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A persistent problem

Delving into Inside Housing’s archives, Simon Brandon discovers that with 700,000 voids in England in 1984, the problem of empty homes is nothing new

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Empty Promise logo

Flicking through a quarter-century of Inside Housing is to see some things that don’t change. The Housing Corporation was stuck with the same logo for the whole time - remember the sun poking out from behind the little house?

More importantly, the issue of empty homes was as pressing in 1984 as it is today, as Inside Housing’s inaugural front cover shows (30 March 1984).

In fact, things have got worse and Inside Housing’s current Empty Promise campaign to fill vacant homes is more necessary than ever.

As counted by the Housing Emergency Office - a long-defunct agency that dealt with short-term accommodation - England had 700,000 empty properties in March 1984. That figure has varied over the years (see graph), but there has been little significant impact on the numbers. A decade later, it stood at 864,000 (15 April 1994).

Today, according to the Empty Homes Agency, it stands at 783,835. But it would be disingenuous to suggest that the issues around empty homes have remained static. In that first edition is a story about a privately owned east London hostel, crammed with 350 people, described by environmental health officers as unfit for human habitation. There was a local council vote on whether to close it down. Public housing policy has moved on a great deal in many respects.

So have attitudes, sometimes surprisingly so. Ten years ago, housing charity Shelter’s then director of policy, Nicola Bacon, wrote an editorial for Inside Housing (26 March 1999) in which she bemoaned a widespread belief at the time that there was ‘too much social housing’. She observed that in fact there was, as now, great demand for social housing in areas where properties were standing empty.

There have been past efforts to address the problem politically. While our Empty Promise campaign may have cross-party support, in 1989 an attempt to push through a bill to tackle the empty homes crisis was doomed to failure before it had begun because of government opposition (16 June 1989).

Hindsight can be bittersweet. Our story five years ago on the introduction of empty dwelling management orders for councils claimed they could bring 200,000 English homes back into use (28 May 2004). That didn’t happen: only 17 EDMOs have been brought in the past three years. Local authorities complain that the orders are too complex to use.

But there may still be a happy ending. Earlier this month housing minister Margaret Beckett signed up to one of our three Empty Promise campaign demands - to provide clearer guidance for local authorities on how to use EDMOs. Perhaps things are starting to change after all.

Inside Housing is running a campaign calling for empty homes to be brought back into use. For more information see our campaign page. You can express your support by signing our petition or emailing emptypromise@insidehousing.co.uk

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