Leading Article: The Government must put its houses in order

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The Independent Online
SOMETHING is wrong when Britain has more than three- quarters of a million houses lying empty - six wasted vacant properties for every homeless family. When the Empty Homes Agency publishes its second report on the subject today, it will be tempting to call for government regulation to make Britain's housing market work better. But the present problem is the result of regulating too much, not too little.

Intending to protect the poor from ruthless landlords, governments in the Sixties and Seventies extended such generous legal protection for tenants that reasonable property owners often found themselves stuck with troublesome tenants paying loss-making rents and able, with the law's backing, to stay as long as they wanted. The result was to take thousands of properties off the rental market. Landlords won more rights in 1988; but memories have been long, and many prefer to lose money on an empty building than risk letting it.

The Empty Homes Agency has done valuable work in explaining to landlords that it can be in their interests, as well as those of the homeless, to spruce up an empty flat and let it out at a modest rent. The Government has offered some help by setting aside about pounds 15m so that 70 per cent redevelopment grants can be offered to landlords to make letting a derelict property more attractive. There is particular potential with the tens of thousands of flats over shops, which building societies, banks and retailers are too prone to leave empty.

But it is hard for the Government to preach effectively to the private sector when its own practice leaves so much to be desired. By allowing some 15 per cent of their residential properties to lie vacant, central government departments are worse offenders than private landlords or local councils. Some empty government houses, formerly married army officers' quarters, are inside army camps and thus unsuitable for the homeless. But many are capital assets, belonging to taxpayers, which are being wasted by inefficient management. On the wider issue, the Government has merely appointed a Civil Service task force to deal with the matter, whose report after a year of research remains unpublished and on which no action has been taken. If the Government wants to reduce the vacancy rate, it must push the problem up its list of priorities.