Management orders could bring 200,000 empty homes into use
Ministers want councils to get tough with the owners of the estimated 308,000 longterm empty homes.Housing minister Keith Hill last week unveiled a late amendment to the Housing Bill to allow councils to make empty homes management orders on such properties (Inside Housing, 21 May).New research suggests that if the orders become law they could be widely used. A survey of owners of long-term empty properties by Mori, commissioned jointly by the Empty Homes Agency and Hammersmith & Fulham Council, found that 70 per cent of owners did not want any help to bring their properties back into use, and had no intention of doing so.If this was extrapolated across the country empty homes management orders could potentially bring more than 200,000 empty properties back into use. The study is soon to be published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.Office of the Deputy Prime Minister officials prefer to use the term ‘temporary leasing' instead of the previously popular though perhaps more politically sensitive term ‘compulsory leasing'. They envisage orders to be used only in extreme cases.The orders would allow local authority empty property officers to step into the shoes of the owner and manage the property. Renovation costs would be redeemed through rental over a period of around five years.Under the order, the owner would receive the remainder of the rental income and would continue to own what would be a newly-renovated property.Announcing the amendment housing minister Keith Hill said that everybody would benefit.‘We want to see arrangements which stand to benefit both the community and individual owners, to create a situation where people needing homes are housed and where owners stand to gain both an income and an improved asset,' he said.But the government's move surprised even those MPs with a specific interest in housing issues.Backbench Labour MP David Kidney, who had tabled his own amendment on the issue, received a call from Mr Hill on the morning of the announcement.‘But they have not just changed their opinion overnight. They have consulted quite widely on the idea,' he says.Mr Kidney suspects that the minister decided to add the amendment because of the easy passage other amendments have had as the bill progressed through its committee stage.‘The minister thought there was going to be real trouble over management orders [on houses in multiple occupation] but that went through very smoothly,' he adds.Shelter and the Empty Homes Agency welcomed the move. EHA board member David Ireland said the new powers meant councils tackling the hardcore of absent owners would not have to resort to compulsory purchase powers.‘[Compulsory purchase] is like using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut because we are having to deal with ownership when all we really want to deal with is letting. Compulsory leasing fills that gap,' he says.But not everyone is convinced. The Country Land & Business Association launched a stinging attack.CLA president Mark Hudson says: ‘This increase in the power of local authorities to take privately-owned property is wrong as a matter of principle. Local authorities already have extensive powers to compulsorily acquire the freehold of longterm empty properties.'The CLA points to powers such as those contained in the Housing Act 1985 and the Environmental Protection Act 1990.The organisation also points out that according to government figures the number of private homes standing empty has fallen from 760,000 in 1993 to 600,000 in 2002.The Campaign to Protect Rural England says the amendment would ease the pressure for building in the countryside.CPRE London region director Nigel Kersey says empty properties that fall into disrepair blight urban areas, making them less attractive places to live and prompting population drift from cities.‘Building anew for each wasted home potentially represents another unnecessary piece of urban sprawl and another little piece of countryside lost,' he says.Trials of voluntary schemes have had mixed success. Southampton Council's empty property officer Keith Gunner says the council scrapped a voluntary scheme it ran two years ago. It is to launch a new revamped scheme within the next couple of months.He says compulsory leasing powers would be useful.‘It is the only solution short of compulsory purchase that is going to work for those hardcore of intransigent owners who for whatever reason refuse to do something.'But it is by no means a certainty that the amendment will get through the upper house unscathed.