Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, reported to Parliament today that 23 per cent (over 14,000 houses) of the family quarters estate held in Great Britain by the Ministry of Defence (the Department) was vacant, costing some £39 milliona year in rent and maintenance. The Executive disposed of nearly 2,000 houses in 1999 and plan to dispose of around a further 6,500 quarters by the end of 2001. Reducing the level of vacancies to the Department’s target of 13 per cent would achieve savings of £17 million a year.
The Department’s Defence Housing Executive (the Executive) manage the family quarters estate in Great Britain on a tri-Service basis. The National Audit Office examined the scale and cost of vacant quarters currently held; how the Executive plan to reduce vacant quarters; the management of the estate to minimise vacant quarters; and the arrangements for identifying and disposing of houses that are surplus to requirements.
The National Audit Office found that:
- high military turnover, some 20,000 moves a year in Great Britain, and factors like the housing modernisation programme, require a management margin of temporarily empty houses;
- as at September 1999, 9,500 houses were unallocated, of which the Executive estimate 5,000 were under offer to incoming families. A proportion of the unallocated houses will be brought back into use relatively quickly, as demonstrated by an age analysis which showed that almost 4,000 had been empty for less than three months. The analysis also showed that over 3,800 houses had been empty for more than 6 months, of which 346 had been empty for over three years;
- to help them to deliver housing that meets the Services’ requirements, the Executive seek to identify, over a five year horizon, the size and disposition of the estate that will be required. Although an improvement on previous planning, the process was insufficiently precise to permit a firm grasp of the importance of the various factors that influence demand, take-up and vacancy rates within the family quarters estate;
- the Executive’s key target to reduce the number of vacant quarters to 13 per cent of the estate by March 2002 was devised from a pragmatic assessment of what seemed possible in 1995, when it was set, rather than a detailed analysis of what level of vacancies were needed to run the system cost-effectively;
- service personnel often provide area housing staff with as little as two weeks notice of departure, despite usually having received up to three months notice of posting. This lack of advance notice inhibits sensible forward planning and leads to houses remaining empty longer than would otherwise be necessary; and
- the current consultation process with the Services to identify surplus properties for disposal is too time consuming. And issues such as the continued security of military bases following the release of housing situated behind the perimeter fencing, and uncertainties about the future location of personnel make some Service commanders reluctant to declare properties as surplus, even though they lacked a clearly identified requirement for them.
To improve their management of the family quarters estate, and to reduce the level of vacant houses held, the National Audit Office recommends that the Department should:
- in improving their planning, include specific analysis of stocks, performance, quality of service and other indicators and how they relate to demand and the level of vacant property held;
- set individual area vacancy targets by reference to local operational factors, and a clear understanding of the need for empty properties for specific purposes, and derive the Executive’s overall vacancy target from the sum of area targets;
- ensure that the Services provide posting information to housing staff, in advance of direct notification of imminent departure by the Service person in question; and
- streamline consultation with the Services by promoting concurrent comment from various Service stakeholders, rather than the existing sequential and repetitive process.