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Empty Property And Community Aid

Volume 130: debated on Wednesday 30 March 1988

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5.17 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require local authorities to take steps to identify empty houses and put them to use.

In crude statistical terms, there are more empty properties in Britain than there are households. At the same time, homelessness continues to increase. Government figures show that in 1979 local authorities in England accepted 57,200 households as homeless; in 1986, the figure was 100,000. It is likely that even those high figures are but the tip of the iceberg.

I am not suggesting that if all empty properties were brought back into use, the problem of homelessness would be solved. Many empty properties are the wrong size and in the wrong place. However, I do suggest that empty properties in areas of housing need, where there is an unmet demand for housing, are a wasted resource.

The Bill has one aim : to ensure the maximum possible use of houses left empty for many years. The mere existence of large numbers of empty houses, despite all the public concern, is in itself sufficient evidence that new initiatives are needed. We must act to end the scandal of empty properties in both the public and the private sectors. There are long waiting lists for rented accommodation, and thousands of families live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, where family life is impossible.

Those are reasons enough to justify the Bill's proposals, but the problems caused by empty properties do not end there. Worry, distress, vandalism, danger, financial loss, loss of property value and spoilt neighbourhoods are all problems suffered by neighbours when properties are allowed to lie empty, abandoned and derelict for many years.

In my constituency there are several examples of properties being left empty and derelict for many years. That has caused distress to the neighbours and a steady stream of correspondence from the local authority, but all to no avail. For example, No. 40 James street, Oswaldtwistle, is one of several properties owned by a London-based family. It has been empty for 10 years. A concerted effort to have the property improved and brought back into use has failed.

Having been vacant for at least seven years, the house was deteriorating to a point where it was affecting neighbouring properties and jeopardising the housing action area investment in that locality. It was therefore decided in October 1986 compulsorily to purchase the property as no alternative solution had been possible. An agreement to do so was confirmed by the housing services committee of the borough council in December 1987.

The owner has been given every opportunity to sell at a realistic price or to improve the house with the aid of a full improvement grant, but he has not done so. The amount of staff time and effort used to accommodate the owner has been considerable.

No. 17 Bright street, Oswaldtwistle, is derelict and boarded back and front. It is in very poor condition and detrimental to the area. It is one of a number of properties owned by a local person and it is understood that those properties are, in the main, unoccupied. For reasons best known to the owner, 17 Bright street has been vacant since 1946. During that time, it has naturally deteriorated and been a major problem to the residents of the neighbourhood. As the owner has exercised his free choice not to let the property, the local authority has not been in a position to insist that it should be brought back into use. Only when it has become so bad as to be detrimental to the area has the council been in the position compulsorily to purchase it.

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. It would oblige councils to allow community groups, such as housing associations or other voluntary bodies, to use empty properties in their possession for housing homeless families, unless they can show good reason why the properties are empty. It would allow local authorities to guarantee loans made by building societies to enable them to repair houses that are empty, the loans being repaid by the occupants as if they were rent or mortgage payments.

The Bill would give councils a new power, similar to the control-order provision of the Housing Act 1964, to put empty property use orders on long term empty houses. That would allow local authorities — working, for example, with housing associations—to make use of the property to house homeless people for up to five years, where the owner of the property has been unable to show good reason why the property is empty.

Private owners whose property is brought back into use by means of empty property use orders would benefit in real terms by the material improvement in the property over the period of use, particularly as building society funds would be used to improve the property substantially.

Some private developers have already adopted a farsighted attitude to the use of property which has been temporarily left empty. They speak highly of such schemes. Mr. Colin Smith, managing director of Wimpey Property Holdings Limited, stated:
"We are delighted to have reached agreement for the continued occupation of our properties. As a result, the houses are preserved for use by those in need, instead of being allowed to decay."
The power to impose empty property use orders on empty properties is a lesser power than already exists. At present, councils use compulsory purchase orders which allow total expropriation of the properties by the council for ever. Empty property use orders permit a council to use a house for up to five years only, and then return it to the owner in better condition. Therefore, an empty property use order is a less extreme measure and reduces the need for the more extreme measure of a compulsory purchase order. It is a less drastic and more flexible weapon with which to counter the problems that are caused by empty properties.

I welcome the all-party support that the idea of empty property use orders has received, not least from those closely involved. Councillor George Micklewright, a Labour councillor in Bristol, wrote:
"The problem of using CPOs is the procedure is longwinded and it is very much a last resort. It is like using a sledgehammer. But at present we have no alternative if persuasion does not work. We could do with something more sophisticated than CPOs. The use of empty property use orders would help."
His Conservative counterpart, Councillor Terry Allen, said:
"Our philosophy normally would be not to intervene against private property, and we do have some sympathy for the owners. But we have more sympathy for neighbours having to endure these properties and for the potential occupants. The idea of empty property use orders appeals to us. They will give us a less drastic power to help us secure use of these long-term empty houses."
An empty property use order, which could be used at a much earlier stage than a compulsory purchase order, would result in the saving of houses before they become derelict and often beyond repair.

With 700 empty properties in England alone, much needs to be done. The Bill would make a real contribution to improving the availability of houses for homeless people and go some way towards reducing the eyesores that we see in our towns and cities. Its proposals will benefit neighbours and residents where there are empty houses. Ratepayers will benefit from the saving of public money and the homeless will benefit. I hope that the House will support the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Ken Hargreaves, Mr. David Alton, Mrs. Ann Clwyd, Mr. David Evennett, Mr. Frank Field, Mr. Robert Hughes, Mr. Simon Hughes, Mr. Allan Roberts, Ms. Joan Ruddock, Mr. Cyril Smith, Mr. Robin Squire and Mr. Teddy Taylor.

Empty Property And Community Aid

Mr. Ken Hargreaves accordingly presented a Bill to require local authorities to take steps to identify empty houses and put them to use : And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 6 May and to be printed. [Bill 136.]