Empty Homes (Hyndburn)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 13th December 2011.

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Photo of Graham Jones Graham Jones Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons) 1:30 pm, 13th December 2011

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Osborne—for the first time, I think. It is also an honour to have secured this Adjournment debate on empty homes in Hyndburn, an issue close to my heart and a huge problem in my constituency. The debate is very welcome, after the recent launch of the Government’s housing strategy, with much surrounding national publicity.

The causes of empty homes and the issues and problems connected with them are complex and vary around the country. In Hyndburn and other parts of Pennine Lancashire, the biggest factors are over-supply and low demand. Hyndburn has a total housing stock of 36,447, but there are only 34,201 resident households in the borough. Simply put, we have more residential dwellings than households that require homes. Most up-to-date figures indicate that we have 2,546 vacant dwellings—nearly 7% of the total housing stock—of which 1,579 are long-term empties. Vacant housing is therefore almost inevitable, as we do not have a housing shortage.

The causes and solutions go beyond housing. We need support for growth, which will stimulate the local economy. We need to boost the local gross domestic product. Our housing offer needs to support the growth agenda, so we need to provide greater choice and flexibility, as well as affordable homes. Unfortunately, choice is limited in Hyndburn, and more than 50% of our housing stock is terraced, most of it with two bedrooms. There is nothing wrong with terraced housing—I live in a terraced house—but we need to modernise and improve those houses; otherwise we will not retain households or attract new ones. In fact, demand for new housing only exaggerates the problem of the older stock.

Demand and modernisation are the focus in dealing with empty homes in Hyndburn. Nearly half the vacant homes are in neighbourhoods surrounding the centre of Accrington and most are pre-1919 two-bedroom—as we would expect—terraced houses, many of which are in serious disrepair; the climate is of course damp, and private landlord activity is significant, at around 30% of overall tenure. We currently have 1,310 people in need on the housing register, mainly because of inappropriate housing and related poor conditions. The reasons for homes being vacant vary, and in Hyndburn the reasons are certainly different from those described by Jason McCartney, when he raised the matter of empty homes in the House on 29 November. Our problem is not overdevelopment, but over-supply and a lack of choice.

High concentrations of long-term vacant dwellings blight our neighbourhoods and the solution that is needed is a long-term, comprehensive approach to regeneration. Although the housing market renewal programme was not perfect, it was as close as we have come to a comprehensive approach. The ending of the programme has left a legacy, and community expectations remain. The recent award of £2.3 million transitional funding allows us to meet our remaining legal obligations, as well as to relocate a number of households that are trapped in potential clearance areas. However, low demand has not gone away and there is a continuing need to regenerate some of Hyndburn’s neighbourhoods that were never included in the HMR programme.

I welcome Government support for new house building, but I am seriously concerned that elements of it will not work in areas of low housing demand. Government housing policy remains driven by the south, ignoring the nuances of the housing problems in northern towns. Greater flexibility is required. Regeneration is a long-term, comprehensive process, which is aimed at tackling social, economic, physical and environmental issues in places where the market has simply failed. There is a risk that the remaining resources will go to growth areas, rather than to help more deprived areas, and that that will exacerbate the problem. I understand that value for money is important, but I ask the Government to identify, or top-slice, funding to assist growth in less affluent areas, such as Haslingden and Hyndburn. That would at least give more deprived areas a competitive chance, as well as supporting economic growth.

I understand that the second tranche of the £50 million for low-demand areas must be match funded. That is a significant problem. I must advise the Minister that that is nigh on impossible in Hyndburn, so his policy will disadvantage Hyndburn in comparison with larger local authorities with greater access to resources. As a small district authority, Hyndburn receives only 15% of the council tax that is collected. Lancashire, the shire authority, has no interest in empty homes. Hyndburn has already matched funded the transitional grant from HMR, to the tune of £2.3 million. It no longer receives capital funding, with the end of the Government’s support for a housing capital fund.

As I have previously pointed out in the House, the new homes bonus is insignificant in Hyndburn. The amounts have been residual and small, and new house building only exacerbates the problem of over-supply, because it disadvantages areas of low demand. In short, Hyndburn has run out of available resources with which to generate match funding. The local authority’s budget is due to diminish from some £17 million to about £11 million in 2014. Unfortunately, the funding will not be anywhere near enough to address the 300,000-plus long-term empty homes across the country.

On 29 November in the House, I expressed my shock that local authorities cannot bid for the empty homes fund, and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Andrew Stunell, advised me that that was not the case, as reported at column 915 of that day’s Hansard. I have now had the opportunity to review the guidance for the £100 million fund, and it is clear to me that only registered providers and community and voluntary groups can apply—not local authorities such as Hyndburn, which are not registered social providers. I welcome the support for community and voluntary groups, but otherwise limiting the funding just to registered providers is a missed opportunity in an area with a significant problem. Allocating funds to local authorities would have provided more flexibility and innovation.

In addition, the guidance for the £100 million does not allow bids for vacant dwellings in council ownership. That is another missed opportunity. Hyndburn council owns long-term vacant houses not because it is a landlord, but because it is a former housing market renewal pathfinder. Allowing the former pathfinder local authorities to use the funding in partnership with others, including registered providers, would allow greater flexibly in addressing some of those depressing images that Channel 4 recently highlighted in the former HMR areas, and there would be viable alternatives to demolition, which is what I believe the Government want to encourage. I therefore hope that when the Government draft their guidance for the £50 million for empty homes in low-demand areas, they will bear my comments in mind: more freedom and flexibility, led by local authorities, will achieve more innovation and better value for money. Unless I am mistaken, that is the Government’s objective.

I am led to believe that bids for empty homes funding will be made from at least one registered provider in Hyndburn and from the local authority if the second tranche of funding permits. Our priority area is known as Woodnook and has nearly 350 vacant homes, with ownership in both the private and public sectors. I am pleased to inform the Minister that we are working with a private sector partner to bring in £7 million of investment to convert and refurbish 89 long-term vacant homes—many of which have been vacant for two years—without public sector funding. However, I hope that the Department for Communities and Local Government will look favourably on applications from our partners to extend the innovative work that we are doing to more vacant homes in this neighbourhood, as well as elsewhere in the borough.

I have on several occasions in the past raised the issues and problems caused by some landlords in Hyndburn; I find it necessary to do so again in relation to empty properties. Unfortunately, private landlords contribute directly to the problem of empty homes and of low housing demand through poor standards of management and maintenance. When I requested the information, I was told that slightly more than 80% of the empty properties are in the hands of private landlords. Although I acknowledge that legislation exists to introduce selective licensing in areas of low demand, the measures required to introduce a licensing scheme are onerous and potentially costly to the public purse, as Hyndburn found, regrettably, to its cost, having had to fork out £100,000 in a lost case in the High Court during—I must add—the previous Administration.

The Government’s new housing strategy quite rightly acknowledges the private rented sector’s essential role in the housing market. However, I would welcome a commitment from the Government to hold an independent review, to try to improve standards in the private rented sector and to relax the bureaucracy that currently exists when seeking to establish a selective licensing designation. I understand that the council is considering a new licensing designation, but the potential for a legal challenge and subsequent cost may be a deterrent. If the rules and guidance were simplified and made more transparent, thus making such a designation easier, more local authorities would be encouraged to consider using the power.

I welcome the consultation on an empty homes premium on council tax, payable on homes that have been left empty for more than two years. I fully support the initiative, but I ask that in two-tier authorities—this problem keeps coming back—district councils retain the premium, as that is where the burden to council tax payers currently exists.