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Empty Buildings

Volume 566: debated on Monday 8 July 2013

Among the measures that we have introduced in addition to the powers available to councils, we have provided £235 million in grant and £130 million in new homes bonus, we have revised and are further reviewing permitted development rights, and we have offered councils increased flexibility over council tax levels for empty homes.

High street premises in the Cradley part of my constituency have been allowed to fall into a very poor state of repair, which is not conducive to their being brought back into use. What can my right hon. Friend do to encourage local authorities to use their existing legal powers, such as serving section 215 orders, in order to oblige freeholders and landlords to maintain their properties to an acceptable standard such that they might stand a better chance of being returned to productive use?

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend on the work that she is doing on this issue and on her support for the Cradley action group. As she rightly says, empty commercial properties such as the 19% in her council area have a corrosive effect, and I urge her council to use its existing extensive powers. I hope that our recent changes to permitted development rights will make it easier to convert disused commercial buildings in her area into homes.

I welcome the steps that the Government are taking in this important direction. In Macclesfield, local businesses and the council are working closely together through the intown living initiative to make more empty space above shops available for residential use. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such steps not only make empty space productive and usable again but breathe new life back into our high streets?

I congratulate my hon. Friend and his local council on the work they are doing to bring empty properties back into use. A reduction of 33% in empty homes since 2010 is a great achievement. He is right—tackling empty spaces above shops will certainly contribute to regenerating town centres. Two weeks ago I announced £450,000 in grant for his council area, and I hope this will help.

I congratulate the Minister on what he is offering to help bring empty properties back into use, but in Castle Point we also have a notable number of derelict smaller sites. What advice or support can the Government give to help councils bring forward these sites as well?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her successful defence of the local green belt, and her council on a 23% reduction in empty commercial properties. She is right that we need to see small derelict plots developed before there is encroachment on the green belt, and I am confident that together with the vigorous use of existing council powers, the new permitted development rights and the community right to reclaim land will help her achieve that objective.

Does the Minister agree that in order to renovate and reoccupy unused properties in areas such as Redditch, we need to encourage local councils to use the incentives provided by Government?

I certainly do. My hon. Friend is exactly right. Our new homes bonus for bringing empty properties back into use has certainly helped as there are fewer empty homes in her area than in 2010, but I note that Conservative-controlled Wychavon council is using the new powers that we have granted to allow a 50% premium on council tax on long-term empty homes, but that Labour-controlled Redditch council is apparently not doing so. Perhaps she could urge the council to reconsider.

One of the difficulties in this area in Ripon and other parts of North Yorkshire is getting landlords to engage—communities are often frustrated by being unable to contact the landlord and not knowing who they are. What advice can the Minister give?

My hon. Friend is right. Notwithstanding the excellent work of communities in Ripon and Bentham and their Portas town teams, it is a frustrating and challenging issue. In some cases, the right to reclaim land will help, but local councils are best placed to compile a public register of high street landlords. Spurred on by him, I will now consider how we can give still further assistance.

My local Labour council is working exceedingly hard to tackle some of the 2,500 empty properties in Hyndburn and also those in Rossendale. Does the Minister think that the introduction of a decent housing standard would make those properties more attractive to people to rent, rather than the dilapidated state that some are in at the moment?

I am enormously grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the positive discussions he and I have had on the matter. I remind him that I have agreed to look at the issues he has raised, and we have already given £1.6 billion in grants to help bring council homes up to a decent standard.

Already there is vigorous use. I remind the House that some two thirds of assets in this country are owned by local councils. We are now consulting on the need to get councils to declare a list of all their assets. We have also given additional powers on the right to reclaim that should enable local communities, and indeed individuals, to put pressure on people who own derelict sites to bring them back into use.

Back in 2011 the Pensions Minister told the House that the bedroom tax would help tackle overcrowding, but research by the National Housing Federation now shows that, as a result of those changes, houses across the country are lying idle. Is that what the Government meant by tackling empty homes: creating more of them?

What the Government intend by what the hon. Gentleman describes as the bedroom tax is a means of ensuring the effective use of existing homes, as over 1 million bedrooms are empty and a quarter of a million families are living in overcrowded homes. That is why we are tackling the issue, together with our plans to provide new affordable homes, something that the Labour party signally failed to do when it was in power.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), is not the problem that no real research was done before the introduction of the bedroom tax? The position is very different up and down the country, and in some areas it is clear that an inadvertent consequence might be more empty homes. If that proves to be the case, will the Government change their mind?

I must say to the hon. Lady that clearly very detailed research was done and we had a number of pilots across the country. It would be very helpful if she would assist the House by indicating whether the Labour party, which has been so opposed to the measure, now intends to reverse it.[Official Report, 18 July 2013, Vol. 566, c. 18MC.]

On my high street, some business rates are five times the level of the rent being sought by landlords. Will the Minister consider revaluing business rates, and doing so before localisation so that poorer areas do not lose out?

We have no intention of having a revaluation at the present time. That would cause huge disruption to businesses up and down the land. However, we have doubled the support we give to small businesses. In addition, we have provided financial support to those councils that wish to reduce business rates in their area.

In the early 1990s, when the Government Chief Whip was a most distinguished Housing Minister and I was an insignificant housing officer, the then Government introduced with great fanfare something called LOTS—living over the shop—which had certain similarities to what we have heard about today. It was an unmitigated disaster. There are good reasons why people do not want to live above undertakers, butchers and off-licences. I urge the Minister to look at some of the previous attempts to resolve this and to realise that it is not as simple as it looks.

The hon. Gentleman could never be described, even back in the ’90s, as insignificant. We have indeed looked at all previous attempts to make use of spaces above shops, and all of them have failed, which is why we have now put direct funding in, through our Portas team pilot areas, to look at innovative new ways of dealing with this, and not least, as he will understand, the issue of security.