Homelessness Bill

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Tim Loughton: That is absolutely right. There are two sides to the Empty Homes Agency. Last year, I was asked to speak at its annual conference in London when it gave awards for best practice and disawards for worst practice. It cited practical examples of how often small groups—not great authorities—came up with imaginative ideas and advice on how to convert eyesores into liveable residential dwellings.

The Government have had a second chance to deal with the homelessness problem, and I am amazed that they have not included a proposal about empty properties in the Bill, because the situation has become worse. The number of people who are homeless has increased. At the end of last year, 71, 890 people had been placed in temporary accommodation at a cost of £375 million at a time when the number of empty properties had increased, too—the general ballpark figure being 750,000. I am talking about a time when economic activity was high and money was likely to be around to convert empty housing into liveable housing, but that has not been happening. The urgent need for empty properties to be dealt with has heightened, yet there is no mention of that in the Bill.

When we discussed the subject in connection with the previous Bill, I talked about my experience in Sheffield. I was a parliamentary candidate in Sheffield, Brightside in 1991 but, alas, I failed to unseat the incumbent, who is now the Home Secretary. My photo call was in a street in Sheffield, Brightside that was virtually full of empty boarded-up houses with weeds growing in the roads. About a year ago, in my new position on the Opposition Front Bench, I visited the same street in Sheffield and had a photograph taken. The only difference was that a few more houses were boarded up, more tiles were missing from the roofs and the tarmac road was indistinguishable from a grass road. That is a testimony to 50 years of Labour government in Sheffield that has not been helped by the past four years of a central Labour Government. Those empty houses added to the degradation of the area at the same time as green fields on the outskirts of Sheffield were concreted over for new, largely executive housing, so the problem is getting worse.

I fear that the Minister will not seize her hon. Friend's amendment with enormous alacrity, as she should. What are the Government doing about the empty housing problem? We were promised legislation following the pre-Budget report last year, but what resulted was a ``tinkering on the edges'' pledge about reducing taxes on properties that had been continuously empty for more than 10 years. That involves only a small number, because of the difficulty of proving that a property has been empty for such a long time.

We were also promised stamp duty exemptions on properties in areas of deprivation, which would help with the problem of homelessness and could be targeted at empty homes. We were promised that by April, but still we do not have the definitions of where those areas of deprivation are or where the tax reliefs are supposed to apply. Has the Minister any hot news as to when we can expect those definitions?

Conservative Members want to see a more concerted effort at homesteading, so that a larger proportion of the three-quarters of a million empty homes can more urgently be taken over by young homeless people, or couples, who have little prospect of getting on the first rung of the housing ladder. In return for zero or reduced rents or shared ownership, those people would spend their resources, with grants and help, on doing up those empty properties to make them habitable. The Government have made no mention of homesteading. They have been silent on the issue, even though it would be a practical solution to the homelessness problem.

In his intervention, the hon. Member for Stafford mentioned the worst offenders list. The Government must take a lead and, literally, put their own house in order. The NHS and the Ministry of Defence are two of the worst offenders—approximately 11 per cent. of their properties are empty. That is more than twice the level that one might expect from the private sector, despite all the stuff that we hear from the Government about the problem of affordable housing for key public service workers, especially in my part of the world, in the south-east and in London. What initiatives have the Minister or her predecessor taken to make some of that empty housing available as affordable housing to key public service workers? When will the Government lead by their own example?

The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Stafford is long overdue and should have been included in the Bill. We have heard a lot of waffle and seen little action from the Government in tackling the homelessness problem and it has been left to agencies to do something about it. Given the revelation that, at best, a half of housing authorities have regard to an empty homes strategy as part of their homelessness strategy, this debate will send a strong signal and give a clear lead that dealing with empty properties is a fundamental part of dealing with homelessness. The strategy already exists—there is no need to wait for the funds to build new houses.

The Minister cannot even tell us how many new houses will be built. It is rather an admission that the new Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for housing has no idea—she is probably being given some in-flight refuelling—how many houses we can expect from the Government, given their appalling record of the reduced number of houses built in the past four years. Conservative Members thoroughly commend the hon. Gentleman's amendment, and we hope that he is not intimidated by his Whips on the Front Bench into wimping-out by withdrawing it.

Ms Keeble: The two amendments touch upon an extremely important issue. There is an obvious contradiction in having large numbers of homeless people and large numbers of empty properties. It is the intention of the Government—and, I believe, most local authorities—to ensure that the lowest number of properties are empty at any given time. The amendments seek to focus authorities' thoughts on such matters.

As I discuss the amendments, I shall deal with some of the general points that were made by hon. Members, all of which are pertinent to the effort to grapple with the difficulties of housing homeless people and dealing with empty properties. Everybody involved in housing at the present time has to address those problems.

There are two reasons why I do not support amendment No. 14, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Bath. First, in many authorities' areas, the number of empty properties can swiftly and sharply fluctuate and, therefore, the figures can rapidly become outdated. Secondly, we should not be overly prescriptive with regard to instructing local authorities about the content of their strategies. That should be determined by them in the light of their circumstances, such as the number of homeless people in their areas and the type and nature of their housing stock. They should be allowed to exercise their best judgment about how to deal with the difficulties that they face. The most important elements of the strategy are covered by the legislation; further elements might be considered as guidance—and an instruction that relates to the number of empty properties will certainly be considered.

Similar concerns are raised, and similar ground is more explicitly covered, in amendment No. 15, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford. I acknowledge my hon. Friend's lengthy and strong track record of action with regard to the issue, and I agree with him that local authorities should make every effort to bring empty homes back into fruitful use. We encourage them to do that through the housing investment programme, and we expect authorities to demonstrate their commitment to tackling the problem of empty properties by having a clear strategy that matches resources to the scale of the problems in their districts. Authorities are also required to report the number of homes in their area that have been empty for more than six months and that have been brought back into use as a consequence of their actions.

I expect the homelessness strategy to address the extent and nature of empty housing and vacant properties in an authority's district. However, the ways in which that is employed to address homelessness will vary across the country—as will the cost-effectiveness of the different possible solutions. Issues such as empty properties require different strategies and approaches in high-demand and low-demand areas. I am sure that all Committee members can recount anecdotes about the empty properties problem. One of my first actions as Minister responsible for housing was to travel extensively, particularly around the north of England, to gain a clear understanding of the key factors with regard to the problem of empty properties. Local authorities should focus on the issues that are important in their areas so that they can take the appropriate local action.

Tim Loughton: I agree with the Minister's point, but it is the same as the point made by the hon. Member for Stafford in phrasing his amendment. Local authorities should not be confronted with prescribed ways to deal with empty homes; they should be allowed to deal with the extent and nature of empty housing and vacant property within their particular districts across sectors and tenures.

Ms Keeble: I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has made that point, as it gives me another chance to address the matter. The central issue concerns whether such instructions should be included in the Bill or in guidance. The Bill should include only matters of a strategic nature: it should not be overly prescriptive about problems that might vary from one part of the country to another. For example, bed-and-breakfast accommodation is a major issue, but in the north of England there are major—and sometimes more complex—issues concerning empty properties.

I will borrow the example that was offered by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) to illustrate to him the complexity of the problems. He mentioned that, when he visited Sheffield, he noticed that there were many empty properties in the city, but executive homes were being built in the green belt. There is no possibility of getting people who are thinking of buying an executive home in a nice country area to move into a tower block in the middle of a town; that is not remotely on the cards. Real thought must be given to quality and choice, which apply as much to areas of high demand as low demand, however much pressure there is on housing stock.

12.30 pm

 
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