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Empty Properties

Volume 474: debated on Tuesday 1 April 2008

6. How many empty properties there are in England; and what steps she is taking to ensure effective use of the national housing stock. (197687)

The housing strategy statistical appendix completed by local authorities shows that there are currently 672,924 empty properties across England—that is a 12 per cent. reduction since 1997. Of these, 271,252 are privately owned properties that have been empty for more than six months.

I thank the Minister for her reply and I welcome the fact that the percentage has gone down, but surely 670,000 is a lot of houses to stand empty. What role should local authorities play, and what powers do they have, in ensuring that they can bring these houses back into use?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: progress is being made, and the figures also have to be seen in the context of rising house numbers, but we have to do more to reduce the number of long-term empty homes. That is why in the Housing Act 2004 we introduced empty dwelling management orders, which give local authorities power to take over the management of properties that have been empty for more than six months. The orders are often used as a last resort but, for example, Manchester city council’s threat to use them led to 40 properties coming back into use.

I am sure the Minister will agree that at a time when there is huge pressure on our countryside for new building, it is a national disgrace that there are 700,000 empty homes throughout our nation. She mentions empty dwelling management orders as if they are the be-all and end-all to solve the problem, but will she not admit that because they are so bureaucratic and difficult to bring in, the total of EDMOs so far has not been 700,000 but 11?

EDMOs are there to be used by local authorities—we provided that power for them. I am always keen to discuss how we can improve matters: Councillor Mehboob Khan of Kirklees council has sent me some constructive ideas about the way forward. Having said that, it is a matter of making sure that local authorities have ownership of the issue at a local level—some 200 of them have an empty properties officer, including in Gateshead, the authority of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson).

It is also important that, as part of their housing strategic assessment, local authorities identify the right type of housing that needs to be built for the communities that they serve. That is why we must ensure we have the right balance between one and two-bedroom flats and affordable family homes. We will do what we need to do, but local authorities also have to be seen to engage in this matter and deal with the commercial market to ensure that the number of empty homes can be reduced further.

Our planning system stresses the need to stimulate house building on brownfield land before greenfield land. Has my right hon. Friend considered giving empty homes special status in planning, to try to stimulate the bringing back of empty homes into use, before building on brownfield or greenfield land?

Of course we want to see where we can bring empty homes back into use where possible. In fact, this year’s Budget proposals allow for a reduction in VAT where homes are being renovated that have been empty for two years. That is part of the process of using the tools we have provided locally to get a more wide-ranging view of how planning should be developed with regard to housing and infrastructure. However, we have to build more homes too. Even if we filled every empty property, it still would not give us the type and number of houses we need to meet demand in the long term.

Speaking of empty property, the Minister knows that 122 acres of Whitehall currently lie empty at a cost to the taxpayer of some £200 million a year—a substantial sum. Since the Government have a target and a plan for everything, how many acres will still be empty at the end of the year, and what saving will the Government achieve by then in their plan to reduce the number?

We are working across Whitehall to identify suitable surplus public land. We have considered some 900 sites and identified around 170 plus that could be suitable for housing. That is part of our engagement with local authorities in identifying the sites in their areas. I am pleased to say that some 62 per cent. of local authorities have identified their five-year land use plans. We will work with them to ensure that we put our land into the pot, but we must have local ownership for the housing, especially the affordable housing, that we need for the future of people in this country.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in my constituency the number of private empty homes has increased from 884 in 2001 to more than 1,500 in 2006-07? Is she also aware that the local authority has taken only four actions and is not using the powers that we have granted to tackle that problem? What can she do to ensure that local authorities are required to work in partnership with registered social landlords to enable those houses to be brought back into use for families in desperate need?

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing the position in Luton to my attention. As a Minister, I always think it is important to ask whether powers are available before devising new ones. If they are available but not used, my hon. Friend gives a good example of the Government’s role in asking why. I am happy to examine the matter in more detail. Clearly, I want to ensure that the orders that we provided can be used. If there is a reason that they cannot be used, I want to hear about it. However, simply not using them is no excuse.