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Finally, we support and welcome the growing demand from the offshore energy sector for additional port capacity, including in my constituency of Barrow and Furness. The Government need to take a more proactive role to ensure that the UK takes a larger slice of this booming market. That is referenced in the NPS, but there is little detail. Will the Minister say how the Government intend actively to promote the potential for ports in the offshore energy sector?

The statement shows some progress but, with the economy flagging, the Government need to raise their game on ports and infrastructure across the piece.

6.39 pm

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): The NPS is extraordinarily important. Representing Dover, I know just how important it is. Only today, the approval has been announced of a plan for the development of the western docks at Dover. It is a gold-plated plan on a rather larger scale than it needs to be, with a price tag of £400 million of investment, and the application has taken getting on for five years to go through the system—an awfully long time. Although the planned capacity will possibly not be needed until 2025 or 2030, owing to the economic difficulties that the country has faced in recent years, and although a gold-plated scheme certainly is not needed, it is an important step forward for the development of the port of Dover. It is much easier to amend an application once permission has been granted than to make a new one.

The fact that it has taken so long for the application finally to be approved underlines the need for a far swifter system of getting applications passed and sorted out. As the Transport Committee made clear in its report, there have been calls from business interests and others for major infrastructure projects to be handled properly, not with extensive public inquiries and long drawn-out decision-making processes but in a shorter and sharper way—something a bit less than the terminal 5 or Sizewell B inquiry nightmares. The NPS is therefore extraordinarily welcome.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) was right that the application at Dibden bay took a long time and got thrown out. It took four years, and I believe that it cost the applicant some £45 million, so that was dead money. That makes no sense whatever. The new, swifter method will be much better.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), rightly made the point that it is desirable to consider the wider aspects of the matter. My understanding is that the NPS is more focused on planning applications for ports than on whether development rights will be granted. I agree with him that, some years on from the Eddington report, which was produced back in 2006, not a lot has happened to the road infrastructure to ports. Although I picked him up for making a slightly partisan point about that, the fundamental point was accurate. We in Dover have been waiting for the upgrade of the A2, which is an important potential artery to the port. It was in the roads programme back in 1997, but was taken out and has not yet got back in. We have been waiting for that road to be dualled and upgraded for years, but it has not happened. We feel very strongly about that, and the Eddington report was fundamentally correct on the matter.

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I turn to the NPS itself. The contents page reveals a massive focus on the environmental side of things. There are sections on, for instance, the environmental impact assessment, habitats and species regulations, pollution control, climate change control, biodiversity—so the list goes on. There is, one suspects, a greater concern about flood risks, coastal change and all the environmental things—including, I dare say, the lesser-spotted shellfish—than on socio-economic impacts, tourism and, above all, regeneration.

Jackie Doyle-Price (Thurrock) (Con): I totally agree with the point that my hon. Friend has just made, and I wish to highlight one example in my constituency. The port facilities have existed for more than 100 years, and they offer every opportunity for growth and more jobs. However, they sit close to sites of special scientific interest, which are impeding that development. The fact that those SSSIs have been sitting close to that port development for so long surely illustrates that nature is resilient enough to accept port expansion.

Charlie Elphicke: I thank my hon. Friend for that fundamentally good point.

We need to think harder about the people involved. We need to consider ownership models, as the shadow Minister said, but also regeneration, tourism, jobs and money. We need to think about strengthening and boosting our economy, and making the most of our ports, just as much as we think about the environmental side.

6.44 pm

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): The Select Committee on Transport published its report on the national policy statement on ports when the last Government were in office. We reported in March 2010—indeed, it was the first national policy statement to be reported on. The cross-party Transport Committee is not influenced by which party is in power. We reported at the time of the previous Government and we registered several serious concerns, and concluded that, unless proper consideration was given to our recommendations, the national policy statement was not fit for purpose. We therefore made a very clear statement then.

Considerable time has elapsed and several changes have been made. We are now looking at the revised national policy statement, so my comments will refer to some of our criticisms and also to some of the changes that have been made since we produced our report.

The key change since that time is the decision to abolish the Infrastructure Planning Commission. It was decided that, following consideration by the infrastructure planning unit and the Planning Inspectorate, the Secretary of State would make the decisions. It was also decided to abolish regional economic strategies and regional planning strategies. Some of our criticisms were of the planning process and the lack of clarity. The changes bring more clarity to the system whereby decisions are made. The background against which the planning statement is being assessed is therefore now rather different.

Time has resolved another major criticism that we made. We were extremely concerned that the policy statement was made before the Marine Management Organisation, which was to examine port development

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below the threshold for the infrastructure commission, had actually been set up. The Marine Management Organisation has now been set up and consulted, so that major criticism and concern has been addressed.

We expressed several concerns about environmental issues, and the Government’s response states that our concerns have been considered in a different part of the statement—in the documents appended to it. We register the Government’s response. We still have some concerns, but we accept that the Government have pointed out another way of addressing them.

We were very worried that the Government were not providing an update on ports’ traffic forecasts, which are extremely important. There was some dissension about the forecasting of ports traffic that was proposed as a basis for the ports statement. The Government’s response has not been to accept the precise form in which we wanted those forecasts to be updated, but it states that they will provide

“new forecasts in the near future”.

In a spirit of reasonableness, we accept that that concern has been addressed. We will wait and see how those new forecasts are provided.

Those major concerns have therefore been addressed, at least in part. The changes go some way towards dealing with some of the major concerns that we, as a Committee in the previous Parliament, had when we stated that we did not think that the statement was fit for purpose.

It is very important that the ports policy statement is correct. As hon. Members have pointed out this evening, ports are extremely important: 90% of the UK’s trade by tonnage and 512 million tonnes of freight go through our ports, and ports traffic contributes £17.9 billion to GDP, taken together with the employment that it generates. Indeed, the direct employment is at least 132,000 jobs, with many more indirect jobs. The ports sector is extremely important and that is why having the correct ports policy matters.

I want to deal with some concerns to which we have not received a satisfactory response. I think it is important to register them. One is the absence of a definitive ports policy, other than to say that the Government’s policy on ports is market-led. The Committee in the last Parliament felt that that was not good enough, because ports are such an important part of a thriving economy. Little progress has been made since in defining a ports policy. In fact, the ports policy such as it is was defined in an interim policy set out in 2007, and the Government have now said that that interim policy, together with additional statements that have been made, is their definitive ports policy. I suppose that we could look at it that way, but it does not meet in full the point of concern that the Committee has raised, and I hope that we can see further progress on that.

The Committee also raised the concern that the policy statement on ports seemed to concentrate almost wholly on container traffic. While that is the basis of the ports’ trade, we are concerned that other developments, such as offshore wind, were not considered properly. I am still unclear where such additional developments feature in the Government’s statement.

I reiterate the concern that the Committee raised about the absence of national policy statements on national networks at the time that the ports policy

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statement was put forward. I accept that some progress is being made. We are now being told that the national network statements will be laid in January. That is progress, but it would have been better if it had been done before we approve the ports policy statement. At least we have had some assurances that those statements are coming.

It is important that we know the Government’s plans for other transport networks apart from ports, partly because of the economic importance of ports, but also because their impact on the economy, including the regional economies, is affected a great deal by how goods are transported to and from those ports. It is therefore necessary to look at road, rail and inland networks, and at the issue of multi-modal transport, and how that can be encouraged. It is important that we know how that will be addressed, and I hope that the Minister can give us some more information on that basis.

We heard evidence during our inquiry from the northern ports that they felt that southern ports were very much at an advantage because of the extensive public investment in road and rail networks around them. The Committee in the previous Parliament felt that that was a very important issue, and this Parliament's Committee is of the same view. I noted the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) this evening about the application from Liverpool for a turnaround cruise facility at the port. The application has been made because the possibility of such a facility, and the return of the cruise ships to Liverpool, is so very important to the regeneration of the city. I hope that when a decision is made on this issue—and there has had to be a consultation, as is proper—a reasoned approach will be taken, and recognition given to the fact that Southampton currently has 65% of the market for the turnaround facility, while Liverpool has only 5%.

Dr Julian Lewis: The hon. Lady of course has a constituency interest in this matter, and I represent a constituency close to Southampton. Does she appreciate that what is really worrying is that Liverpool received a great deal of both European and public money in order to build its port of call facility, and it gave undertakings that it would not use that facility as a turnaround point to start and end cruises? It now appears that it never had any intention of sticking to those undertakings, so if it were—bizarrely—to achieve retrospective permission to do what it promised not to do, surely it should have to pay back all the money and not just a quarter of it over a very long period, as is proposed.

Mrs Ellman: As a constituency MP I recognise the supreme importance of the turnaround facility to Liverpool. However, I also recognise that a reasoned judgment has to be made on the proper way in which to go ahead. The statements that the hon. Gentleman made about Liverpool’s intentions are not accurate, but this is not the place in which to pursue the detail of that. I hope that a reasonable decision is made. Liverpool City council has made an offer to deal with the very point that the hon. Gentleman has made, but that is for somebody else in another place to address. I simply ask for reason to be applied to resolve the issue.

Charlie Elphicke: I do not want to intrude on the private grief between Southampton and Liverpool. I

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represent Dover, which has a little less cruise business. It is also further away and can take a more dispassionate position. Does the hon. Lady not recognise that there is something of a state aid issue here and that that needs to be handled with extreme care?

Mrs Ellman: The state aid issue is a matter that will have to be dealt with by the appropriate authorities. After discussing it with all the relevant parties, I hope that a reasoned judgment can be made.

Earlier today, when the Chancellor delivered his autumn statement, he referred to the regional economic significance of ports and made reference to the support that he intended to give to developments in the Mersey and the Manchester ship canal in relation to Peel Holdings. It is because ports have such an important economic effect on a region that the issues that I raise are so significant and I hope that the Government are able to consider them.

In light of the time that has elapsed since the report was compiled by the Committee under the previous Government and the changes and statements that have been made, I believe that the port statement should not be opposed. None the less, I want to hear from the Minister about how he will address some of the outstanding issues that I have raised tonight.

6.56 pm

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. We have heard from speakers in whose constituencies are some of the great ports, such as Newhaven, Barrow-in-Furness, Dover and Liverpool. The port of Cambridge, however, is less active than it used to be. It was one of the country’s significant ports, dealing mainly with the Dutch trade, until the Fens were drained. If we do not get our climate change policy right, Cambridge may once again become an important port.

I will try to be brief as there is little time left. I will not highlight why ports are so important to this country; I assume that that is obvious. Although the ports are very important for leisure and tourism, there are other factors involved. Goods that come into that port then have to move on. Currently far too much freight is moved by road, and road congestion is very damaging. In 2006, Transport for London estimated that road congestion in and around London cost £1.6 billion a year, and that figure will go up. More locally for me, the A14 in my constituency is used by a large number of heavy goods vehicles, which are largely travelling from the very successful port in Felixstowe. Those vehicles cause a large number of accidents and most of the congestion, which is why I welcome the £20 million that will be spent on trying to alleviate the problem and ensure that we do not have those accidents.

The key solution is to do more with rail freight and I should like to hear what the Government are planning to do in that regard. Rail freight over the past decade has grown by two thirds and saved 2 million tonnes of pollutants and 31.5 million lorry journeys. There is still more to do. The Felixstowe east-west rail freight link could be boosted. There is some work happening now, but more needs to be done.

I also wish to highlight the role that canal freight plays. Canals are much more efficient in terms of CO2

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than roads. Tesco has been using barges since 2007. In addition to rail freight or canal freight, will the Minister also consider the idea of inland ports so that we can minimise the amount of road travel? That is one of the key aspects that I should like to hear more about in his statement.

6.58 pm

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): I understand that, for reasons that are slightly beyond my ken, people seem to be very anxious to finish at 7 o’clock this evening rather than at the normal time of 10 o’clock. I suppose that that is something to do with the fact that we are beginning to sit rather earlier.

The issue of Dibden bay, which I referred to in an intervention, is the single most important constituency issue in New Forest East in the 14 years that I have represented it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) said, it was a long time before the considerations on whether a giant container port should be built at Dibden bay produced decisive outcomes. We had a year-long public inquiry, as I said in an intervention, but we also had, as he said, several years leading up to that public inquiry. If the new procedure, first through the Infrastructure Planning Commission put forward by the previous Government and then under the replacement arrangements proposed by this Government, allowed for public consultation—

7 pm

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed tomorrow.

Business without Debate

House of commons members’ fund

Motion made, and Question put forthwith ( Order of 8 November and Standing Order No. 118(6)),

That pursuant to section 4(4) of the House of Commons Members’ Fund Act 1948 and section 1(4) of the House of Commons Members’ Fund Act 1957, in the year commencing 1 October 2011 there be appropriated for the purposes of section 4 of the House of Commons Members’ Fund Act 1948:

(1) The whole of the sums deducted or set aside in that year under section 1(3) of the House of Commons Members’ Fund Act 1939 from the salaries of Members of the House of Commons; and

(2) The whole of the Treasury contribution paid to the Fund.—(Mr Peter Lilley.)

Question agreed to

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Empty Homes

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Newmark.)

7 pm

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): It is an honour to have secured this Adjournment debate on empty homes. It is an issue that I and many Members on both sides of the Chamber have raised in recent weeks and months. Indeed, only last week, three Members asked about empty homes during the ministerial statement on housing.

I shall digress for one second. This debate may be my last in the House with my Movember moustache, which is coming off on 1 December. Like many Movember men across the country, I have sprouted some hair on my top lip—you can just see it, Mr Deputy Speaker—to raise awareness of the Prostate Cancer Charity and men’s health issues. All Members would agree that with the tragic events over the weekend we need to be more open about men’s health, particularly issues such as depression.

I became involved in the issue of empty homes because of my deep concern about overdevelopment in my Colne Valley constituency in west Yorkshire. It is home to the lovely towns of Slaithwaite, Marsden, Holmfirth, Honley, the Huddersfield suburbs of Lindley and Birchencliffe and many more beautiful areas. I was concerned that our beautiful Pennine countryside was set to be dug up for new identikit homes.

The idea of green fields being developed is bad enough, but it defies all logic to be doing it while thousands of existing empty properties are being left to rot. In fact, my local council, Kirklees, has just voted for a local development framework that will impose 22,470 new homes in the district over the next 15 years, with some going on green belt. I say, bring Britain’s empty homes back into use first.

There is a groundswell of support for the empty homes campaign. I have to admit that I am a big fan of Channel 4 shows such as “Grand Designs” and “Restoration Man”. The presenter of the latter show, George Clarke, will be telling the nation about the scandal of Britain’s empty homes in a forthcoming series on Channel 4 next Monday and Tuesday evening—that is the plug out of the way.

The Government have responded really well to this problem, with targeted initiatives and cash to back it up. The inspirational—I do not use that term loosely, as he is a master of his brief and has seen off eight Opposition Housing Ministers—Minister for Housing and Local Government has spoken with me at great length on the issue, as has the Minister here this evening, who I know will give more details of Government help later.

What is an empty home? Homes are left empty for a number of reasons—for example, when they are between tenants, being refurbished, in probate or when the owner is in care or hospital. For the purposes of this campaign and this debate, however, we are primarily talking about long-term empty homes. These are properties that are stuck empty, and I believe that getting those houses back into use could be a quick and relatively inexpensive way of providing more housing.

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How many empty homes are there? Across the UK as a whole, there are close to 1 million empty homes and approximately 350,000 long-term empty homes—this at a time when 2 million families are on housing waiting lists. Those figures are based on statistics from the Governments in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, plus advice from the Empty Homes Agency about the number of empty properties across the UK that are not currently accounted for in official figures.

In my patch, we have been trying to get accurate figures from Kirklees council—I need to put the record straight on this. Following the original freedom of information request on the issue, we were told that there were 6,864 short-term empty properties—properties with a council tax exemption—and 3,463 long-term empty homes, or properties no longer exempt from council tax. By adding 1,000-plus second homes or holiday homes, the total comes to over 11,000. Obviously not all those homes are available for bringing back into use, and nobody has ever suggested that.

Kirklees council has now revised the figures, giving me—and everybody else who has been asking—another figure on long-term empty homes. However, whether it is 11,000, 7,000 or 3,463, it is one too many when people are waiting for homes and when the developers are eyeing up our greenfield sites. The Government have stepped up to the challenge, making £150 million available in the housing strategy, which will be delivered quickly. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will have more details on the scheme, which he and his colleagues have been working on.

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate about such an important issue, which is crucial to my constituency, where there are some 2,600 to 2,700 empty properties. Would he be shocked, as I was, to discover that local authorities cannot bid for the empty homes fund?

Jason McCartney: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that contribution. Those are some of the issues that I hope the Minister will say something about later. Councils, community groups and all sorts of community people need opportunities to tap into those funds, and those are some of the points that I will be making later.

I acknowledge that, through the new homes bonus, 16,000 empty homes have been brought back into proper use in just one year. That shows what can be done. However, the Housing Minister has admitted that it is a scandal that 700,000 or 750,000 properties are empty when so many people are in desperate housing need. The Government announced last week that they were adding another £50 million to the existing £100 million fund for empty homes, making a total of £150 million.

Let me set out some of the benefits of bringing empty homes back into use. The refurbishment and reoccupation of those homes could clearly contribute significantly to meeting England’s housing needs. The reuse of empty homes can also help to protect the beauty and openness of England’s natural landscapes for future generations, by negating the need for development on greenfield sites, which is important in my area of west Yorkshire. The renewal of existing communities can take advantage of existing infrastructure such as transport links and schools. Refurbishment constitutes a much more efficient

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use of construction materials than new build, and the reinvigoration of existing communities can add to the local economy.

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): As always, my hon. Friend is making a strong and persuasive case on behalf of his constituents. Does he agree that, as well as there being many empty homes, changing shopping patterns have resulted in many empty shops? Many are substantial buildings that could be refurbished at a reasonable cost and brought back into use as homes.

Jason McCartney: My hon. Friend makes a really good point. Empty shops are an issue in my part of the world, as they are in his. Indeed, there are concerns that there are slightly too many charity shops, for example. I have also been thinking about how the flats and apartments above shops could be brought back into use. That would mean families and young couples living in our town centres, which would not become no-go zones in the evening. That would help, so I thank him for making that valuable point.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Is the hon. Gentleman aware of Northern Ireland’s “Living over the shop” scheme? We have used it over the past couple of years to provide accommodation above shops, enabling young people to live in town centres, so perhaps there should be discussions with the Northern Ireland Assembly, in order to enlighten the Minister about the possibilities.

Jason McCartney: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that useful intervention. I hope that the Minister will take it on board. I am willing to learn best practice from all over the United Kingdom. The scheme described by the hon. Gentleman sounds exciting, and if it has worked in Northern Ireland, I hope that we too can take advantage of it.

I am particularly excited about the opportunities to reinvigorate certain trades and specialisms using local materials. Good-quality insulation and other energy-efficient measures should also be key to the renewal of empty homes. There are plenty of plus points. In my area, I should like educational establishments such as Kirklees college to become involved. Perhaps students could use empty homes for hands-on projects. I note that Kirklees college runs a course called “Construction and building crafts”. What better way for students to employ their skills than to return homes to use so that families can live in them?

As I have said, the Government have already acted. The reoccupation of empty homes has been included in the scope of the new homes bonus, and 16,000 homes have been returned to use. However, I should like councils to be given more incentives to bring about reoccupation of empty homes. I should also like to see the use of brownfield sites. That really would be a sustainable housing policy.

I am pleased that communities and local voluntary organisations will be able to tap into the funding so that it does not go only to councils, but I should like to hear more about the Government’s plans to allow councils, if they wish, to introduce an empty homes council tax premium on homes that have been empty for more than two years. That could serve as an incentive to the returning of homes to productive use.

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Graham Jones: I am very interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but might not the premium actually prove to be a disincentive? Some people might go off the radar, their properties might be registered as occupied, and they might therefore pay a 100% rather than a 125% rate of council tax.

Jason McCartney: The hon. Gentleman has made a good point. Councils might wish to consider introducing such schemes themselves, given that they have the local knowledge. Perhaps they should introduce it on a trial basis. It might work better in some areas than in others. I am pleased that the Government are considering different options, and that they are happy to devolve power to councils so that the various needs of communities can be dealt with on a more local basis.

Some key changes need to be made to the draft national policy planning framework. Instead of the presumption clause in favour of sustainable development, let us consider a presumption clause in favour of returning empty homes to use and ensuring that brownfield land is developed before greenfield land.

Given that commercial banks rarely lend money on empty homes, the Minister might wish to consider a sustainable low-cost loan fund. It could be kick-started with cash from the empty homes fund and managed by a commercial bank in partnership with an appropriate body such as the Empty Homes Agency. The loan fund would help private empty home owners who needed money to return their properties to use. They could borrow modest sums from the fund, and repay the loans from subsequent rental income set at affordable levels. Would-be buyers on low incomes could also purchase empty homes cheaply and return them to use with the help of modest loans from the fund. Cash for the fund could also come from the proposed empty homes premium, which could impose a 150% council tax rate on properties that had been empty for over two years. I should like the Minister and his team to consider all those ideas, and then report to the House on their conclusions.

Let me suggest a right to help local people to rescue abandoned properties. Will the Minister consider an amendment to current legislation on the community right to reclaim land? Should local people be able to use a new “community right to reclaim abandoned property” clause, which would enable them to apply to a tribunal to bring long-term abandoned properties in their areas back into use?

Therefore, lots of action has already been taken. I hope that I have given lots of ideas for more, and I shall now sum up to allow colleagues to make a brief contribution. Let us put renewal and regeneration ahead of greenfield development. Let us use existing buildings and infrastructure as efficiently as possible, with the economic, environmental and social benefits for all. Let us finally get Britain’s empty homes back into use.

7.15 pm

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) on making a powerful speech containing lots of good ideas. The situation that he described in his constituency is identical to the one faced in mine. I welcome the measures in the Localism Bill providing for neighbourhood planning, and I am

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chairing the steering group of the Truro and Kenwyn parish neighbourhood plan. We face the same challenges that he portrayed so well. Through the development of our neighbourhood plan, we have identified a great number of empty properties in our villages and the city centre of Truro, as well as other buildings that we believe can commercially and viably be brought back into use to create much-needed homes for local people. However, in constructing our plan, we are aware that it will have to be inspected by the inspectorate, and the types of properties that my hon. Friend described being brought back into use will be considered by the inspectors as “windfall” properties and therefore cannot be counted as contributing towards the housing targets that we are developing to meet local need.

I would very much like the Minister to consider that point, and when the Government are considering the national policy planning framework I would like them to examine the fact that these windfall properties need to be judged on their merits. I hope that if a good neighbourhood plan—such as, I am sure, ours will be when it is introduced—can demonstrate viable sites for bringing empty buildings back into use, they will not be deemed to be “windfall” properties but can be taken into consideration for our housing targets.

7.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunell): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) for bringing to the House’s attention this important subject, which is very close to my heart, as I know it is to his. I was delighted that this move to bring empty homes back into use was written into the coalition agreement between our two parties and that we have now had the opportunity to put some real cash into the programme to deal with it. I also congratulate him on his moustache and wish him well with his fundraising.

Like my hon. Friend, I have been in contact with George Clarke and Channel 4, and I am happy to add a second endorsement of the programme on empty homes that they are developing. He, I and they are appalled at the scandal that 250,000 properties are empty when millions of people are on waiting lists, anxiously looking for homes and unable to find them. As well as being eyesores and easily falling into disrepair, empty homes are often an expensive menace to communities and public services, attracting antisocial behaviour, squatting and vandalism.

The Government know very well that we need to build more homes, more quickly, and the housing strategy statement made in the House by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government last Monday shows real earnest intent. At the same time, we have to make better use of our existing homes, as that is better for communities, for the environment and for the families who have the new home to live in. We have been working on ways to bring empty homes back into use, and tackling those homes is one of the key pledges that we made in the housing strategy.

My hon. Friend appeared to have some difficulty in understanding the situation in his constituency. The figures available to the Department refer to the whole local authority area of Kirklees. He might be interested

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to know that in the six years from 2004 to 2010, the number of empty homes reported to the Department went up from 6,200 to 7,300, so there were extra empty homes at a time when housing demand was rising. However, the good news for him is that Kirklees council will receive £7.6 million under the new homes bonus over the next six years because it has succeeded in bringing 307 homes back into productive occupation.

The Government have taken a number of important steps, including the new homes bonus, in response to the empty homes problem. Back in September, I announced that we were allocating a £100 million budget so that housing associations, councils and community and voluntary groups could apply to bring empty homes back into use as affordable housing. I was astonished by the intervention of the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones), who said that councils are not eligible to apply for that money. That absolutely is not the case.

Graham Jones: That information was provided to me by a cabinet member of our local council, which had looked through the consultation. I was advised that it was not entitled to bid under the proposals. If I am wrong, I will stand corrected.

Andrew Stunell: Then the hon. Gentleman stands corrected.

We recognise that there is a wide range of possible approaches to tackling empty homes and that different approaches are needed in different circumstances. Sometimes the right vehicle for doing that will be the council, but sometimes it will be other registered housing providers, housing associations or local community groups. The bidding guidance was published on 21 November and registered providers of social housing have until 23 January 2012 to submit applications. I earnestly suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he should revisit his sources, because it would be tragic if Sefton lost out because of a misreading of the paperwork.

Graham Jones: Will the Minister give way?

Andrew Stunell: No, I think not.

Alongside the publication of the guidance on the bidding system for the £100 million, we have also allocated almost £3 million of empty homes funding for this financial year to organisations that are ready and able to deliver now, so that work can begin straight away. As a result of that spending, 200 properties will be brought back into use.

We are also setting up a national intermediary in the next few weeks to administer the community element of the funding. There are legal reasons why it is not possible for that to be directed through the Homes and Communities Agency. It will allow smaller not-for-profit community and voluntary organisations to access some of the £100 million and will allow community groups to stimulate new and innovative ways of tackling empty homes. I have seen plenty of those already, so I know that there are organisations ready to go. My hon. Friend mentioned the possibility of a rolling loan fund. There are some complexities with that which do not appear immediately, but some of the models through that community route might well exploit that opportunity.

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Funding will be allocated on a demand-led basis. To put it another way, we are not going to stuff people’s mouths or stuff organisations with money. We want the money to go to real schemes that will really deliver results. Let me add in parenthesis that the outgoing Government were great at allocating budgets to projects that could never be delivered, but we do not want to go down that route. Let us make it so that every pound counts towards bringing an empty home back into use.

On top of the £100 million with the launch of the housing strategy last week, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government was able to announce an additional £50 million of funding to tackle some of the worst concentrations of empty homes. Although I do not know the detailed circumstances of my hon. Friend’s constituency, I could well believe that some of the higher concentrations would be found in Kirklees and the measure might therefore apply to Colne Valley. I am sure he will want to explore that. A more intensive approach will be required than simply dealing with a home here and there, and it will involve refurbishing and reconfiguring homes, as well as improving housing in the public realm and tackling wider issues in the local area.

The funding details of that £50 million are being finalised and further details will be announced shortly, but there will be some differences between that fund and the £100 million fund. The £50 million fund will tackle concentrations of empty homes, and it will not be appropriate for all homes to be brought back into use as affordable housing, which is the clear intention of the £100 million fund.

My hon. Friend rightly praised the Government’s initiative of the idea of introducing a council tax premium, which is being consulted on. I hope that local authorities and others who are interested will respond positively to that proposal. He made a good point about the premium needing to be tailored to local circumstances. Councils will have local discretion to introduce a council tax premium on homes in their areas that have been empty for more than two years, to provide a stronger incentive for empty-home owners to bring them back into use. Of course, that could still be coupled with a discount or a free period at the onset of the home being empty. It will be important for local councils to configure their profile of charging accordingly.

I have already commented on the new homes bonus. In the first year of such funding being given to councils, £19 million can be attributed to empty homes coming back into use. As I have said, there are 307 such homes in Kirklees, which has got further to go than nearby Bradford, which brought 1,500 homes back into use with an equivalent budget coming back to the council. Again, my hon. Friend might want to speak politely—challenge, possibly—his council and ask, “What’s wrong with Kirklees compared with Bradford? Let’s get those empty homes back into use.”

Jason McCartney: I will ask that question.

Andrew Stunell: It was a rhetorical question; I have no intention of responding to it.

In addition to those measures and separately, my right hon. Friend has announced housing market renewal transition funding of £71 million to help families trapped in half-empty and abandoned streets as a consequence

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of Labour’s controversial regeneration scheme introduced in 2002 that far too often managed decline, rather than fulfilling its task of regeneration.

Following the spending review announcement, separate housing market renewal funding ended this year, but £35.5 million is being allocated to develop a transitional scheme intended to help those people. That will be a match-funding scheme, generating about £71 million overall, as I said, to resolve the worst problems in the five most challenged areas: Merseyside, east Lancashire, north Staffordshire, Hull and Teesside.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) spoke about the conversion of shops into houses. Certainly, the Government are very much aware of those opportunities, and we are consulting on some

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changes of planning use classes that might make conversion to housing a simpler proposition in future.

It only remains for me to comment on the right to rescue that my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley suggested might be useful. It will be difficult to combine that with the action that we are taking to prevent squatting, on which I am sure he is equally keen to see action.

Empty homes are a vital resource for the housing market. We need to get more of them back into use sooner, and I look forward to working with hon. Members and friends all around the House in doing so in the next few years.

Question put and agreed to.

7.30 pm

House adjourned.