MPs slam housing blight waste

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The Independent Online
CHRIS BLACKHURST

Westminster Correspondent

An influential cross-party group of MPs yesterday heavily criticised the Department of Transport for squandering taxpayers' money on buying up houses threatened by road schemes, which are then shelved.

The Commons Public Accounts Committee said in a report that more than one-third of properties bought for road construction were not needed or not affected by the plans. Houses that could otherwise have been used for homeless people are lying vacant and, in some cases, have been badly vandalised.

Evidence supplied to the committee by the department showed it owned 4,075 properties and 170 parcels of land. Of these, 1,000 were vacant. Houses have remained on the department's books for years after no longer being required. Rent arrears, where they have been let, had grown to pounds 2.9m by the end of March1994.

Officials at the Highways Agency, responsible for roads, were accused of failing to control costs and told to exercise "firm action" to bring them down. The committee said "the increase of 26 per cent in the department's management costs per property over five years amounts to a failure of control" and "appears to reflect a lack of clarity over the division of responsibility with their agents".

MPs were especially hard-hitting on the purchase by the department of 68 houses in Chorleywood in Hertfordshire, close to the M25, for an average price of pounds 300,000 each. The housing association Circle 33 was asked to manage them, pending the widening of the M25. But the houses were stripped by vandals - conservatories were dismantled and roofs removed - and squatters moved in.

The committee said: "We consider it highly regrettable that the quality of oversight by the department of housing associations in general, and Circle 33 housing association in particular, led to justifiable accusations of neglect and poor management of the department's residential property portfolio." To avoid such criticism in future, said the MPs, the department needs to ensure its controls are "sufficiently robust".

Officials could have done more, concluded the committee, "to ensure that their staff and agents implemented the policy of charging market rents, and more to maximise rental income through keeping vacancies and arrears to a minimum".

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