The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, before business begins, I take the opportunity to inform the House that I am to host a lunch in honour of the President of the Swiss National Council on behalf of the Government on Tuesday 4th May when the House will sit. Accordingly, I trust that the House will grant me leave of absence.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, we are currently in the process of collating data on the numbers of homes held by government departments and agencies on April 1st 1999 and details of departments' performance against their targets for tackling the problem of empty homes. We shall publish full details and new performance targets as soon as possible.
However, from returns so far, we know that the Defence Housing Executive has disposed of 2,000 empty properties over the past year, which is 800 over its target of 1,200. The Highways Agency has sold 589 surplus houses in the same period and has reduced the number of its empty homes by over 200 since April of last year.
The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. However, does he agree that the guidelines which the Government give need to be more precise in some respects; for example, about what actually counts as an empty home? Will the Minister consider setting specific targets for government departments about how they might reduce the number of empty flats and houses?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is correct to say that there are some problems of definition in this respect, given the fact that in some government departments (for example, the Ministry of Defence) there is a need to keep a certain proportion of
As far as concerns targets, I can tell the House that all government departments will be setting targets. Indeed, I recently set the target of 18 per cent maximum vacant premises for the Highways Agency, which should bring the figure down from its present level of about 25 per cent.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether the various departments have strategies for the use of empty homes? We have heard about figures and targets, but they do not amount to a strategy. The noble Lord will be well aware of the very good examples in local government where local authorities have introduced strategies which, in many cases, have been very successful.
Lord Whitty: Yes, my Lords. It is true that the level of vacancies in local authorities has decreased dramatically in most areas over recent years. Indeed, the figure is now quite low in that respect, as it is for social landlords generally. However, there is a slightly different problem in relation to many government departments; for example, there are particular problems at the Ministry of Defence. In relation to the Highways Agency, which is the second largest of these departments, the amount of time that such properties are actually vacant will depend on the progress of road schemes and whether or not they go ahead. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, may be anticipating me on that point.
Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, the House will be grateful that the Minister has given us one or two reassuring figures which show that targets have been met in particular areas. However, if those targets have been met, does that not imply that there were some baselines somewhere? It would have been interesting to hear about them. More importantly, I presume that those baselines would also have applied to other government departments about which we have heard nothing.
I must admit to the House that I have found it most difficult to gain any information on this subject. I am relieved to know that the Minister is in the same quandary. Can the noble Lord help us to take the matter forward by giving us further information on the baseline from which the targets were originally worked out? In that way, the House will be aware of the ground, if you like, that the Government are standing on in relation to their own housing.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am not sure that I can give the noble Lord the statistics that he requires. He is correct to say that I do not have knowledge of the total picture. However, I have given the figures for the two largest government departments in terms of empty property--namely, the Ministry of Defence and the Highways Agency. The improvement in relation to the Ministry of Defence Housing Executive is to dispose of 2,000 properties and its figure currently stands at approximately 13,500. Therefore, if one works backwards, one can work out the figures.
As regards the Highways Agency, about which I clearly know more, last year's vacancy level was 25 per cent and, as I said, we are aiming to get that down to 18 per cent. Indeed, in net terms, we have improved the position by 200 houses over the course of the past year. If other departments are doing as well with smaller amounts of housing, that will give the noble Lord a general indication of the picture. However, most other government departments will have relatively few empty houses.
Baroness Platt of Writtle: My Lords, the Minister referred to targets. He then went on to refer to the Highways Agency and the situation where road schemes are planned but not necessarily built. However, if housing is blighted by possible road schemes, it is perfectly possible for local authorities to use the housing in the meantime. Therefore, ought that not to be the rule?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, as a result of the policy introduced by this Government, both the Highways Agency and government departments have been requested to look at the possible use of their housing for short-term social housing, pending the introduction of further schemes. Indeed, there has been some success on that front. However, many of the properties are not available for long-term social housing.
Lord Gisborough: My Lords, can the Minister say whether any effort is being made to channel these houses when they are sold into the market for those who cannot afford the market price; in other words, cut-price housing for those who cannot afford the full price?
Lord Whitty: Yes, my Lords; in the sense that I have just indicated. Those concerned are looking for social landlords who will provide exactly that kind of housing. But only a limited amount of property is suitable for such use.
Lord Ezra: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the total number of empty houses in this country is far greater than that in the public sector and that, if a determined effort were made to bring those back into use, the need for extra building on greenfield sites would be much reduced?
Lord Whitty: Yes, my Lords, There is always bound to be some degree of empty housing in the private sector and, indeed, in the social housing sector. However, there is also a responsibility on the private sector to ensure that the turnover and use of those houses is faster than at present.
Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, does the Minister have any idea whether people are being moved out of bed-and-breakfast accommodation, which is certainly blighting the south-east corner of Kent, into such empty properties as quickly as possible?
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, Japanese knotweed is a large, vigorous weed. It is a non-native introduction which appears to have no natural enemies in Britain. The Government recognise the potential harm that its presence can cause to other species. Under the terms of the Wildlife and Countryside Act it is an offence to plant Japanese knotweed, or cause it to grow, in the wild.
Baroness Sharples: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. Is she aware that the increasing menace of this nine-foot plant is variously described as a marriage of super weeds swamping the countryside and also as a rash of sexual activity leading to a triffid-like invasion of the country, gardens, river banks etc.? It will also grow through concrete. Will the Minister increase the funding to the Environment Agency and other agencies which are trying to deal with this terrible problem?
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