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Housing (London)

Volume 892: debated on Friday 23 May 1975

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3.30 p.m.

The problems of the West Midlands, great though they are, must give way to the serious problem of unoccupied houses in Greater London. I venture to raise this matter with the House because it is growing greater as time goes on. According to the 1971 Census, there were 99,730 vacant dwellings in Greater London on census night. The Greater London Council's strategic housing plan of 1974 stated that the number of empty houses in Greater London had risen from 1·6 per cent. to 4 per cent. of the total housing stock over that period.

It follows that the problem is getting worse, and the system is not in any way curing it. The reasons for houses being empty are varied. There are several classes into which the houses fall. First, there are the newly-built or newly-converted houses which are awaiting purchasers or tenants. The problems which these houses raise reflect more questions of house purchase, mortgages, interest rates and the general state of the country than anything else about which the Government can take action.

The second class involves property designated for demolition and for local authority redevelopment. These houses fall into the class of vacant housing, which has become a scandal in Greater London. It is something which, equally, because of the economic condition of the country at present, has resulted in the problem being tackled less and less successfully, not because of unwillingness on the part of the councillors. However, when a house owner or a tenant of a house in an area which is scheduled for redevelopment by a local authority knows that he is to be rehoused or moved, or that his house is to be compulsorily purchased, clearly the tendency is for him to get out as soon as he can find suitable alternative accommodation elsewhere. The result is to maximise the time during which a property may be empty while demolition or redevelopment is taking place. A large number of houses are standing empty in different areas of Greater London for this reason and there is an apparent inability on the part of local authorities to fill them. This has led to the problem of squatting.

I acknowledge that some progress has been made in giving legal responsibility to arrangements with squatters' associations under which there can be a form of "official" squatting. The Guardian estimated on 6th July 1974 that the number of houses so occupied by "official" squatters was 4,000. However, when we consider that there are approximately 100,000 vacant dwellings in London—a figure which, incidentally, is just about the total estimated number of homeless people in the whole of England—we realise that there is a great deal of scope for improvement. We should provide more temporary and short-term arrangements to fill houses which are in perfectly good condition to deal with the short-term housing of homeless people.

The third category of houses are those which are privately owned and rented, and which are awaiting demolition, or conversion into flats for sale. The process of emptying them is inevitably slow. Individual conversions, which are often dependent upon planning consents being obtained, are inevitably slow, and are getting slower. The bureaucratic machine for dealing with these matters is getting clogged and is dealing less and less efficiently with the proposals made by private owners for large houses to be converted into flats, thus providing more homes for people needing them.

This is, I am afraid, often inevitable. In the case of a large block needed for redevelopment it is a matter of waiting for the last tenant to move out, thus gradually seeing the whole place become empty, and many places that could be used as perfectly good homes are unoccupied meanwhile. There is a great deal of scope here for progress to be made and for avoiding that very depressing spectacle, which many hon. Members of constituencies in the London area find, of houses remaining empty, gradually deteriorating and being vandalised, so that ultimately they cannot be used for housing purposes at all. In Orpington there are two such houses in the road in which I live. They were originally very good houses, occupied until the people who sold them moved out. They are subject to redevelopment, and they deteriorated to become buildings which could no longer be occupied for housing purposes.

Then there are the houses which remain empty, unoccupied, because their owners, not being owner-occupiers, have been frightened by rent control, and, in particular, by the Rent Act of 1974, into leaving them empty rather than putting tenants in them of whom they might not approve, who might not pay the rent, and whom they could not get out because of the law. Rent control generally is the cause of the whole housing problem. It has probably been a greater cause of homelessness in this country than any other single factor. I wish that Members of the Labour Party would realise this and not press on constantly in their desire to control rents, to depress them to such uneconomic levels that it is no longer possible, quite apart from desirable, for private individuals and private companies to build houses for rent.

A Press notice issued by the Department of the Environment on 7th February refers to a recent speech by the Minister for Housing and Construction:
"The solution to the problem of empty housing and the homeless could not be found in short-term leases but by working through a local authority or housing association. He"
—the Minister—
"also stressed the need for local authorities to start work immediately on surveys of the use of all the housing stock in their areas."
That is a rather typical example of the approach of this Government to the problem. A good idea suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys-Williams)—short-term tenancies—was the object of this criticism by the Minister, but it is something that deserves consideration. Referring the whole question back to the councils for yet another survey will not get us any nearer to a solution of this problem.

I have no brief for those private owners of property who keep them empty for personal and private reasons. They do so knowing full well that they may have to pay rates on them, and they take it on their own responsibility to do so. But there remains the problem of under-occupation of large houses by single remaining members of families which formerly fully occupied them. There are many such examples in my own constituency. Large houses, with six or seven bedrooms, in the occupation of the last remaining member of the family—very often an elderly widow or spinster who has no money to convert them or to buy a property elsewhere, and certainly no encouragement to try any such change.

The result is the run down and deterioration' of the whole property' when what is needed is encouragement and co-operation to assist in its conversion, so that the present owner may continue to live in it and at the same time have the satisfaction of knowing that he or she is providing accommodation for other less fortunate members of the community and also, perhaps, deriving a small income from the rents.

The main problem to which I wish to draw attention is the number of houses kept empty by the sheer bureaucratic indifference of many authorities, including the Government. I draw attention to two cases involving constituents of mine, which illustrate the problem.

Mr. and Mrs. Cowen, of Petts Wood, are an elderly couple who for many years have owned a house in the London borough of Wandsworth. They let it, subject to rent control, at a small rent to a single person who died four or more years ago. The owners then wished, naturally, to sell their property, only to discover that their tenant, some time before, had sub-let the upper floor without their knowledge and consent. They were advised that they could not get this person out without a court order, and that they were unlikely to get that. They were offered the existing rent that the sub-tenant was then paying, which was only a few shillings. The result is that most of the house has remained empty since then, in an area of acute housing shortage and an area in which the local council has made much, recently, of its acute problems of housing shortage. The council has declined to purchase the property, because it is not being offered with vacant possession. Meanwhile, here is a practically empty house available to the local council which could accommodate a small family but which is not being used.

There is another and perhaps more serious aspect of the problem. It has caused some people to be homeless. At least six properties in one ward in my constituency are empty because, by the planning consent which was given when they were built or converted, they may be occupied only by agricultural workers. The number of agricultural workers in Orpington is not large, and most of them are housed adequately already. There is no demand for the houses concerned, despite extensive advertising with local estate agents, but there is a big demand for houses from city workers and other people desiring them in the constituency.

One such case has made a family homeless. Mr. Richard Knox-Johnston, a brother of the world famous sailor, lived with his family, including two children, in a house adjacent to his parents' family home, which stands in its own fairly extensive grounds and garden next door. The smaller house was converted from a dairy in 1968, and the planning consent given for the conversion stipulated that it should be occupied by the gardener of the larger house.

Mr. Knox-Johnston, senior, died in 1970. The family circumstances changed. The larger house was converted into flats and, in 1970, Mr. Richard Knox-Johnston came to live in Dairy Cottage with his family, having given up his Army career to do so. But no one could afford any longer to employ a gardener, and Mr. Knox-Johnston's occupation of Dairy Cottage was therefore in breach of the planning consent. Incredibly, an application to remove the restriction was rejected by the local planning authority, as was the appeal against the decision by the inspector who acted on the Minister's behalf. So a young family were made homeless—by order, in effect, of the Minister. A perfectly good house is unoccupied, by order of the Minister.

When I raised the case with the Minister privately by correspondence, he said that the planning procedures had been gone through, the appeal procedure had been gone through, and he had no power to intervene. Yet it remains a fact that the house is a perfectly good one and could house at least one family of homeless people. As the result of the actions of the bureaucracy, one family, in effect, has been evicted.

I wonder whether the Minister knows how foolish his Department appears to the people concerned when decisions of that kind are taken. I suggest that a special unit ought to be created in the Department to deal with unoccupied houses to cut through the bureaucratic jungle which causes personal tragedies like this and makes a mockery of the Government's expressed feelings about homeless people and the housing shortage.

3.46 p.m.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) has raised the topic of empty houses in London. I should like to speak on the broad subject before turning to the particular class of problem to which he referred in detail. It is an important subject and for that very reason it must be seen in its proper context.

The sight of dwellings standing empty is only one symptom of the general problem of how to match a varied and changing housing stock as new dwellings are built and others grow old to a varied and changing housing need.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the example of the large house from which the family gradually drifted. I think that point is taken here. For example, as my Department pointed out in the circular "Housing: Needs and Action", households are now, on average, much smaller. More than half of the households in the country are now of one or two people and clearly there is difficulty in matching this need to a stock which generally consists of comparatively large dwellings. Other symptoms of this difficult problem of matching needs to resources are homelessness, including the single homeless, squatting and the long lists of families who have applied to the London boroughs for help in housing. It would be wrong, therefore, in discussing the numbers of empty houses in London, to imagine that the solution lies in a narrow approach.

Let us first look at the figures. Empty houses represent only a small proportion of the London housing stock. Of course, as the total stock is so large—over 2½ million dwellings—even a small proportion inevitably amounts to a sizeable number.

The 1971 census gave a figure of just under 100,000 empty dwellings in Greater London, of which 9,000 were new units not yet occupied. The census included houses in the process of being let, sold, converted or improved or which were awaiting clearance. All dwellings were included in this count if, for any reason, they appeared vacant to the enumerator at the time he visited the property. Even so, the total figure was still only 3·8 per cent. of London's housing stock.

There are some more recent figures. Returns to an inquiry carried out for London Boroughs Association in April 1973 showed that 51,400 private hereditaments had been empty for three months or more and that about 1 per cent.—something over 5,000—of borough council dwellings were vacant at the time. The latter figure agrees with my Department's own survey results, which showed that on 31st December 1973 there were 1 per cent. of local authority dwellings vacant and available for letting.

Overall, bearing in mind the differences in definition for different surveys, incomplete returns and inevitable errors, the general picture seems to be that there might be some 50,000 to 60,000 dwellings empty in London over any significant period.

Let us look at why dwellings are left vacant. For a start, while I said that the total of vacant dwellings in London amounted to less than 4 per cent., it is true that this proportion of the London housing stock could house a great number of people in housing need—if, and only if, those empty dwellings were fit and available for occupation, and I think we shall find that relatively few of them are.

In the public sector, the proportion of dwellings empty at any one time is, as I have said, about 1 per cent. Of course, the public sector accounts only for about 27 per cent. of dwellings in London, so we can immediately refute the accusation that half the empty dwellings in London are owned by local authorities. That is frequently said. The public sector is always concerned to keep its stock as full as possible with rent-paying tenants. It is an obvious common sense approach in budgeting, quite apart from local authorities' duties and, I am sure, desires to provide housing for those in need.

There has been considerable progress with minimising the turn-round time for council tenancies. Computerisation of rent rolls has led the way to the use of automation to help in allocating dwellings which fall vacant. We in the Department look to local authorities to push further ahead, in using these and allied techniques, to make the fullest possible use of their stocks.

While dealing with the inevitability of a certain number of dwellings being empty while they change hands, I remind the House of the considered view of the Standing Working Party on London Housing, which reported in 1970 that in the case of London there was a need for a vacancy reserve of 5 per cent. in Inner London and 4 per cent. in outer London, which is a total of 116,000 vacant dwellings, 4·4 per cent., to allow an adequate degree of mobility, excluding dwellings empty for repair, demolition or for any other reason. That is a high figure.

On the subject of clearance, does not the Minister agree that one of the problems is that the Ministry takes so long to make planning decisions in relation to clearance that councils are often left with vast amounts of council or private housing with which they cannot deal because it is left empty? It causes tremendous aggravation to the local community, and the housing stock is damaged while the decision is awaited.

Planning permission involves some delay. One of the problems is that the more we involve people in planning decisions, the longer the delay. Wearing my other and perhaps more familiar hat, as regards roads there is delay because people are involved. The Conservative Government noticeably extended the participation of local people in planning, which meant yet further delay. If we give people time to think of the alternatives, there will be delay and blight in some areas.

I emphasise the delay between the inquiry taking place—we agree we want maximum participation—and the result of the inquiry being made known.

I have a fair amount of experience of this problem. If the inquiries are to be thorough they will last a long time. It takes a long time to produce the reports. For example, the inquiry into the M16 has continued since last November. We cannot expect the inspector to do his job thoroughly and to write his report in a week. We expect the inspectors to take time in which to investigate thoroughly, visit sites and write their reports.

I often wish we had a General Hausmann, who took all the decisions himself. In that case we would obtain the benefits of what General Hausmann did in Paris. The Parisians of the period were not happy about the high-handed way in which he bundled them out of their houses. He told them that he intended to build an avenue. They were not allowed to participate in the planning. There are extremes. We try to have the reports published as quickly as possible compatible with the expression of local opinion on what should happen in the area. We could hold a long debate on this subject. If the Labour Party were in opposition it would also be impatient with and criticise the time it times to get decisions.

Turning to dwellings which are not simply empty between owner-occupiers leaving and others moving in, we come to what we consider to be the hard core of the problem. For England and Wales, the 1971 House Condition Survey showed that 76 per cent. of vacant properties had been built before 1919 and that 40 per cent. of the vacancies were unfit. It is inevitable that these proportions are even higher for London where there is a higher than average proportion of older dwellings, and higher still in Inner London where the proportion of older dwellings is higher than for London as a whole.

The picture in this sector is therefore not of vast numbers of empty dwellings awaiting occupation but of a number of old, decayed and even unfit houses which need considerable attention before they can be brought into use.

Action on improving these dwellings must be speeded as much as possible. We are in no doubt on that score, and my right hon. Friend is taking steps to see that this is done. While decisions are being taken and plans prepared, maximum use must be made of any dwellings which can be used. My hon. Friend, the Minister for Housing and Construction, replying to my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. Jeger) on 25th February this year, mentioned scope for ad hoc arrangements between private owners of empty houses and local authorities or housing associations; use of short life property for homeless families; schemes for authorities to manage properties for large private owners; conversion of larger houses in the public sector; and a rapid repairs service.

These are among a number of possibilities being incorporated in a formal consultation paper about the better use of the existing housing stock. This paper will incorporate ideas already gleaned from discussions with bodies such as the Institute of Housing Managers, the Housing Corporation, the Greater London Council and the London Boroughs Association, plus those measures which have already been studied since February on the question of how much empty housing, even in short periods, can be put to use for the homeless. The problem will then be discussed with the local authority associations and with representatives of private owners—for example, the British Property Federation.

In this approach, our plan is not merely to make heavy inroads on the numbers of empty dwellings in London but to improve the match between stock on the one hand and need on the other—not to concentrate on the bricks and mortar but to provide for the homeless, for the smaller households and for all those in housing need.

The hon. Member raised a particular constituency case, relating to the policy of local planning authorities in restricting the occupancy of certain dwelling-houses by imposing a condition limiting the occupation to an agricultural worker. He suggested that this could lead to the creation of a further empty dwelling.

I know that the hon. Gentleman has been in touch with the Department on this subject and that there has been some correspondence. I am sure he is aware that where such a condition is imposed but the owner considers it is no longer justifiable, he may apply to the local planning authority to have the condition removed. In the event of a refusal he can appeal to the Secretary of State. But the condition will not normally be removed unless it is shown that the long-term needs for dwellings for agricultural workers on a particular farm or in the locality no longer warrant reservation of the dwelling for that purpose.

In the case of the hon. Gentleman's constituent the inspector who dealt with the appeal obviously did not agree that this criterion had been met. But if the constituent feels at some future date that circumstances have changed sufficiently to warrant a further application, there is no reason why she should not apply again to the local planning authority. There would be a still further right of appeal to my right hon. Friend.

But the person concerned is now homeless. He cannot apply at some future time—he does not live there any more.

The owner can still apply to have the condition waived. Since there was an appeal to an independent inspector, we must assume that there was some substance in the decision that was handed down.

It being Four o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.


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