I have allocated £150 million to bring empty homes back into use, and £160,000 has already been committed to a project in Northumberland, subject to contract. In addition, of course, Northumberland has received a reward of £630,000 through the new homes bonus for bringing 256 long-term empty homes back into use.
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend, and I draw his and the council’s attention to the publication, two weeks ago, of the national planning policy framework, which sets out the importance of making sure that all such plans are founded on the principles of sustainable development. Of course, the Government want to encourage every local authority to focus on land of the least environmental quality, and that, of course, includes brownfield sites.
In Newcastle, which is right next to the constituency of the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), 99% of empty homes are in private landlords’ hands, so why are the Government increasing from six months to two years the amount of time that a property has to stand empty before the council can issue an order to bring it back into use?
A high proportion of the 280,000 long- term empty homes are indeed in the private sector. That is why we have provided funding to support bringing them back into use for social homes, and a second round of funding where there are clusters of empty homes, which will be helpful in those areas. As for the orders that the hon. Lady referred to, only about 50 homes in the whole country have been subject to that procedure in five years. It is not a very effective measure, but it should be a back-stop, which is why we have put in place a new two-year limit.
Is my hon. Friend aware that one category of accommodation that is now often empty is bedsitting rooms in sheltered accommodation for the elderly? We have an example of that in Wooler in Northumberland. Does he recognise that it will be necessary for us to create more suitable accommodation for elderly people, both to enable such properties to be taken out of use permanently, and to meet the requirements of an ageing population?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, and draw his attention to the national planning policy framework. In drawing up its housing strategy, Northumberland unitary authority must take account of the needs in its area. Of course, the Government are funding a social and affordable homes programme, which will deliver 170,000 affordable homes by 2015. I very much hope that housing providers in Northumberland will be bidding for money from that fund in a suitable way.