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Empty Homes

Volume 403: debated on Thursday 10 April 2003

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If the Government will make a statement on empty homes in England. [107475]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
(Mr. Tony McNulty)

With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall answer question 10 on its own. [Laughter.]

We are determined to deal with the wide-ranging impact of empty homes by pursuing policies to reduce the number that remain empty for long periods. It is unacceptable for homes to be left to rot. They impact widely on the surrounding community and deny housing opportunities.

Last year I was on the Select Committee that looked at the serious problem of empty houses, particularly in areas in the north of England where there is no obvious role for the housing. The Deputy Prime Minister has said that he plans to reduce significantly the number of empty houses and return the areas to open land. Will the Minister explain what stage that process has reached, how the different Departments will work together in establishing how the areas can be cleared and what use the land will be put to?

The hon. Gentleman will know that, in the communities plan, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister earmarked £500 million for nine designated low-demand pathfinder areas where the problems are particularly acute and there is abandonment or low demand. I was happy to be in a position last week to announce that six of the pathfinders would receive a further £4 million for the coming year, building on the £3 million that they received last year to start early-win schemes. Those moneys were drawn down from the capital modernisation fund. There are serious negotiations between the ODPM and the three other pathfinder areas for more progress in the plans and serious delivery this year. However, the hon. Gentleman should understand that it is about not simply clearing houses and putting grass seeds down, but re-engineering and refocusing the communities and the housing market so that people are served properly.

I welcome what the Government are doing with the pathfinder schemes, but will the Minister give some of them a kick up the backside so that they get on a little more quickly? Does he recognise that there are places where the market has totally failed and properties cannot be sold, and that there are areas of significant housing weakness surrounding those areas? Should we not be looking at those areas as well as those that have seen total failure?

Will the Minister seriously consider, when a house is fit and of good standard, putting, a floor in the market, so that people can be sure that if they buy the property at a certain price, they will be able to sell it in five years at least at that price? As soon as confidence is put back, particularly in some areas in which the market is fragile, the market will take off again.

There is a range of different problems in each of the nine pathfinder areas. Some reflect different manifestations of the difficulties of low demand and abandonment. We are keen to work with each of the nine to sort out the problems locally for that community, and we have exhorted them all, when they have drawn up their visions for their communities, to be fully aware of the ramifications in next-door areas of what they are doing. We also exhorted areas that are close to the nine pathfinder areas that have experienced some of the difficulties, but clearly not to the same extent, to learn some of the lessons from their neighbours.

May I welcome the Government's commitment to consult on empty home management orders? When will that consultation be published, and when will legislation follow? While we are waiting for that, will the Government do more in promoting and encouraging best practice among local authorities to tackle the problem of empty homes? Will the Government consult the Local Government Association on that? Will they consider promoting voluntary leasing schemes, information and advice to local authorities, and even grants to ensure that we can tackle the problem? The use of empty homes can do a lot in the short term to tackle the problem of the chronic shortage of affordable housing.

I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman says. He will know that Hammersmith and Fulham is one of the lead authorities in terms of voluntary leasing schemes. It works with the individual who, for whatever reason, owns the empty home but cannot do much with it. In the near future, we will consult on turning best practice on those schemes into a more compulsory system by means of home management orders. That is not the appropriation of private property, as one or two Opposition Members suggested when we announced it, in a sort of reversal of Proudhon's axiom.

On the whole, it is a matter of working with those who own empty properties. Those properties will be empty for a range of reasons. It is not necessarily simply a case of some nasty landlord letting it become run down for some nefarious reason.