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Empty Dwellings

Volume 451: debated on Tuesday 7 November 2006

18. What her estimate is of the number of private homes that will be subject to an empty dwelling management order in the next 12 months. (99688)

The legislation on empty dwelling management orders became fully effective in July. We expect only a small number of orders to be used in the next 12 months as part of local authorities’ strategies to bring empty and abandoned homes back into use.

I think that local authorities should be able to use a range of measures to deal with the problem of long-term empty homes, and so does the hon. Gentleman’s local council. New Forest district council has said in response to our consultation that it

“welcomes the introduction of Empty Dwelling Management Orders as a tool to ensure that empty property is returned to use…Our officers will continue to encourage owners to accept our help which should prevent the need to request an Empty Dwelling Management Order. However it will be extremely useful to have this tool in reserve.”

I agree.

I helped to persuade a former housing Minister—my distinguished and ever-popular right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill)—to make provision for empty dwelling management orders in the Housing Act 2004. Does my hon. Friend agree that while local authorities should not be over-hasty in seeking such orders, they should show some dispatch, not just because empty homes attract crime and antisocial behaviour and affect the value of neighbouring homes but, crucially, because the cost of refurbishing such houses and returning them to a decent condition rises very quickly, making the orders uneconomic?

My hon. Friend is right. The problem of empty homes can cause huge difficulties to local communities, particularly neighbours who may have to suffer all kinds of vandalism, crime or problems with squatters moving in when homes are empty for a long time. The councils that have done the most work in pursuing the strategies to which I referred often find that when they start proceedings, landlords introduce voluntary measures to bring homes back into use; so the strategies can be very effective.

The Minister will be aware that there are 90,000 empty properties in the public sector. A procedure that can help to ensure that such properties are occupied is the public request ordering disposal, but a written answer from the Department reveals that the Government have turned down every single PROD application since they came to office. Whenever citizens have asked for homes in the public sector to be filled, the Government have said no. Can the Minister tell us why?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the circumstances in which those particular orders can be used are very limited. Each case must be decided on its merits.

The number of public sector empty homes has fallen by 13 per cent. over the past two years, whereas the number of private sector empty homes—which account for 85 per cent. of the total—has not. That is why we have introduced powers to deal with private sector empty homes. The hon. Gentleman’s party has opposed those powers, but they could make a huge difference to vulnerable families who must suffer as a result of neighbouring empty homes, which can cause a huge amount of blight among communities.

The Minister will know of a report that I forwarded to her recently. It refers to a survey of estate agents which showed that last year five times as many properties in my constituency were sold to second-home buyers as were sold to first-time buyers. We are, I hope, due to meet shortly to discuss the issues arising from that. What reassurance can the Minister give Members who represent constituencies where large numbers of second homes remain empty for most of the year while there is still massive demand for affordable homes?

The hon. Gentleman is right. There are pressures on housing in all kinds of areas across the country. As he will know, the pressures caused by second homes are limited to certain areas where they cause significant problems. In a large range of areas, they cause no particular problems in the housing market. I shall be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss his concerns further, but we do not think it appropriate for second homes to be covered by empty dwelling management orders, which are designed to deal with very different circumstances.

Fantastic work is being done next door to my constituency by the regeneration company New East Manchester. However, many houses inside my constituency—particularly the older terraced stock—are now experiencing the same problems, with absentee private landlords and antisocial tenants. What discussions is my hon. Friend’s Department having with local authorities such as Stockport and Tameside to ensure that the problems are not merely displaced but are tackled at source?

My hon. Friend is right that addressing simply one aspect of a local housing problem will not be enough; we have to look at the local housing market as a whole, including the impact on neighbouring areas. We are working closely with local authorities across the country to support empty homes strategies and housing market renewal programmes where there are particular problems with low demand. I am happy to discuss the particular problems that my hon. Friend faces in his area.