Examination of Witnesses (Questions 593-599)|
KEEBLE, MP AND
WEDNESDAY 12 DECEMBER 2001
593. Minister, may I welcome you to the Committee
and apologise that we are running a bit late. Can I ask you to
identify yourself and your team for the record, please?
(Ms Keeble) I am Sally Keeble, I am Parliamentary
Under-Secretary of State. This is an official, Michael Faulkner.
594. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction
or are you happy for us to go straight into questions?
(Ms Keeble) I did have a statement but given that
we are running short of time you might prefer just to go straight
595. No, give us your statement since you have
(Ms Keeble) Okay. The issues around abandonment and
low demand are clearly complex. We have come a long way in our
understanding but still have more work to do. We set ourselves
a target in January 2001 to turn round the incidence of low demand
by 2010 and this timescale reflects the complexity and intractability
of the problem. I just want to set out some of the measures that
we have taken so far to deal with it. The PAT 7 report on unpopular
housing produced nearly 40 recommendations and we are making progress
on these. We are taking forward a range of measures to help local
authorities and other stakeholders tackle problems linked to low
demand and abandonment. For example, we recognise the activities
of some private landlords and the effect that they have on the
decline of neighbourhoods, so we are consulting on a discretionary
licensing scheme in particular for private landlords in areas
of low demand. We are reforming the way that local authorities
help poor homeowners to repair their properties by giving them
more flexibility in how they use the funding. We have already
made it easier to declare renewal areas and carry out group repairs,
and have further work to do on that as well. We have set ourselves
a target to bring all social housing up to a decent standard in
ten years. We have made the funding available to do this and we
are encouraging local authorities to develop housing strategies
to cover all housing tenures. We are also pressing ahead with
our neighbourhood renewal agenda. By improving the quality of
local services, engaging tenants and residents and improving the
livability of neighbourhoods we can help to make them more desirable
places to live again. Finally, we are using the planning system
which is obviously a key to ensuring that we get redevelopment
in low demand areas and we are using this both at a regional and
Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.
596. Minister, you referred to the low demand
areas and the problem areas, but in many of the high demand areas
where voids are low compared to other international comparisons,
have you any idea as to how we can reduce still further the voids?
Is it cost-effective to try to do that in high demand areas?
(Ms Keeble) Yes. Can I say I think there is a different
issue in the high demand areas from the low demand areas and it
is quite important to distinguish those. Certainly in the high
demand areas there is an issue about empty properties and the
need to make sure that they are brought back into use where they
can be to make sure we have effective use of the housing stock
and also we tackle the problem of homelessness. We have required
local authorities as part of their HIP submissions to make reference
to what they are doing about empty properties and it is also being
looked at as a performance indicator for local authorities. There
are measures being taken there but I would say I think it is a
different scale of problem from the problems that we see up in
the North where you have a complete collapse of the housing market
and I think a different scale of action is required.
597. That brings me to my next question. The
vacancy rates appear to vary across tenures and regions and you
say in the northern region we have more than our share of vacancy.
Is this acceptable to your Department, the fact that we have this
discrepancy across tenures and regions? What are you doing about
(Ms Keeble) No. We are looking presently at the particular
needs of those low demand areas. Of course it is a problem if
there are empty properties in a high demand area. If you look
over the past two years' figures at the vacancy rates in certain
regions, in particular Yorkshire, Humberside, North East and North
West, those have climbed to a particularly high level at a time
when the vacancy rates elsewhere in the country have been declining.
What is more, up in those regions the vacancy rates are not just
in residential properties but in commercial properties too, and
it is because of real difficulties in the market and different
patterns there. That is why we are looking at measures like the
licensing of private sector landlords and the renewal and regeneration
strategies. We have been talking with the local authorities there
very carefully about the problems that they are experiencing and
have had discussions with them about their proposals for a Market
Renewal Fund, which I am sure you have had brought to your attention
598. The Council of Mortgage Lenders told the
Committee that the vacancies vary between private landlords and
owner-occupiers and the rented sector.
(Ms Keeble) Yes.
599. Is there a possibility of introducing a
private leasing arrangement to help people who have empty properties
to rent those properties and keep them to a reasonable standard?
(Ms Keeble) In terms of the different tenures, we
are concerned across all the tenures and the discussions we have
had with the local authorities and others are about looking for
strategies that go across all the different housing tenures. Where
you have a problem of low demand it does not just affect the council
properties, it affects the private sector properties as well.
The strategies for renewal and regeneration and the work that
is being done, sometimes by local authorities and also, I have
to say, by registered social landlords, are there to help the
owner-occupiers, the private sector, as well as the local authority
and the social sectors.