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By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley...
By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley

Local authorities should be given increased powers to compulsorily purchase empty properties as part of a drive to tackle the current crisis of shortage of affordable housing and record levels of homelessness, Liberal Democrat local government spokesman Don Foster told MPs.

He introduced a debate - chosen by his party as part of its allotted parliamentary time - during which all the main parties agreed there was a housing crisis, but disagreed on action to tackle it.

Mr Foster acknowledged the additional funding for housing in the 2002 spending review and new measures to tackle homelessness, but said the government should have acted earlier. Now, he said, more than 80,000 new affordable homes were needed during the next decade and beyond.

His motion also said urgent action was needed to better link local and regional planning and housing policies, to increase housing densities in new developments, to encourage local authorities to implement fully PPG3 - which proposes new targets for housing densities - and to reform the right to buy to prevent abuses of the system.

Mr Foster questioned the government's key worker subsidy scheme. The funds were such that in his Bath constituency only 10 teachers were likely to benefit. It would be better to use the money in building more affordable homes. However, he claimed the scourge of empty properties must be tackled.

'It is a disgrace that with 200,000 homeless households in this country we have, and have had for too long, some 750,000 empty properties. Every region has more empty properties than homeless households, and that is a national disgrace', he declared.

'Local authorities could be given increased powers to compulsorily to purchase houses that have remained empty for an unacceptable period. They should also be given powers to charge council tax on such homes. Their powers could be extended still further so that they have the same borrowing rights as housing associations. We should also introduce site rating'.

Second homes were another problem. Ending council tax relief on such properties - long promised - had not been implemented. In some parts of the country, local authority planning consent for change of use to a second home would be welcome.

Mr Foster was critical of the Conservatives' recently-announced policy of extending the right to buy to housing association tenants. 'They claim that one million people will benefit will benefit from their policy...but the figures are very clear, already 300,000 housing association tenants have the right to buy under the 1980 legislation, and 200,000 have the slightly different right to acquire under the 1996 legislation. So for the Tories, for new read old and for one million read 500,000', he said.

The proposals to extend the right to buy were totally uncosted and would exacerbate, not solve, the housing crisis, claimed Mr Foster.

Social exclusion minister in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Barbara Roche said the government was acting to link local and regional planning and housing policies, to increase housing densities and encouraging local authorities to implement PPG3, and to reform the right to buy to prevent abuses. She, too, attacked Conservative proposals to extend the right to buy.

She said that what was affordable in Bath was very different from what was affordable in Burnley, for example. The problem was different in London and the south east. There were other areas of high housing demand where other issues arose, and in the north, particularly, there were problems of abandonment.

The government was also studying what additional funds might be devoted to the key workers starter homes initiative when the present scheme ended in 2004.

Mrs Roche added: 'We shall be setting out a comprehensive long-term programme of action that will meet the needs of north and south. It will include a major boost for social housing and link policies on housing, planning, transport, education, health and regeneration.

'I know that we are enjoying a degree of consensus, but I have to say that such a programme is necessary because the Conservative government did not do enough to meet the housing needs of the current generation, let alone future generations'.

Conservative spokesman Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said the government was doing too little to solve the problem and some proposals might prove to be counter-productive. He told the minister: 'She knows perfectly well that 108,000 affordable housing units were built in 1980, compared with a miserly 22,000 last year. That causes many of her constituents misery because they cannot get a house'.

The number of priority homeless was at present 102,650 - 'up a staggering 11% in the last four years', he added.

As well as having a devastating effect on people's lives, lack of affordable housing could have a crippling effect on the local economy and for workers having to commute long distances. The Housing Foundation, which suggested there were more than 100 job vacancies at County Hall in West Sussex, had commented that 'the eventual consequences of such a situation are not pleasant to consider'.

Mr Clifton-Brown said he was consulting on proposals to extend the right to buy, but said it was likely that the current exemption from right to acquire in rural settlements of under 3,000 people was likely to be retained.

He added that a Conservative government would seek to increase funding from the private sector in affordable housing. At present, very little private sector investment went into the residential sector in general, let alone the affordable sector, added Mr Clifton-Brown.

The Liberal Democrat motion was defeated by 50 votes to 447.

Hansard Oct 22: Column 150 - 202

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