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Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): Is the whole amendment directed just at empty council housing?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Indeed it is not. The hon. Gentleman has given me a chance to add that we need to do something about the huge amount of vacant property in the private sector. The same applies: I think we should give all possible encouragement to private landlords to let their empty properties. We have had many debates about, for example, the letting of flats over shops—an asset that the country is not using enough. We could better use it in various ways, certainly through the use of tax incentives to encourage the letting of flats over shops by those who currently find that uneconomic because they are compromising commercial leases. There must be ways around that.

It follows that, where there is a dichotomy between the best and the worst authorities in terms of how quickly they can turn around their empty properties, targets should be set. That is the object of paragraph (b) of amendment No.8.

8.30 pm

Mr. Sanders: Has it occurred to the hon. Gentleman that this has very little to do with political control? It has much more to do with the action of housing markets in the areas involved. Where there is surplus stock along with a very short waiting list, there is no need to turn around empty houses, whereas in areas with high demand and long waiting lists there is such a need.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I agree with half of that. There is always a need to be ever more efficient when dealing with public property and public money, especially when people are waiting for housing in, sometimes, very distressed circumstances. We should never be complacent about the need to turn around housing. Indeed, if a local authority is particularly efficient—undoubtedly, it does happen—it will be able to accept more transfers from other areas. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman in that regard, but I agree with the other part of what he said.

I cited the three worst authorities in this respect, and pointed out that they were Labour authorities. They have bigger problems than others—they are inner-city authorities with run-down housing stock and various other disadvantages—but that is not to say that we, as a Government and a country, should not demand that they improve their efficiency. I register an interest as a chartered surveyor: I speak with a little professional knowledge. I think it possible for every local authority to improve its efficiency, which is why we want to set

David Wright: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in many circumstances, it is the amount of time taken to repair a property that is critical? The hon. Member for

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Torbay (Mr. Sanders) mentioned the importance of considering different housing markets in relation to individual local authorities. I think that what is critical is the time taken by a local authority to take a void property and return it to use, not the time during which the property is sitting on its books while multiple offers are being made.

I have worked for a housing authority, and I know that properties can be offered eight or nine times. Authorities such as that—and it was a Labour authority—work very hard to ensure that properties are let as efficiently as possible. The hon. Gentleman fails to acknowledge that.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I accept that many people in local authorities throughout the country work hard to re-let their properties efficiently, and I accept that a change of tenant often provides a time during which a property can be refurbished. It is much easier to refurbish an empty property than it is to refurbish one in which someone is living. I suspect, however, that if some authorities maintained their housing stock a little better, they would not need to do so much refurbishment. I have seen some pretty innovative refurbishment of housing, and housing association schemes, in my authority—and, indeed, throughout the country, when I was a member of the Environment Select Committee.

If refurbishment schemes are conducted properly they should have a useful life of many decades, and there should be no need for major refurbishment. That is why I applaud a move to large-scale voluntary transfer to lever more money into the private sector, so that we can have more high-quality refurbishment. That is how we should be tackling some of our homelessness problems.

I find it hard to believe that any Member would rail against the idea that local authorities should be more efficient in re-letting their properties. I accept that some have more problems than others, but I do not accept that we should not make greater efforts. Paragraph (a) of amendment No. 8 is intended to reduce the time involved, paragraph (b) sets targets, paragraph (c) asks for an improvement in turn-around times for the re-letting of empty property, and paragraph (d) suggests that each authority should have an action plan for the meeting of targets. That would form part of the homelessness strategy.

Amendment No. 6 deals with the amount of time for which an offer shall remain open for acceptance. Let me, if I may, quote—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. As amendment No. 6 has not been selected, I am afraid that I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to speak to it.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful for that advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Amendment No. 3 deals with the advice that local authorities must give in their homelessness strategies. This is an important matter, and we covered it in some detail in Committee, so I do not propose to do so again now. Suffice it to say that the regulatory code for the Housing Corporation and its registered social landlords may need to be examined. There are good and bad registered social landlords, and we must root out the bad ones and make sure that all landlords give proper advice to those registering as homeless. In particular, we need to

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make sure that proper registers of telephone numbers, fax numbers and e-mail addresses are kept. The Minister says that such registers do not exist, but I have seen them.

The Opposition are not the only ones saying that there is a variation in the quality of advice throughout the country. Shelter, an organisation that should know what it is talking about, conducted research, whereby people told different housing departments that they were single mothers, children or whatever in an attempt to get advice. In one case, a single mother received dreadful advice that was of no help at all.

When we were debating the Homes Bill in Committee, the then Minister, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), said:

In response to the hon. Member for Bath, he asked:

If those notes are to incorporated in the code, there is no reason why they should not be incorporated in the Bill. Surely housing advice to homeless people, and the quality of that advice, should be a major part of any local authority's homelessness strategy.

We touched on amendment No. 4 in our discussion on the rough sleepers unit. It covers housing provision for homeless people with pets. I accept that this is a sensitive issue, and I am sure that the whole House wants to treat it as such. There are some homeless people whose quality of life is hugely improved by the ownership of a pet, often a dog or a cat. Local authorities are not always as sympathetic as they might be to the need to provide housing that can accommodate pets.

I accept that much housing is high-rise and therefore unsuitable for pets, but pet ownership should be one of the factors considered when determining the suitability of housing for homeless people, and that should be stated in the Bill. Some might say that we should regard the homeless themselves as the priority, not their pets, but there are heart-rending cases of people being put into unsuitable housing and having to get rid of a much-loved pet. We need to think carefully before we deprive people who are already in difficult circumstances of their pets.

Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion): Has the hon. Gentleman consulted the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or other animal welfare organisations in formulating amendment No. 4?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The RSPCA has commented previously on the matter, and I think that it is self-evident that that organisation exists to ensure that all pets in the United Kingdom are treated humanely. The RSPCA would certainly not condone someone with a pet being given housing that was unsuitable for keeping the pet in proper conditions.

There is quite a lot of meat to our four amendments in this group. We have already been round the course of annunciating the voluntary partners that should be incorporated in the homelessness strategy, but I believe that the Government should seriously consider specifying such matters in the Bill. If they will not include such provision, please may we have some forceful directives that make local authorities consider all those bodies?

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Mr. Kidney: As my amendment No. 9, on empty homes, is linked to amendment No. 1, I should like to take this opportunity to seek two specific reassurances from the Minister, the first of which is on the guidance on empty homes that Ministers will, according to the Bill, give to local authorities. The second reassurance concerns local authorities' powers of compulsory purchase.

The Bill requires all local authorities to formulate strategies, and then to perform their duties and exercise their powers in accordance with those strategies to reduce homelessness. Amendment No. 9 states that the Bill should require local authorities to refer in their strategies specifically to tackling the problem of empty homes.

The Minister and I do not differ in recognising the importance across the country of the problem of homes that are standing empty. I suspect that we agree also that too many properties are standing empty needlessly. In England, at any one time, about 750,000 properties are standing empty, the vast majority of which are in private ownership. I think that she and I agree also that too little has been done to reduce the number of empty properties. The Empty Homes Agency, however, estimates that only about half of local authorities have a formal strategy to tackle the problem of empty homes.

I hope that the Minister agrees that public opinion supports tough action to fill empty homes, and that people feel very strongly about the issue, and not only when there is a campaign against a proposal to build a housing estate on a nearby greenfield site. I should think that all hon. Members in the Chamber share my experience of many constituents complaining about the waste of good-quality homes that are standing empty.

At one point in Committee, I felt that the Minister was perhaps suggesting that the empty homes problem is not shared uniformly across the country but affects only parts of the country. Subsequently, therefore, I tabled a written parliamentary question to ask whether she could provide the statistics for the number of empty homes by region. I hope that she will agree that the figures for 2000, which she provided in her answer to me of 18 July, show that the total number of vacant dwellings in every region of England, at least, is simply too high.

I accept that the statistics showing the number of properties standing empty are only a snapshot of the situation at any one time and that the number of empty properties varies over time, as empty properties are occupied and occupied properties vacated. Nevertheless, the total number of empty properties is simply too high in every region of England.

The Empty Homes Agency does a great job in the work that it does. It highlights scandalous cases of empty properties, collects and disseminates examples of best practice and gives advice to local authorities and others. The Empty Homes Agency is the strongest proponent of taking action along the lines proposed in amendment No. 9, requiring local authorities to identify the scale of the problem in their area, to adopt targets to reduce the number of empty homes and to work with partners to fill empty homes.

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