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Empty Properties

Volume 539: debated on Monday 30 January 2012

4. What steps he is taking to make (a) empty houses and (b) vacant properties above shops available for rent. (92057)

Our strategy for empty homes applies to all properties, including flats above shops, but we are also committed to revitalising high streets and shortly will publish the Government’s response to the Mary Portas review.

The South Hams is one of the least affordable places to live in the UK, with house prices on average 16.7 times the average income, and more than 1,200 households on bands A to D of the housing waiting list. What does the Minister plan to do to address these affordability issues in the South Hams?

My hon. Friend is right that for levels of non-affordability in many areas to have reached 16.7 times average earnings is unacceptable. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), referred to the social house building programme and the 170,000 being delivered during this Parliament. She will also be pleased to hear about the provisional allocation, within the local authorities comprising her constituency, of more than £3.5 million under the new homes bonus, which will also encourage greater affordability when used to build more homes. We are also considering allowing homes over shops, and many other changes coming from the Portas review.

Will the Minister explain how dismantling the powers available to local authorities to deal with empty homes above shops—for example, the management orders have increased from six months to two years, and properties have to be substantially dilapidated before action can be taken—will help to deal with the problem?

There might just be a fundamental difference of opinion between Opposition and Government Members on this matter. The latter believe that private property should not be taken over automatically by the state just because somebody has gone on holiday or is working absent. There have been cases where people who have been working absent for six months have come back to find that their properties have been taken over. That is unacceptable, and we do not want that to happen. The hon. Gentleman is right that we have raised the limit to two years, but a range of tools is available to local authorities to get properties back into active use, and we are working actively on the empty homes programme. The Government are fully committed to getting properties back into use, hence the big drop in the number of empty ones.

Given the Mary Portas review and the flagging state of many high streets in our small market towns, what more can be done to help change to residential the usage of redundant retail properties that, realistically, are unlikely ever to be used for retail purposes again?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. He will be aware that we are looking at making changes to the use class orders, through the national planning policy framework, to allow for greater flexibility. We have a good opportunity to allow some commercial properties to be more easily converted to homes, and I hope that will help with the ever-present pressures on housing in this country.