Homelessness Bill

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Mr. Don Foster: I beg to move amendment No. 14, in page 2, line 11, at end insert

    `; and

    (d) the number of empty properties in their district.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 15, in clause 3, page 3, line 12, at end insert—

    `(5A) In formulating a homelessness strategy the authority shall make specific reference to—

    (a) the extent and nature of empty housing and vacant property within their district across all sectors and tenures;

    (b) targets for the re-use of such properties for residential purposes; and

    (c) a strategy for action to achieve the targets set out in paragraph (b) above, including action by any public authority, voluntary organisation or other body or person whose activities are capable of contributing to the achieving of these objectives.'.

Mr. Foster: All members of the Committee are well aware that helping homeless people is not only a matter of finding a roof to put over their heads; those people need a wide range of additional services and support. Nevertheless, finding a place for them to live is important. In an earlier deliberation, we discussed the number of affordable houses being built, so we should now consider other resources that might be available to provide such accommodation.

One obvious resource is the large number of properties that currently stand empty. All Committee members will recognise that the figures are stark. There are well over 100,000 homeless families in the country, yet we have a staggering 750,000 empty properties. Clearly, when tackling homelessness, it makes a great deal of sense that the homelessness review and strategy should incorporate methods to bring empty homes back into use. A range of possibilities could achieve that, and it would be beyond the scope of even your patience, Mr. Gale, if I went through a list of those. However, hon. Members will be aware of many possible strategies that could be adopted by central Government and local government.

The Empty Homes Agency estimates that only half of local housing authorities currently have a strategy for effectively bringing empty homes and properties into use, which is why I moved amendment No. 14. Nevertheless, I am conscious that amendment No. 15, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), is also being considered and I believe that it is far preferable and more satisfactory than amendment No. 14. While I have had the opportunity to introduce the issue, I would hate to steal the hon. Gentleman's thunder. I hope that I can withdraw my amendment and that the hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to press his to a Division.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): I thank the hon. Member for Bath for his generous tribute. I would not support his amendment, so he is kind to say that he would support mine instead.

Amendment No. 15 suggests that a specific reference to the problem of tackling empty homes in this country should be in the Bill. It contains a reference to local authorities adopting targets for reducing the number of empty homes, which is present to give the amendment teeth—it is meaningless without that.

I shall give a dozen reasons why the amendment should be in the Bill once it has completed its passage through both Houses. As the hon. Member for Bath said, nearly 750,000 properties stand empty yet, every year, local authorities accept over 100,000 families as homeless. We owe it to those people to try everything possible and to use all the available resources to help them find homes to live in. It makes sense to make the best use of existing resources. There are homes standing empty that could be used for people to live in. There would be no problems of finding money to build houses or of shortage of land—the houses are waiting to be used.

If we took a poll of public opinion anywhere in the country and under any conditions, we would find that they overwhelmingly want empty houses to be used, especially ahead of building new houses near them. The public would support the provision. When we debated the Bill on Second Reading, 10 hon. Members referred specifically to the need to do something about homes that stand empty. That represents a sizeable proportion of the hon. Members who took part in the debate.

Despite the considerable successes of the Empty Homes Agency, to which the hon. Member for Bath also referred, there has not been a noticeable reduction in the number of properties that stand empty. The Empty Homes Agency has encouraged local authorities around the country to adopt strategies to deal with empty homes in their areas, and has had the backing of Ministers. However, only about half of all authorities have adopted a strategy that the Empty Homes Agency reckons is worth the paper on which it is written. Conversely, half of all authorities left to do this voluntarily have not bothered to do it. That is why a specific reference in an Act of Parliament is needed to make the others comply.

The next reason is that an empty homes strategy is enormously complementary to the Bill's purpose of dealing with the problems of homelessness. Another reason is that it would help us to focus attention on the solutions to ending the scandal of empty homes, and would therefore give people the impetus to think about how the total number of empty properties could be reduced. A further reason is that solutions are needed to make a difference, because, despite the successes of the Empty Homes Agency and the fact that Ministers have backed its work, the number of properties standing empty stays stubbornly at about 750,000 every year—it may increase a little one year and decrease a little the next, but Members do not have to worry about looking up the latest figure each time they debate the issue because 750,000 remains pretty close to the mark.

The Empty Homes Bill, which I introduced during the 1999 Session, suggested solutions such as giving local authorities the power to vary the council tax payable on empty properties and extending slightly the power of compulsory purchase to allow local authorities to take up empty properties, even against the wishes of the owner who would prefer that it stood empty. The beauty of that Bill, I always felt, was that, even then, it required local authorities to have an empty homes strategy. The exercise of the powers to reach those solutions was tied to the strategy. Therefore, the purpose of the strategy is therefore to focus the powers which I submit a local authority should have in order to tackle the problem.

The ninth reason of my dozen reasons is that residents who live in streets and estates where properties stand empty would will us to do something about such properties. I know of areas with lots of empty properties that blight the estates or streets where people live. For the astonishment of Committee members, however, I shall refer to an article that appeared last week in my local newspaper, the Staffordshire Newsletter, under the headline, ``Pensioner to put `eyesore' home on the market.'' It tells the story of a well-built 1930s house that has stood empty for more than 20 years in an attractive part of Stafford, apparently as a kind of monument to a deceased husband. The local authority is powerless to do anything about it, and the residents are tearing their hair out.

The next reason is that all those homeless people who walk past empty homes in their homeless wanders would want us to do everything that we can to make those homes available for use. Craig Whitlock, a homeless person, came to my surgery on Saturday and told me that, during the time that he has been homeless, he has witnessed the deaths of 12 of his homeless friends while waiting for the local council to help by providing a property to live in.

My penultimate reason is that the Bill would be better if the amendment were included. To complete my dozen reasons, and to try to attract the Minister's attention and support for my amendment, this would be a popular measure that would enhance the Minister's reputation—and make her popular, too—were she to agree to the amendment. Given such a compelling final reason, I hope that she will say something helpful in response.

12.15 pm

Tim Loughton: I want to speak briefly to amendment No. 15 tabled by the hon. Member for Stafford, but not without wholeheartedly agreeing with the hon. Member for Bath that Liberals do not necessarily make the best amendments. We are minded to support the wise words of the hon. Member for Stafford. I commend him for his work during the previous Parliament on his Empty Homes Bill.

We are all aware of the Empty Homes Agency, a worthwhile organisation that was set up under the Conservative Government in 1992. It undertakes exceedingly helpful and useful work. It introduced the London empty homes hotline and it places emphasis on converting commercial buildings to residential homes. Given all the pressures on green-field space for new house building, it seems absurd that only about 13 per cent. of new residential homes are the result of the conversion of mainly commercial buildings, which we certainly support.

We have only to read the Empty Homes Agency report to see the cycle of decline that leaving homes empty brings about. It is not just the fact that they are eyesores or the cost that is estimated at about £7,018 a year to keep a house empty, but the general degradation of an area that ensues as a result of a run-down house becoming a dumping ground and a target for graffiti, young kids, drugs and so on. Such conversions must be a priority. Given our previous discussions on the Homes Bill, I am amazed that the Government have not included in the Bill as part of their homelessness strategy a measure to tackle empty homes.

Mr. Kidney: Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the work of the Empty Homes Agency, I should like him to mention its great talent for shining a light on those who allow properties to stand empty. The agency's most recent report refers to a special dishonours award, and I shall not embarrass those at the NHS trust to which it alludes who left property standing empty opposite the building in which it held a meeting to discuss the problems of accommodation for its staff. My amendment would help local authorities to replicate the practice of shining a light on bad practice throughout the country.

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