Crisis welcomes the Department's £96 million London street homeless initiative, we expressed disappointment that only £3 million has so far been specifically targeted for other cities such as Liverpool and Manchester.

Stuart Craig, the director of Crisis, said: Our grants announced today will do much to help those who are living the nightmare of homelessness. But to ensure that people in the future do not have to suffer the same fate the Government must make the provision of cheap and affordable housing its number one priority. Large numbers of Liverpool people drift to London and become homeless. Centrepoint in Soho says that over 10 per cent. of the homeless young people whom it saw last year came from the north-west of England, primarily from Liverpool and Manchester. It says: For too many of the young people we see, they have been homeless in their own area before moving to London and they have no option but to move to London where they presume they will have a greater opportunity of finding employment and accommodation. All too often, of course, they end up either on the streets or in emergency shelters.Centrepoint would also be keen that homeless people from Liverpool wishing to return home could have access to housing in their 'home area'. What can the Government do? Clearly, they can match the problem of homelessness and the drift to London by trying to put back into use the great resource of empty homes in areas such as Liverpool. They could draw up a register such as that suggested by Shelter, so that we can identify the empty properties in the country. They could take punitive action against those, whether in the public or the private sector, who deliberately and wantonly leave properties empty and allow them to become derelict eyesores and breeding grounds for vermin. Such houses are often festering, dangerous, broken-backed properties. Instead, they could provide somewhere for people to live. These are simply and clearly home truths, with which I hope that the Minister will agree. I hope that he will address some of the points that I have raised tonight.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Hargreaves Mr Kenneth Hargreaves , Hyndburn 10:31 pm, 17th June 1991

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) for allowing me to take part in this short debate. The position in Liverpool that he described is a scandal. The Labour council is a disaster for all the people of Liverpool. But it is especially disastrous for the poorest members of the Liverpool community, many of whom are trying to bring up children in bed-and-breakfast accommodation where family life is impossible. That that can be allowed to happen is bad enough, but that it can be allowed to happen when there are more than 5,000 empty council properties in Liverpool is disgraceful. It shows that the Labour council in Liverpool does not care or is completely incompetent—or both. Whichever it is, the position is a disaster for many Liverpool families who deserve better.

Unfortunately, under a Labour-controlled council, the position in Liverpool will not improve unless my hon. Friend the Minister intervenes. Therefore, I ask him to examine closely the Empty Property and Community Aid Bill, which I introduced in 1988, with the support of the hon. Member for Mossley Hill. The Bill would help Liverpool enormously because it would ensure the maximum possible use of houses left empty for many years.

The mere existence of large numbers of empty properties is evidence that new initiatives are needed. The Bill would require local authorities to register all empty residential property and provide the Secretary of State for the Environment with an annual statement of their strategy for bringing back into use any empty properties that they own. Councils would be obliged to allow community groups such as housing associations and other voluntary bodies to use empty properties in their possession for housing homeless families unless the council can give a good reason why the properties should remain empty.

Clearly, there can be no reason why 5,000 properties in Liverpool should be empty. If the Empty Property and Community Aid Bill were law now, thousands of Liverpool families would have had the opportunity to be rehoused, an opportunity now denied them by the incompetence of the Labour-controlled council.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment) 10:34 pm, 17th June 1991

I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) on obtaining this opportune debate at a time when, once again, Liverpool is the focus of national attention. The voters of Walton are now confronted with the real face —or should I say faces—of the Labour party. The Labour party has sought to obscure one of those faces for the past two years. The hon. Gentleman rightly condemned the Labour party's past policy in the city.

I share the aims of the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Hargreaves).

The Government entirely reject the figures from Shelter which the hon. Member for Mossley Hill quoted. They are a gross exaggeration and are almost entirely without foundation in terms of the relationship that they bear to the true numbers of homeless.

I agree that we must make much better use of the existing housing stock. The existence of so many vacant properties, particularly those in the hands of local authorities, is nothing short of a national scandal. It must be addressed as a matter of urgency. As the hon. Member for Mossley Hill said, at the last count there were 100,000 empty council houses in the country of which more than 5,000 were in Liverpool. That is deeply disturbing. I t is all the more unsatisfactory against the background of large numbers of empty properties in the private sector to which the hon. Member for Mossley Hill also referred.

That situation has been brought about largely by decades of hostility to the private landlord. Alas, that hostility, even though it is expressed by the Opposition alone, is enough to deter the majority of private landlords from risking the future security of their property by letting it in case of retrospective changes in legislation.

Almost 9 per cent. of the dwellings in the public sector in Liverpool are now vacant. Almost 6,000 properties are now lying vacant and are deteriorating. The reckless policies and the gross mismanagement of the Militant administration in the mid-1980s must take the main share of the blame for that state of affairs. That state of affairs has even been acknowledged by the former leader of the Liverpool Labour group, Mr. Coombes. After his resignation, he described the Labour-run council as the worst landlord in Liverpool, probably in the country". He went on to acknowledge that The council's problems are not down to resources. Even when the Liberals were in control of Liverpool council in the early 1980s they failed to tackle the difficulties that the city then faced. The hon. Member for Mossley Hill has already admitted that he was chairman of the housing committee for part of that time.

Photo of Mr David Alton Mr David Alton , Liverpool Mossley Hill

I was chairman in the 1970s.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon.

The policy of total municipalisation as the answer to long-standing problems of disrepair has had a further damaging impact on the state of affairs in Liverpool.

In the 1980s, the Government urged the council to follow a pluralist approach of repairing and renewing existing stock, and, where necessary, of providing new housing for rent and sale. The city council not only disregarded that advice at the time, but set out on a deliberate policy of municipal new build. By doing so it spent disastrously beyond its means and created enduring difficulties for its successors and the people of Liverpool.

If any evidence is needed of the utter folly of expecting a monopoly local authority landlord to offer an effective response to the housing needs of a great city, one need look no further than Liverpool. The council pursued that policy through the late 1980s, and that exacerbated the difficulties already faced by the city and created a financial albatross that now inhibits the efforts of the city council. It will continue to do so for some time.

There is no sign whatever that either of the Labour candidates in the Walton by-election have learnt that lesson. The real Labour candidate, as so-called, Lesley Mahmood, served as an official Labour councillor. How can we expect Labour candidates to learn that lesson when the Labour party leadership is still wedded to the idea of meeting every housing need by pouring more and more money into local authority hands regardless of how it is spent? When it comes to housing policy, the Labour party is still living in the 1950s.

The Government consider that in renewing the fabric of social housing we must provide choice and diversity of tenure. Tenants must have a measure of control over their environment and living conditions. Problems can often be solved simply through better management, especially where the greater involvement of tenants can be achieved. It is no coincidence that there are no estate management boards in Liverpool, despite its appalling problems.

The strategy developed by Labour for running Liverpool's housing in the mid-1908s involved channelling huge resources into a limited number of areas and leaving the remainder of the stock to deteriorate. Liverpool's record of managing and maintaining the great majority of its stock in recent years has been abysmal. Its rent policy has been equally disastrous, with no increases for almost eight years up to last year. The result has exacerbated the maintenance problems. Despite those low rents, it has failed to collect no less than £23 million. Furthermore, the council has deliberately chosen to work against the grain of Government policy, ignoring the role of housing associations as the main providers of new social housing and rejecting the enormous potential offered by the private sector.

The Government have responded in a number of ways. We are allocating large sums under our estate action programme to enable properties to be refurbished and reoccupied. Since the more moderate Labour administration of Councillor Harry Rimmer came to power, a large number of properties on five estates are being dealt with through the allocation of more than £35 million from the estate action programme.

As with other estate action programmes, that involves the residents of the estates in close discussions with the city council over the way in which their homes can be repaired. I am pleased to say that residents are responding enthusiastically. Even the city council is now keen to press ahead, although its financial difficulties, the result of putting into practice socialist dogma in the mid-1980s, is limiting its response.

The leader of the council, Harry Rimmer, has taken an initiative in conjunction with the chairman of the Housing Corporation, Sir Christopher Benson. The so-called Rimmer-Benson initiative proposed collaboration with several volume private house builders who would refurbish or convert blocks of vacant housing. The improved houses or flats would then either be sold or transferred to housing association ownership for rent, or rented within the private sector. There may also be opportunities for the involvement of housing co-operatives. That would address directly the problem of the many vacant properties in Liverpool.

Officials from my Department are working with Liverpool city council and the Housing Corporation to prepare a detailed assessment of the possibilities. I expect a report to go to my hon. Friend the Minister of State soon.

A further initiative offers prospects of improved housing. Hon. Members will know of the Government's policy on housing action trusts. It is based on the successful renovation of the Stockbridge village in Merseyside. The recent agreement by residents to a HAT in Hull has stimulated Liverpool to consider whether it, too, could benefit from a similar venture, taking advantage of Government finanical resources and involving the support of the residents, other housing agencies and the private sector. The city is examining the possibilities in detail and we expect to hear from it soon. I hope that it takes advantage of this opportunity.

Merseyside has a strong tradition of activity and innovation in provision by housing associations, for both new build and refurbished properties. There are many excellent housing association schemes, some on former local authority sites and others on sites provided by the private sector. The Government have maintained a high level of funding to the housing associations, both to the main approved development programme and through the Merseyside special allocation instituted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State some years ago.

As for private sector housing, the proportion of vacant dwellings in Liverpool is about 6 per cent. above the national average. I am glad to say that builders and developers have not deserted Merseyside during the economic downturn. Indeed, house prices have remained firm during the past couple of years. The range of housing available is impressive and includes a good proportion of cheap starter homes.

In addition, I am glad to say that some builders have taken a strong interest in the refurbishment of derelict non-residential buildings close to the centre of the city. I commend the house builders and developers who are prepared to take the risks attached to such ventures. The signs are that they are justified and that there is demand for refurbished properties close to the city centre.

I hope that when the city council comes to put in its bid to my right hon. Friend to be a pacemaker authority under the city challenge it will consider the prospects for refurbishment and redevelopment of existing semi-derelict or derelict properties in the pacemaker area. I am sure that there are prospects of residential units for social housing, extra accommodation for students and better quality housing for city centre workers. Such a step would help to bring back the population to the centre—a, step which we all hope will be taken.

I am more confident about the prospects for dealing with the problems of vacant dwellings in Liverpool now that the controlling Labour group has seen the wisdom of the Government's approach to these matters and is showing signs of being prepared to work with, not against, the grain of our policies. I look forward over the next two or three years to a partnership between central and local government, the private sector and the housing association movement, together with the community, to sort out this severe problem of empty properties in Liverpool.

I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman refer to his proposals for tackling empty properties and his suggestion that private landlords might be dealt with in what sounded like a somewhat punitive way in extreme cases. I am not attracted by that concept. There are already enough disincentives for the prospective private landlord without threatening further action against him. What we need is more carrot and less stick. That is a better way to get private homes for rent and why the Government have recently launched another initiative to promote the involvement of housing associations in the management of private property, with the aim of encouraging landlords to' consider letting to homeless families and individuals.

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue at an opportune time. I am not pessimistic about the future. I have explained that there are several initiatives which will help to improve housing in Liverpool and to decrease the number of vacant dwellings. All these initiatives have an excellent chance of success, provided that the city council does not return to its bad old ways.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.