Examination of Witnesses (Questions 600-619)|
KEEBLE, MP AND
WEDNESDAY 12 DECEMBER 2001
600. In the figures that you supplied through
the various publications, and we are obviously concerned about
empty properties, but what is the margin of error that we should
attach to the figures that have been provided by your Department
on the number of empty homes?
(Ms Keeble) The figures that we get would be snapshots.
They can be figures taken, because they would be returns from
local authorities, at a particular point in time.
601. Could you tell me what is an empty home?
(Ms Keeble) An empty home would be a home that is
not occupied at the point in time when the census is done. I take
your point the problem comes when it stops being an empty property
and there is a long-term problem.
602. Does it count as empty if it does not have
any furniture in it or does it count as occupied if it has got
furniture in it?
(Ms Keeble) I would say it is empty if there is nobody
living in it. The issue then is why it is empty. A two per cent
vacancy rate, I think that is called a transactional vacancy level,
a frictional level, a level which would be expected given the
scale of time it takes to fill a property to re-let and so on
and bring it back into use. If you looked at
603. What about secondary or holiday homes,
would you say they were empty?
(Ms Keeble) They are clearly not occupied at a point
604. What about Members of Parliament who have
flats in London and are away for three months, would you say they
(Ms Keeble) No, because those are occupied for part
of the week. We do not include second homes and holiday homes
because they are occupied for at least part of the year. If you
look at the level at which a void rate becomes problematic, which
is probably more useful in deciding what to do about empty properties,
up to two per cent you would accept as being at a level which
does not indicate that there is a major problem, but once you
get over four per cent you are starting to see real problems of
low demand and problems that have got to be tackled in a much
more substantial way. I think that might be a more useful way
to look at void rates than to ask how long is a property empty.
605. Finally, could I put it to you that the
Office of the Information Commissioner said that local authorities
are acting ultra vires if they use personal data from
(Ms Keeble) I am sorry, I cannot hear you very well.
606. If they use personal data from the Council
Tax Register as part of their strategy for tackling empty homes.
When will you make a regulatory reform order in order to enable
councils to use this information legally? We are told that councils
cannot use the information they have on their Council Tax Registers
in their effort to tackle empty homes. It means that there has
got to be legislation if local authorities are going to use that
kind of information. Have you any intentions to
(Ms Keeble) We have not got proposals now to do that,
607. Wait a minute, your memorandum which you
sent in September said that you were pursuing fairly vigorously
this problem, so you were actually trying to get it sorted out
between the Office of the Information Commissioner, the Empty
Homes Agency and yourselves, a policy.
(Ms Keeble) I think there is some Cabinet Office work
which is being done on this which was perhaps referred to in the
memorandum. We do not currently have legislation, as it were,
on the stocks to deal with that particular issue.
608. It is becoming an issue because some local
authorities have obtained counsel's opinion which suggests that
they can use that information and, therefore, they are in collision
with the advice that has been given from the data protection people.
It is important that some definition be made by the Government
so that this problem will not cost a lot of money in combatting
advice and challenging other incidents. Have you any idea as to
when that will be resolved?
(Ms Keeble) There is a Cabinet Office report on it
which is supposed to be published in the new year, so hopefully
we will see a way forward out of that.
609. Can I ask you, Minister, about the fiscal
incentives that have been introduced to try to bring these homes
back into use. There was a whole raft of measures in the Budget
earlier this year, but when the Committee were doing our site
visit in the North West of England the response that we had from
most people we spoke to was incentives, like the reduction of
VAT, for instance, are only really going to have a minimal impact.
Have you got any evidence of how effective these new measures
(Ms Keeble) The most recent one will obviously be
the tax incentives for conversion of flats over shops. This has
only just come into effect so we would not know yet. The other
one which is probably going to be of some of the greatest use
will be the one about stamp duty which has just been announced
which, again, we are not going to see in effect for some time.
We would not have stats yet on those particular issues.
610. So any scepticism is premature?
(Ms Keeble) We will obviously be looking at it because
that is clearly the aim, to get improvements there.
611. Has your Department done an actual estimate
of how many homes you feel could be brought back into use by the
introduction of 100 per cent Council Tax being levied on empty
(Ms Keeble) No, we have not got that estimate.
612. Could I go back to the introduction of
tax relief for empty properties over shops. What do you think
of some of the suggestions that the proposals are too complex?
I wonder what assessment you have made of these criticisms and
of the likely take-up and whether you or the Treasury are looking
at any possible simplification?
(Ms Keeble) The measures have only just come in quite
recently. As I said before, we do not have an indication yet as
to the extent to which it is being taken up. It is a very generous
allowance so I am quite surprised by the criticisms that you make
613. Obviously it is from groups that represent
landlords, for example the British Property Federation, and what
they have said is there are restrictions on the types of property
which qualify and also the conversion will only qualify for the
allowance according to quite specific rules around the date when
expenditure was first incurred and whether it can be reasonably
expected that the flat will be let for less than a specified sum.
These are some of the criticisms that there are and I just wonder
what the Department's take on this is?
(Ms Keeble) I certainly have not seen those criticisms
come back from that group despite the fact that we have quite
regular meetings and discussions with them. Certainly if they
were to bring that back we would look at it. The arrangements
that have been made are very generous. We will look and see how
they are taken up and if changes are required then I am sure we
can look at it.
614. The National Housing Federation told us
that they have been seeking a reduced VAT rate for repairs to
existing social housing stock for the last three years but nothing
has been done about it. Would you like to comment on that?
(Ms Keeble) Obviously all the decisions about that
are taken by the Treasury.
615. But has your Department made any representations
to the Treasury that this would be a socially beneficial thing
(Ms Keeble) If you are looking at issues about bringing
properties back into use
Christine Russell: To stop them being abandoned.
If an RSL, for instance, could do some repairs. In Manchester
we saw some quite low priced cosmetic repairs to improve some
streets that had not cost an awful lot of money but had probably
saved those streets from going over the edge.
Ms King: It is about incentives for investment,
is it not?
(Ms Keeble) I think the same arguments apply also
to the whole range of need for improvement in low demand and inner
city areas. All the decisions about VAT will obviously have to
be taken by the Treasury.
617. But have you made representations to the
(Ms Keeble) No, we have not.
618. We have been round the country and looked
at some of the problems of low demand and this involves a fairly
wide number of areas in the North of the country. The Government
has made a commitment to turn these areas around by 2010, is that
a realistic target?
(Ms Keeble) I think it is, yes. It is a huge problem
and we do have to be able to ensure that we have a viable housing
market in those parts of the country which currently are subject
to abandonment and extremely low demand.
619. There have been representations from the
National Housing Federation for a Housing Market Renewal Fund.
Is that a priority for you? Are you making representations for
the resources to set that up?
(Ms Keeble) That is being looked at and I have to
say it is not just from the Federation, quite a number of local
authorities have also come together and have put in a formal submission
which is being actively considered. The funding for that would
be considered under the Spending Review. There have been very
active discussions about the proposals for the Market Renewal