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Empty Houses (Public Authorities)

Volume 930: debated on Wednesday 20 April 1977

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asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will institute an inquiry to determine the extent to which rented housing owned by Government Departments, nationalised industries, public authorities and local authorities is standing empty and is likely to remain empty for more than a matter of weeks.

I do not think that a survey of one sector would be appropriate. I am commissioning a sample survey of vacant dwellings to be undertaken later this year. This will look at causes and at the length of time dwellings remain empty.

In view of the scarcity of available resources, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it would be desirable to offer on advantageous terms to first-time house buyers properties that are not occupied but under some degree of public ownership, that being a better use of resources and of advantage to those who wish to purchase their own homes?

No, I do not accept that as a general proposition. Much more importantly, I wish to see local authorities and housing associations that are involved in the purchasing of properties on the market and in acquisition programmes seeking to implement their programmes of modernisation and improvement more rapidly and economically—I know, for example, that many local authorities are doing so—so that the dwellings may be more quickly occupied. In that general context there may be particular situations in which dwellings can be made available to first-time buyers or other buyers down-market. I wish to encourage local authorities along those lines, and a number of them are so acting. I visited Newcastle quite recently. The authority there is one of those which are taking precisely that course. Other authorities are doing so as well.

Will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that the random sample will include houses bought up by his own Department in anticipation of the building of motorways that are subsequently cancelled? Will he consider giving instructions to those responsible in his Department that in such circumstances they should not automatically vandalise the properties at the start of these exercises but should make them safe, in case there is a change of mind later?

The sample to which I have referred will cover all sorts of property—for example, Government-owned property, local authority-owned property and privately-owned property. I do not accept that it is the policy of my Department, or possibly the Department of Transport—in earlier times part of the Department of the Environment—to vandalise properties that have been purchased ahead of proposed road schemes. If my hon. Friend has a particular problem in mind I shall look into it if he cares to put it to me, or I shall ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to do so. It is the policy and practice of Government Departments to make properties that are the subject of deferred demolition available to local authorities and others for occupation as rapidly as possible. I look into complaints as much as I possibly can.

Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House an assurance that the survey will take place in midwinter? If it does not take place at that time the scandal of second homes and summer lets in Cornwall will not be shown up.

I cannot undertake that the survey will be pursued in the midwinter. Although I recognise that there are local problems in some parts of the country, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's point is entirely relevant to empty properties. Whatever our views may be about second homes in various parts of the country, second homes are available for occupation by the owners or by tenants to whom the owners may wish to let.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that 18 months ago in reply to me he said that he hoped to have information on this situation? Why does it take so long for the Department to obtain adequate information on a problem that everyone else has been aware of for a long time? Why does the right hon. Gentleman's Department seem to be the last in the line to react to a situation that has been of concern to so many people for such a long time?

I do not know to which Question the hon. Gentleman refers but I am aware that we undertake an annual relet survey of local authority properties and receive sample information. That information is statistical and does not give the reasons, which is what the survey that I have announced will do. The returns from the relet survey provide basic information. They do not provide the reasons, but make known the existence of unlet properties. The unlet property in the local authority sector is proportionally much smaller than in the private sector.