Friday, 04 September 2015

What a waste

As housing waiting lists grow and social house building grinds to a halt, hundreds of thousands of homes like these lie empty. Inside Housing this week launches its Empty Promise campaign to fill the UK’s voids. Caroline Thorpe reports.

There are more than 30,000 families waiting for housing in Leeds; but at the same time the council says 17,741 homes in the city lie empty. Liverpool has around 12,000 empty homes, with 12,886 households on its waiting list. Newcastle: 5,254 empty homes, 9,165 on the waiting list. You do the math.

It’s a recurring pattern nationwide – and a recurring nightmare for those affected. For those enduring an already painful wait for a home, knowing thousands of homes stand unoccupied is the final insult.

The scandal of the UK’s empty homes – there are 943,414 of them according to the Empty Homes Agency – is sadly not new. Since the turn of the millennium the official number has failed to dip below 650,000.

And it smarts now more than ever. Recession exacerbates the problem, as repossessed households ramp up demand for already oversubscribed social housing – ironically leaving empty homes in their wake – and brand new housing developments fail to sell.

It’s not just those needing a home who suffer. The nation’s thousands of unoccupied properties blight the lives of those living nearby, scarring neighbourhoods, inviting anti-social behaviour and sapping community spirit.

For a vivid encounter with the adverse effects of vacant properties, you only need visit the new website reportemptyhomes.com, where details of empty homes entered by the public are instantly transmitted to the relevant council in the hope something will be done about them. ‘The house [is] empty and not boarded up,’ writes a Liverpool resident. ‘All the windows have been smashed, the front door has been smeared in paint. The front and back gardens are full of rubbish which is attracting rats and flies.’

Vermin are also causing problems around a long-term empty in Horsham: ‘This house is now causing rats to come into the area. It’s falling apart, and [the] garden is overgrowing all its fences.’ In Waveney in Suffolk, a new development is worrying locals, according to this report: ‘A pair of semi-detached houses were built over one year ago and have never been occupied.’

Of course it’s the councils and housing providers which are left to tackle the consequences. Which is why it’s time they had more help (see our campaign demands, overleaf ). Especially as the problem looks set to worsen.

Emptying fast

Official statistics fail to keep pace with real time – the most recent numbers are from 2007. But anecdotal evidence from councils and others working to bring homes back into use suggests that as the economy has nosedived, the number of empty homes has risen.

Jon Hough is principal housing strategy officer at Leeds Council, which in 2007 had more empty homes in its area than any other English authority. He says the number of empties was falling in the run up to December, but that’s now changed. ‘There has been an increase in the number of empty properties [since].’

But it’s not the areas of Leeds previously labelled low demand that are causing the problem. ‘We’re doing OK there,’ says Mr Hough. ‘Now we’ve got a much less obvious problem. Not large scale abandonment, but we’ve got pepper potting [of empty homes] which is much harder to deal with. People are losing their jobs. There’s an increase in repossessions which is well-recorded.’ And, he adds, ‘we’ve yet to see the full impact’.

David Ireland, chief executive of the Empty Homes Agency, agrees that more homes are being abandoned, estimating that when the official 2008 figures come out they will show a 30,000 to 40,000 increase on the previous year. ‘Part of that [will be] repossessions; no doubt about that,’ he says.

He reckons this year could see the number of empty homes in the UK break the 1 million barrier: ‘If you were to draw a straight line projection [based on existing empty homes data], that would say that some time during 2009 we’d pass 1 million empty homes.’

Which is why Inside Housing is launching its Empty Promise campaign to fill empty homes. There are some positive signs from the politicians. London mayor Boris Johnson has pledged £60 million to tackle the capital’s 84,000 empty homes, and government plans announced last week to let town halls keep the proceeds from sales of homes brought back into use would give councils an added incentive to tackle empty properties head on.

And some councils and housing associations are already doing great things to put unwanted homes to use again. In the coming weeks we will be showcasing more of their efforts. But, as the statistics show, more in the sector need to follow their example. Our three campaign demands – if met – should make doing that easier. 

Demand 1: VAT 

VAT cut to 5 per cent on refurbishment and renovations

Whether you’re a private owner or social landlord, the cost of doing up a dilapidated property – generally at least £25,000 according to empty homes consultant Andrew Lavender – can sting even when times are good.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has repeatedly called for VAT to be slashed to from 15 to 5 per cent on refurbishment and renovation works. The problem of empty homes is one of the ‘main reasons’ for the call, says RICS policy officer James Rowlands.

European finance ministers are due to meet next month to decide whether member states should be allowed to make the move. So far Germany has expressed reservations but Mr Rowlands is ‘hopeful’ of agreement.

The next step would be for chancellor Alistair Darling to include the cut in his next Budget, expected in April. ‘The UK supported the cut in principal at the first [European] meeting so we hope if it did become possible they would work to introduce it as soon as possible,’ adds Mr Rowlands.

The cut would slash the VAT on a £25,000 refurb by £2,500. As a wellknown retailer might say, every little helps. 

Demand 2: GRANT 

Grant for social landlords to buy and repair empty properties

Just as the government has encouraged housing associations to buy up unsold new homes amid the credit crunch, it makes sense for associations and other social landlords to do the same with older empty homes.

Exactly the same arguments apply: social housing providers already work with neighbouring properties, are expert housing managers and face unmet housing need. But while the government has offered up £200 million through the national clearing house programme for landlords to buy empty new builds, there are no plans to offer an equivalent pot for bringing older homes back into use.

Meanwhile the HCA is struggling to spend its £8.4 billion new affordable housing budget, and with the National House Building Council predicting a 54 per cent drop in housing starts in the next financial year compared with the last, the time has never been riper to target bringing empty homes back into use.

‘We have no plans for additional grant or anything like that,’ says Jim Bennett, head of policy and strategy and the Homes and Communities Agency.

But without financial help, it’s hard for landlords who want to bring properties back into use to make the numbers stack up. ‘Bringing [older] empty homes back into use – alongside building new homes – has got to be part of what housing associations do to meet housing need,’ says Helen Williams, assistant director of neighbourhoods at the National Housing Federation. ‘The issue that housing associations would need to look at when considering buying [older] empty homes is the value for money for the taxpayer.’

Some councils already offer refurbishment grants, though usually with conditions attached. With development in the doldrums, new social homes are set to become even scarcer for the foreseeable future. A central pot subsidising efforts to turn existing properties into homes again as another way to boost housing supply has to make sense. 

Demand 3: GUIDANCE 

Clearer guidance to help councils get empty dwelling management orders off the ground

‘I’m sure we’ll be looking to work with local authorities to get the best use of their existing stock in their areas. They already have a range of powers to help bring empty homes back into use,’ says the HCA’s Mr Bennett.

He’s not wrong. These powers include compulsory purchase orders, enforced sales procedures and, since 2006, the empty dwelling management order. Billed by the government as a way for councils to ‘step into the shoes’ of empty property, EDMOs are potentially a very useful option for councils serious about bringing homes back into use.

For properties empty for more than six months, and where there is little prospect of them being occupied in the near future, an EDMO allows the council to let and manage the property with a view to the owner eventually taking it on themselves. But do you know how to use one? We want the government to promote EDMOs and produce clearer guidance on using them.

The mere threat of an EDMO has proved effective in persuading recalcitrant owners to turn long-term empties into homes. Manchester Council has led the way since 2006, warning 44 empty homeowners it will issue an EDMO unless they take steps to reuse the property. Not once has it had to act on its words.

‘The threat of carrying out an empty dwelling management order is something that we use to great effect,’ says executive member for housing Paul Andrews. ‘We have found that by explaining to landlords our EDMO powers while providing technical advice or taking other enforcement action where necessary, we have helped to return many long-term empty homes into use.’

But councils have shied away from using EDMOs.

The Empty Homes Agency estimates that fewer than 20 councils are currently using them. ‘There’s a little bit of fear factor about how these things work,’ explains Mr Ireland.

Lewisham Council has applied for eight EDMOs and property initiatives manager Nick Long admits it’s not straightforward. ‘The way the legislation is worded, it’s cumbersome and lengthy… the civil servants were a wee bit lazy in their phrasing.’

Which is why Inside Housing wants the communities department to issue simplified guidance on using EDMOs, so that councils can pledge to start using them where appropriate.

Three demands: three ways of helping you help the millions of people waiting for a home as their chances of getting one slips further out of reach. We have the resources – almost 1 million of them. Now let’s put them to good use.

Additional research by Gene Robertson

For more information about Empty Promise see our campaign page. You can express your support by signing our petition or emailingemptypromise@insidehousing.co.uk

The stark reality

1 million

The number of homes expected to be empty in the UK this year

1,770,116

The number of people waiting for housing in England

85,000

Estimated number of homes to be built in 2008/09, 54 per cent down on the previous year

75,000

Number of repossessions predicted for 2009

 

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